We now know just one of the devious things Joseph Muscat did while clinging to power for five weeks after giving notice of his resignation as Prime Minister.
When Konrad Mizzi stepped down as Tourism Minister, Muscat absorbed the tourism portfolio himself and used that position to give Mizzi a secret consultancy contract which in effect gave him back his ministerial salary plus a raise of more than €700 per week*.
What a deeply cynical move by a Prime Minister who got elected on his outrage that the Nationalist administration had given themselves a secret pay rise.
Had it not been for a whistleblower who presumably leaked Mizzi’s contract to Times of Malta, taxpayers would have never found out that we were paying Mizzi €1,800 per week from just one consultancy contract alone.
Muscat sniggered and said nothing else when he was asked about the contract. He may think it’s funny, but it’s not. It’s at best utterly disrespectful to the nation. At worst, it’s criminal: a fraudulent use of public funds to reward his friend or to buy his silence, which would equate to bribery.
Also, it is unlikely that Muscat stopped at just one contract or at Mizzi for that matter. For all we know, Muscat gave himself a few consultancy contracts. Or perhaps he gave one to Keith Schembri, his disgraced former Chief of Staff. We already have an idea as to the great lengths Muscat has gone to protect Schembri.
The silver-lining is that this sort of move has ostensibly outraged even people like Prime Minister Robert Abela and other Cabinet members.
But reversing this fraudulent contract is not enough. This contract has only exposed the way Muscat was operating in those five weeks. Now the country – led by the Prime Minister – must get to the bottom of everything else Muscat did in that time and before.
Acting as if Muscat is a decent person who sometimes made mistakes is problematic when the evidence continues to point in the opposite direction.
Abela should take this matter extremely seriously and launch an investigation into everything Muscat did in those five weeks while he clung onto his Prime Ministerial powers.
For starters, Malta Tourism Authority chief Johann Buttigieg himself should be made to step down and be seriously investigated. He must have known that permitting a contract like this was wrong. And if he signed this one, maybe he signed others. And what about the MTA board? Did they too approve this contract?
The problem is that Muscat and those close to him still have an air of being untouchable. The longer this is permitted and perpetuated, the worse the long-term impact will be on Abela and the Labour Party.
Obviously this is easier said than done.
Whether we like it or not, Muscat retains a mythical status about him that is hard to shake off.
It’s natural for humans to make excuses for the people we love. Even when we find out they’ve done something horrible, we find ways to give them the benefit of the doubt.
This is what many people are going through with Muscat.
There is no denying that this man was truly loved. For many in the Labour Party, he was a true saviour. He came along out of the ashes of Alfred Sant’s era and he revitalised the party into both a winning machine and a high-speed train of social change.
The impact he left in people’s lives was palpable. From introducing free childcare which allowed women to rejoin the workforce, to significantly increasing pensions and minimum wage, to making Malta a pioneer in LGBT rights, just to mention a few reforms.
And then there was everything he did to the individuals close to him: trusting young inexperienced MPs with massive ministries, giving backbenchers lucrative government jobs, giving key allies chairmanships and consultancies that massively boosted their income and quality of life.
There are of course huge ethical (and legal) dilemmas with the way he operated, but it was all of these things that earned him the loyalty and love he continues to enjoy from some people today.
Former Gozo Minister Justyne Caruana said it succinctly when she was speaking on One TV ahead of Muscat’s final speech as Prime Minister. With her face streaming in tears she said: “He protected us. He did everything to protect each and every one of us.”
Today it has become more clear from what he needed to protect her and others like her. And we are starting to get a sense of just how far Muscat is prepared to go for those around him, no matter what they are accused of doing.
So far, Abela’s decisions have been a mixed bag. On some issues he has taken clear and decisive action – more than many would have expected and more than he indicated he would while campaigning to be Prime Minister.
On other issues – such as nominating Mizzi to be Malta’s OSCE representative and giving Caruana another government job after she resigned as minister – his actions were questionable at best. Such appointments, even when reversed, send a clear message to investigative and judicial bodies: these people have the Prime Minister’s blessing and should remain untouched.
Even though one has to appreciate the pressure Abela is under from all quarters, not least within the Labour hardcore, it is useful for him to remember what happens to a party that permits the unpermissable for too long.
Let’s not forget that before it turned into an unelectable splodge of vacuous nothingness, the Nationalist Party was once deemed to be an unbeatable electoral machine and the Malta’s natural party in government.
If Abela does not send a strong message to the police and legal institutions that nobody is untouchable, it will soon become impossible for him to build his own legacy and free himself from the ever-growing shadow that Muscat’s continued actions produce.
*Mizzi got €80,400 plus a chauffeur-driven car which could be exchanged for €11,400 annually, as well as medical insurance for him and his family, together with free internet and mobile expenses, totalling to an estimated €93,800 which when subtracted from the ministerial pay of €56,267 equates to a raise of €37,544 or €722 per week.