The Malta Independent 29 June 2022, Wednesday

‘I can’t say if HSBC heist allegations affected PM’s decision to leave me out of Cabinet’ – Abela

Neil Camilleri Sunday, 1 May 2022, 09:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

Former Labour minister Carmelo Abela told The Malta Independent on Sunday he cannot say whether the HSBC heist allegations levelled against him had any bearing on the PM’s decision to leave him out of the 2022 Cabinet.

He argued, however, that the allegations came out long before the last general election and did not see him removed from his ministry at the time.

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The Degiorgio brothers, who stand charged with murdering Daphne Caruana Galizia, had claimed that Abela had been involved in the failed 2010 HSBC heist. At the time, Abela worked for the bank. The former minister has always denied the allegations and has filed libel proceedings against former PN MP Jason Azzopardi, who had repeated the claims.

This newsroom asked Abela whether he thinks the allegations could have cost him a place in the new Cabinet, relegating him to the backbench.

“I have always denied the allegations and will continue doing so. The libel case continues next week.”

“Could this have motivated the PM not to consider me for a Cabinet post? I don’t know because I was not involved in that choice. What I can say is that this allegation has been out for a while and the PM did not remove me from the Cabinet when it came out. He kept me till the end of the legislature. This lie did not get me removed from Cabinet, but I can’t say whether it affected the choice of the new Cabinet.”

Abela said he will continue fighting this “lie” through legal means.

“This is a fabrication that they came up with 11 years later. The police have never spoken to me about the case, despite some media reports. This did not even happen under a Nationalist government – remember that this case goes back to 2010 – they surely did not have an interest defending an opposition MP. They did not investigate me or speak to me about it. My conscience is clear. I am at peace, although I feel sorry for my family, which has gone and is still going through a difficult time.”

Asked if the PM’s decision was down to a lack of faith in him, Abela said: “I cannot answer for others. This was the PM’s prerogative. I was minister for over seven years in different portfolios and with various important responsibilities. I was not expecting it, but it was the PM’s decision. You can disagree but I respect the decision.”

Abela said the PM did not give him a reason but simply informed him about his decision.  

 

No term-limit for MPs

This newsroom asked Abela whether he agrees with the PN’s stance on asking older MPs not to contest. 

“I don’t agree that there should be a legal limit with regard to terms in Parliament. That would amount to a lack of democracy. If the people prefer one candidate over another there should not be a law blocking someone from contesting. The people should be free to make their choice. Some MPs might take the decision not to run for, say, more than three terms, but there should not be a limit.”

Abela said he still sees a future in politics. “I will continue working in Parliament to represent my constituents. I did this when I was a member of Cabinet and I will continue doing so now. My intention is to remain in politics since the people showed their trust in me. I don’t think it’s the time to stop. If one day, the electorate will do as it did with some of my colleagues and decide that my time is up, then I will respect that verdict.”

 

Backbenchers in chairmanship roles

Abela said he sees no problem in the practice of appointing backbenchers as chairpersons of government entities, although he says he has not been offered any roles by the PM.

“The conversation I had with the PM did not get that far. He only informed me that I would not be forming part of the Cabinet. We had no further conversation.”

“There are pros and cons. Some say that backbenchers can be silenced by being given government posts. I don’t think this is the case. There might be some MPs who can contribute by having leading roles. This does not mean that they won’t be critical when needed. I think that those who come up with this criticism are not seeing the whole picture.

I don’t mind this practice. I understand that even the Venice Commission wrote about it, but I don’t see it as the government buying the silence of MPs.”

Abela said that not even his ministerial appointments stopped him from being criticical of his own government, although he did this internally. This included criticism on the now shelved Marsascala marina project and a proposed school in Marsaxlokk.

 

Foreign Affairs ‘not a demotion’

He was also asked whether the appointment of Ian Borg as Foreign Affairs Minister is a demotion. Abela himself served in this ministry in the past.

He disagrees with the notion that the posting is a downgrade, insiting that this is a highly underrated ministry.

“Our relationships with the EU and the rest of the world are very important. The minister’s work includes issues like migration, security and defence, which are very important. Being made Foreign Minister does not mean that your time is up. It’s not like giving someone a medal for their service before kicking them out. I believe that the public in general undervalues the role of this ministry, which also includes trade promotion. It also includes the running and opening of embassies abroad. I am very satisfied that we opened new embassies during my time. I’m proud that we launched our strategy for Africa, which was endorsed by EC president Ursula von der Leyen. We issued our strategy even before the EU issued its own.”

 

Home Affairs minister and police ‘inaction’

This newsroom also asked Abela to react to claims of police inaction in the face of alleged government corruption. He served as police minister from 2014 to June 2017. Laurence Cutajar was appointed police commissioner during that time.

Abela stressed that, at the time, police commissioners were appointed by the Prime Minister, a system that was inherited from Nationalist administrations.

“When I was Home Affairs Minister I did not interfere in investigations. I did not even ask about them. The police had a free hand to investigate anything they deemed fit to investigate.”

He said his work as minister included launching a process leading to a strategy for the modernisation of the police force. “There were meetings with various entities and we spoke with the police officers to see what they needed, how we could improve their working conditions. My work was to get the necessary tools for the police force to modernise for today’s and tomorrow’s needs.”

But was he happy with the police leadership?

“I think that during that period there was no criticism of police inaction. Cutajar was there after I left and most of the criticism came about after the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Abela said, despite being reminded that the Panama Papers came out in 2016.

“The murder brought more attention on the police force, on whether they had failed to investigate certain cases. I don’t remember any particular criticism of inaction while I was minister, although I cannot say that everything was being investigated because, like I said, I did not interfere and I did not ask.”

 

The Muscat administration: more good than bad

Abela’s assessment of the Joseph Muscat years is much more positive than negative, although he conceded that some errors of judgment were made.

“When you have people in government who opened offshore accounts, even if they explained that they were for innocuous reasons, better judgment could have been exercised,” he said of the Panama Papers debacle.

On allegations of links between government officials and the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Abela said there are investigations underway and he hopes that the country gets to the bottom of things.

“So far, what we have are allegations, speculation. There are no charges as such against persons who were in government. But I hope that, if there was wrongdoing, those responsible are brought to justice and that we can close this chapter.”

“My assessment of Muscat’s administration is more positive than negative. When one sees what took place after years of PN administration, I think everyone agrees that a lot of improvement was carried out in social and economic matters. There was suddenly a ‘can do’ attitude and the mentality of aiming higher. As a principle, this was very positive. We had the EU presidency; we did well, even on an international level.”

“This was also a new government, with some people lacking experience in governance. Maybe some administrative mistakes were made along the way as a result of the enthusiasm to implement new things quickly, but this was not necessarily done with bad intentions. There could also have been people in certain roles who were not so willing to cooperate with the new government.”

 

Was there corruption?

“There were allegations of corruption. Until proven in the courts they remain allegations,” Abela replied.

“This is not only about the Daphne murder but also allegations of corruption, bribery and such. If there is enough proof, then there should be investigations and prosecutions, because so far, we have only seen allegations. I would like to see them proven or disproven as soon as possible. They are harming the country and there are some who are fanning the flames, but so far, they are only allegations.”

“Speaking for myself, I always worked to the best of my ability and was never linked to any corruption allegations. I always worked for the people and did my duty in the best way possible.”

 

 

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