The Malta Independent 22 January 2021, Friday

TMIS Editorial: Muscat sanctions - A flawed argument

Sunday, 10 January 2021, 11:16 Last update: about 12 days ago

The government representatives on the parliamentary committee for standards in public life are arguing that former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat should not be sanctioned over his role in the granting of a consultancy position at the Malta Tourism Authority to Konrad Mizzi.

Their argument is flawed.

Mizzi was given the position soon after he resigned from being Tourism Minister in November 2019. The role brought with it an €80,000 a year package, more than a minister’s salary. The news had led to a public outcry. It later emerged that it had been Muscat himself who had instructed the MTA to give Mizzi the role. Muscat’s successor Robert Abela had terminated the contract soon after it became publicly known. Mizzi was later also kicked out of the Labour Party and is now serving as an independent MP.

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A complaint was filed with the Standards Commissioner by ADPD chairman Carmel Cacopardo, and Commissioner George Hyzler ruled that Muscat’s instructions constituted an abuse of power and a breach of the ministerial code of ethics. Hyzler had ruled that Muscat had exceeded his power as minister responsible for MTA. Muscat had justified his action by referring to the Public Administration Act, which empowers ministers to give instructions to entities falling under their remit. But the commissioner had found that the act does not apply to the MTA, which is regulated by a different law that gives more restricted powers to ministers.

A few days ago the matter was brought up before the parliamentary commission for discussion. It was presided by Speaker Anglu Farrugia, with Edward Zammit Lewis and Byron Camilleri representing the government, and Karol Aquilina and Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici appearing on behalf of the opposition.

The two sides of the House were in agreement that Hyzler’s report should be adopted, but there were divergences on the way forward, with the opposition insisting that Muscat should be sanctioned for his actions, while the government is of the idea that no action should be taken against Muscat because he is no longer an MP. The Speaker now has three months to consider his decision.

The argument being made by the government side does not hold water. Muscat was the head of government at the time the decision was made, and he must shoulder responsibilities for what he did. Arguing that his resignation as an MP means that actions are no longer applicable against him is flawed.

If, for example, a police officer commits a crime and is caught, he or she is charged with the aggravation of having done so while serving in the force, even if the officer resigns. Editors remain listed on a pending libel suit even after leaving the job, because they still carry the responsibility of the article in question when it was published.

The same should be for Muscat. According to the Standards Commissioner report, he instructed the MTA to give Mizzi a job when he was Prime Minister, and so he is answerable to his actions as PM. If Muscat had not been PM at the time, with responsibility for the tourism portfolio, he would not have been in a position to instruct the MTA.

Let us not forget the circumstances that led to Mizzi’s resignation as minister in the last week of November 2019, and that of Muscat, which followed a few days later – although, in Muscat’s case, it was not immediate but postponed to the following January. Muscat announced his resignation a few days after the arrest of Keith Schembri, his chief of staff, whose name cropped up in police investigations into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. The police had arrested, and later arraigned, the man who is now accused of being a mastermind in the assassination, Yorgen Fenech.

Schembri and Mizzi had both opened companies in Panama, and both had been offered political protection by Muscat after their secret had been exposed. The owner of a third company opened in Panama at the same time as Schembri’s and Mizzi’s is still unknown, with a magisterial inquiry not finding evidence linking it to the Muscat family.

It is a known fact that Muscat, Mizzi and Schembri enjoyed a close relationship. For Muscat to use his last days in office to instruct a government entity to give a lucrative consultancy job to a politician who twice relinquished his position as minister (Mizzi had lost his energy and health portfolio in 2016, apart from resigning the tourism portfolio in 2019) is not something that should be discarded without question. If anything, the matter is more serious because of the history of the two people involved.

The problem should not be whether sanctions are administered, but what kind of sanctions should be imposed now that Muscat is no longer an MP. This is a question that needs to be debated, as this case has possibly exposed a situation which is not properly catered for.

If, as things stand today, MPs (in this case, the prime minister), cannot be sanctioned for offences committed while in office just because that office has been surrendered, then this example should be used for the necessary alterations that need to be made for similar cases that might happen in the future.

 

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