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MaltaToday 24 March 2021 MIDWEEK

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9 maltatoday | WEDNESDAY • 24 MARCH 2021 in power in 2017 after denying any allegation of wrongdoing by his in- ner circle, including the allegations against Keith Schembri which led to last Saturday's arrests. The message to middle-of-the- road voters In his balancing act, Abela is un- derlining three important messages to M.O.R. voters. The first was distancing himself and the party from Keith Schembri, refusing to apologise for the party's collective past defence of Muscat's most trusted aide on the premise that he would "only answer" to what happened under his watch. Secondly he insisted that there will be no impunity for "untouchables" under a "government led by Robert Abela". Craftily he made this point in reference to failure to clamp down on criminal gangs under PN govern- ments but fully knowing impunity is also associated with the institutional paralysis under his predecessor. Thirdly he underlined the message that the arrests are proof that the in- stitutions are functioning correctly "without fear or favour" and reflect the strengthening of institutions like the FIAU left under-funded by pre- vious administrations. A missed opportunity? Where Abela's speech was lack- ing was in deliberately refusing to pass political judgement, relegating a veritable political earthquake – the arrest of his predecessor's most important aide on bribery and cor- ruption charges – to a simple case of the police taking action in a criminal case, devoid of a political context. By ignoring the context determined by his predecessor's decision to keep Schembri in office after the Panama exposé, Abela missed a golden op- portunity for atonement; and for his party to reflect on the blurred lines between poachers and gamekeepers, business and politics under his pre- decessor. Most importantly, Abela still ig- nores the root of the problem which is the lack of firewall between pol- itics and big business interests, a common tread which links the as- sassination of Caruana Galizia, cor- ruption cases involving the privati- sation of public assets, and possible tax evasion by the protagonists. And it was Keith Schembri who best in- carnated the ethos of the Muscat era, characterised by an incestuous relationship between top business- men and Labour's inner circle. Abela's failure to confront Mus- cat's legacy head-on, strengthens the Opposition's narrative that he is only acting under duress of judicial inquiries and the impending Mon- eyval verdict. Labour's spin and embarrass- ment Labour's spin that the case in- volving former Allied Group man- aging director Adrian Hilman and Keith Schembri, occurred under the Gonzi administration in the context of a private business deal, obscures the fact that Schembri had the most important position in the country, while owning offshore companies which allegedly facilitated alleged money laundering both prior and after his appointment in Labour's central nervous system. This obscures the fact that by re- taining Schembri in office after 2017 when the allegations were already well known, Muscat offered Schem- bri protection by keeping him in the highest office, which in itself had a chilling effect on investigation by the police and the judiciary, possibly shielding him by public office. But Abela is right in saying that that previous Nationalist govern- ments left behind them a weak infra- structure to combat financial crime. And he is right in taking pride of tak- ing steps to strengthen institutions like the FIAU. But this falls short of denouncing the system which pre- dated Muscat, and reinforced under his watch, without any internal crit- icism, and with a media regime that absolved Panamagate's protagonists from justified criticism. For the greatest embarrassment for Labour was created by propagan- dists defending people like Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri on One TV, memories of which are bound to come back to haunt Abela in the absence of a general clean-up. In all this Abela may be missing a gold- en opportunity; that of reclaiming his party's reputation as the voice of good governance, a reputation which had been painfully reclaimed by Alfred Sant in the 1990s after it was fatally wounded by Lorry Sant's antics in the 1980s. The party is duty-bound to ask it- self: how did it allow itself to be hi- jacked once again by a clique moti- vated by its own greed? The PN's dilemma While the Opposition's anger at Labour's failure to recognise its past errors is justified, it would make a great mistake on its part not to rec- ognise the change in the political cli- mate. Under Angelo Gafà, appoint- ed under the Abela administration, the police force is showing no fear or favour in apprehending and build- ing a strong case against the sus- pects. Who would have imagined Muscat's closest ally spending the night in jail under the watch of a Labour government? Irrespective of the Opposi- tion's crucial role in exposing corruption cases in the past, the public is bound to notice the difference between the impunity under Muscat and police ac- tion against yesterday's untouchables under Ab- ela. In this context the Opposition may well offer it hand of coopera- tion, present a blueprint of good governance reforms while keeping the pressure on Abela to keep true to his words that justice is served. The risk of going overboard is that people would suspect that its sole motivation is to short-circuit its way back to power, a mistake which backfired in a spectacular way in 2017. salami-slicing Muscat's legacy?

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