Some people in the Nationalist Party think we shouldn’t discuss Keith Schembri because he’s dying

Published: December 10, 2016 at 10:47am

I received a telephone call yesterday from a source in the Nationalist Party who says that there’s a lot of debate going on right now as to whether reference should be made to Keith Schembri’s terminal illness or not. That story which I have linked just there has been shared directly from this website on Facebook almost 4,000 times and read by 25,000 different people in the two days since. So that should give the Nationalist Party some idea of how they should be talking about it.

Unfortunately, there continues to exist – even in this non-paternalistic era where political parties and mainstream printed newspapers no longer have control over what gets to make the news and what is discussed publicly – the idea that political parties and newspapers can somehow ignore stories and decide what people should be told or not.

Besides demonstrating a very poor understanding of what news is and what it isn’t, this reflects very badly on the political party which decides that its responsibility is towards other politicians rather than to the public or, more specifically, the electorate. The electorate should always, but always, be told what is going on with politicians. They need a proper basis for their vote.

Those individuals in the Nationalist Party who think that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff should now be off limits because he is slowly dying have got their emotional and ethical knickers in a twist. There is a procedure for this, and it has been practised over generations: it is not up to your political opponents or critics to lay off you in the public arena when you are seriously ill, but up to you to remove yourself from that arena by means of a resignation letter containing a request that your privacy be respected.

The point here is that the privacy in terminal illness of the second most powerful man in the country (and Joseph Muscat is more powerful than Schembri only because he is the one in whom executive power is legally invested) can be respected only when he ceases to be the second most powerful man in the country. In the absence of a statement of resignation containing an explanation of the situation and a request for privacy, that cannot and will not happen.

There is no space on this crowded island for yet another large elephant in the room.

That the Nationalist Party is not immediately clear in its mind as to what its duties and obligations are in the current scenario is indicative of its failure to have clarity on other significant issues. If you have to struggle, debate and hold ‘internal discussions’ to work out what your position should be even on such poignantly obvious matters, then there is a serious problem: mainly a socio-cultural problem, I suspect, and a problem with lack of understanding of political communication in 2016.

I say it is a socio-cultural problem because, clearly, what we are dealing with here is the superstitious Maltese village mentality – which spans the political chasm and doesn’t necessarily reside in villages – that cancer is not a disease but a special kind of affliction that mustn’t be discussed or even mentioned by name, and when it is mentioned by name, it is not simply cancer but “il-marda tal-kancer”, a stupid description because cancer is the disease itself. The southern Mediterranean pagan fear of discussing cancer lest it descend on you by some vengeful karma has no place in the contemporary world, among rational people, and where politicians are involved.

Of course we should discuss the Prime Minister’s chief of staff. It is more important than ever. His illness is terminal and his ‘Russian dolls’ network of hidden companies, in the British Virgin Islands, Gibraltar, Cyprus and Panama, and his trust in New Zealand, are all still there and still not investigated. It is obvious that he is going to spend his final months of lucidity transferring everything to trusted people with a power of attorney, and hiding everything more completely still so that his wife and children may benefit from his ill-gotten gains after his death. This should not be allowed to happen.

It should be clear, too, to the Opposition and everyone else with functioning powers of analysis that the main reason he will not resign is that his post as chief of staff to the Prime Minister, in the current corrupt scenario, gives him immunity from investigation while he does all this.

Schembri was last seen in public two and a half months ago, and though the press and the Opposition should have had alarm bells going off at his prolonged absence from the Prime Minister’s side, there haven’t been any. I never go to press conferences, but even I noticed that he has been conspicuous by his absence and realised that there had to be a serious reason for that. It was then simply a matter of working through a network of contacts to find out what that reason is, and eventually, I struck lucky.

The Opposition’s duty now is to face down the Prime Minister and demand to know what he plans to do about his chief of staff. It should demand those answers on the electorate’s behalf – because, apparently, even the press, which has its own duty to the electorate, has decided to lay off one of Malta’s foremost crooks, and not just ‘crooked politicians’, because his prognosis is bad, even though he has not stepped down.

This is not “bad taste”. It is the Opposition’s duty. This is not ‘unethical’, but the very opposite. It is unethical to collude with the government in hiding matters of public interest from public discussion.

In the light of this, I am reproducing below a comment posted on this website, this morning, by Evarist Saliba, who is possibly Malta’s most seasoned and best respected former career diplomat, who served his country as an ambassador and in several other diplomatic posts for many years, and who is now retired in England. He posted it in response to another reader who suggested that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff is now off limits because he is ill.


Keith Schembri was the power behind the throne. In fact he trained Joseph Muscat for the throne. This influence, judging by what has been revealed in the Panama Papers was, from the very first days of power, on building structures associated with wealth coming from sources that are meant to be kept secret.

It has led to bad governance that has spread across the state machinery. Yet, Joseph Muscat has steadfastly protected Keith Schembri, and called him “his friend”.

Schembri’s departure from his place of power is a matter of national interest. The public interest is not, or should not be, in the details of his incapacitation, except to the extent that it makes him unfit for office in running the country.

I do not think that Malta has had any prime minister since self-government – that is, even before independence – who has shown so much wear and tear in such a short time. Is Schembri’s absence one of the causes?

The public is entitled to know, but this government is not known for its openness and transparency.


Yes, the public is entitled to know, the Prime Minister is obliged to give full disclosure, and if he fails in that obligation, the Opposition leader is obliged to demand it.

And it shouldn’t have to be a journalist, or a retired diplomat, to point that out.

Keith Schembri with Joseph Muscat in Mongolia

Keith Schembri with Joseph Muscat in Mongolia