No, Prime Minister: the bar has not been raised

As long as this problem remains unaddressed, one should not be too surprised if Abela is once again faced with similar cases of impropriety, in future

Prime Minister Robert Abela may well deserve some credit, for the decisive way in which he handled Rosianne Cutajar’s resignation from the Labour Party parliamentary group this week; and especially, for ruling out that Cutajar will ever contest on the Labour Party ticket, again.

But his claim that Cutajar’s decision somehow “raises the bar for standards for in public life” is – quite frankly – ridiculous.  

In reality, Cutajar was pressured to resign, in order to avoid facing a humiliating expulsion by the Labour Party’s executive council: which was scheduled to discuss this very matter, on Monday evening.  

This in turn implies that - had Rosianne Cutajar refused to bow out – she would have shared the same fate as Konrad Mizzi, who was expelled from the party’s parliamentary group in 2020.

In this sense, the Prime Minister can be said to have showm the same resolve, in ridding his party of another liability, as he had previously demonstrated by kicking out Mizzi; and also, forcing a reluctant Chris Cardona to resign from party deputy leader.  

But a timeline of events also makes it clear that Cutajar’s position, as a Labour MP, only became ‘untenable’ in view of the public backlash,  after her private chats with Yorgen Fenech were made public for the first time.

And yet, most of the content of those chats – including, among other things, her involvement in a property deal with Fenech - were already widely known before Cutajar was allowed to contest on the Labour ticket, in the 2022 general election.  

As things stand, the only ‘new’ revelation to emerge – apart from a confirmation of her close ‘personal relationship’ with Fenech - was that she also felt entitled to additional income, from a government job (on the basis that “everyone else was pigging out”); and that she was actually awarded a €27,000-per-year contract with the Institute of Tourism Studies in 2019.

Yet up until only two weeks ago, the Prime Minister was not only defending Cutajar – even to the extent of calling the publication of the Whatsapp chats, “misogynistic” – but, more significantly, arguing that the MP had already shouldered political responsibility when she resigned as Parliamentary Secretary in 2021.  

In reality, however, it was only on Monday that Cutajar ended up paying the highest price: by finding herself relegated to a backbench independent MP, shunned by her own party.  

And while Cutajar has defiantly refused to resign from parliament (as Konrad Mizzi had done, after being expelled by the party in 2020), her political future had meanwhile been sealed.

Even now, however, Abela cannot convincingly explain why Cutajar - who is no longer deemed worthy of representing the Labour Party - was allowed to contest the last general election.  But his own answer suggests that what has changed, since last year, was the scale of public outrage.  

“There is a difference between what the standards commissioner had investigated (her involvement in the Mdina property deal), and a ‘cardinal point’ which was revealed through the messages,” Abela said: clearly referring to the MP’s infamous “pigging-out” comment.

“There was an element of frustration among people, and I understand it,” he added.  This suggests that it was the public backlash against Cutajar’s sense of entitlement,  which proved to be the ‘last straw’ for Robert Abela.  

Meanwhile, the timeline also suggests that Abela had first ‘tested the waters’, by publicly defending Cutajar; only to change tack, when eventually faced with massive public outrage.  And while the  outrage was entirely justified, in this case; it is hardly the best yardstick to measure what constitutes ‘impropriety’.  

In this sense, Abela may have correctly (albeit belatedly) ‘judged the public mood’; and he may even enjoy the advantage of being compared to his predecessor (who had inexplicably ‘lowered the bar’, to the lowest possible levels). But he certainy cannot claim that this incident has ‘raised the bar’ for ‘standards in public life’.   

And while resignations are crucial, in sending a strong message to the public that serious impropriety is no longer tolerated; the fact remains Malta still lacks mechanisms to prevent such episodes from happening, in the first place.  

In this sense, it is imperative that parliament approves the Code of Ethics proposed by former Standards Commissioner George Hyzler: which includes stricter provisions against lobbying, and regulations for communication between lobbyists and MPs, on matters impacting public policy.  

Moreover, no attempt has ever been made to regulate the financing of individual candidates’s campaigns: which inevitably raises questions about the influence of big monied interests, on the political class.  

If Abela really wants to raise the standards bar, he should begin by addressing the the problem at its roots: particularly, the incestous relationship between politicians and big business, which continues to erode public trust in the system.  

As long as this problem remains unaddressed, one should not be too surprised if Abela is once again faced with similar cases of impropriety, in future.  Rather than fire-fighting individual cases, Abela should definitively ‘raise the bar’ by introducing a transparency register for MPs; as well as reforming party financing laws, to weaken the hold of big business on both parties and individual candidates, alike.