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Populist and unpatriotic

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s first reaction to the Daphne Project revelations – urging Labour supporters to attend the party’s May Day celebrations in large numbers – was outrageous. It is the sort of thing one would expect from an authoritarian leader who only pays lip service to the rule of law. It was an intentional hint at mob rule and as such was simply unacceptable.

“The best reply we can give is on May 1, when the people will unite as one in Valletta to convey our message,” Muscat said on One Radio. There would be repercussions, he added, “for those who could be lying to tarnish the country’s reputation”.

Such declarations represent the worst type of populism, which should have no place in a supposedly modern European Union Member State, especially one governed by a social democratic government which repeatedly calls itself “liberal” and “progressive”.

Since when is a show of force at a Labour Party mass meeting a substitute for investigating serious allegations of corruption? Since when does an electoral mandate give the government the right to ignore such allegations – based on documentary evidence – and act as though nothing has happened?

Worse still, is Muscat now resorting to threatening the free press? If so, people can’t be blamed for thinking this is a throwback to the turbulent 1970s and 1980s, when civil liberties were eroded, democracy undermined and the independent media harassed under Labour administrations.

Muscat’s “repercussions” warning is a worrying development which will not go unnoticed in the corridors of Brussels. The outburst has only contributed to heightening the toxic atmosphere in the country, and sadly fits into a pattern of vile attacks on social media targeted at anti-government activists.

Equally disappointing is Muscat’s reaction when confronted by the media about the most serious revelation so far from the Daphne Project – the $1.6 million transfer to 17 Black, a Dubai firm listed as one of the ‘target clients’ that would make payments to Keith Schembri’s and Konrad Mizzi’s once-secret Panama companies. The Prime Minister simply said the advice he was given was not to comment so as not to prejudice any ongoing inquiries. However, no such inquiry into the 17 Black allegations exists – there is only a request for one by former PN leader Simon Busuttil and MEP David Casa as a result, yet again, of the apparent refusal by the police to act on Mizzi and Schembri.

Muscat should have sacked the pair two years ago – as soon as the news of their Panama companies emerged. But it is still not too late. If the Panama affair was not enough reason, then the latest 17 Black revelations, coupled with the latest leaked FIAU report, is a strong enough basis for dismissal or resignation in any democratic nation.

It is the Prime Minister’s refusal to act – to just do what is right for the country – that is an act of betrayal of Malta, and not the media houses and MEPs highlighting the rot that Labour has allowed to fester. Malta, and its reputation, will continue to suffer as a result, with potentially irreversible consequences.

Economic growth is not a substitute for political integrity, no matter how much the Prime Minister tries to convey this. The two must go hand in hand. Malta is an EU Member State and people expect its government to act accordingly, especially in respecting the rule of law, a fundamental pillar of the bloc. The EU, rightfully, is insisting – as it has done with Poland and Hungary – that it be vigorously upheld by all members. We hope the pressure will lead to a rethink by the government.

The Daphne Project released other damaging findings last week, such as the atrocious gas supply arrangement on which Malta could have saved tens of millions in one year. The project has clearly strengthened the international spotlight that was already on Malta following Caruana Galizia’s assassination.

The ball is now squarely in the Prime Minister’s court. Instead of resorting to cheap populist threats he must act to clear Malta’s name. Continuing to shirk action is making him deeply unpatriotic.

His first step must be to desist from using his electoral majority as a threat to those calling for the rule of law and democratic norms of governance to be fully respected.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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