The debate at the Public Accounts Committee on whether police chief Angelo Gafà should be called to testify in the interminable Electrogas inquiry was spine-crushingly boring. The outcome was that the government MPs over-ruled the wishes of the opposition MPs to call Gafà to ask him questions.

Let me quote the way The Times reported the government’s motivation for blocking the summons: “The government MPs argued that the public accounts committee does not have the authority to question the commissioner about a potentially ongoing police investigation.”

We can debate whether the public accounts committee has such authority. I can see the reasons – real, genuine reasons – why some might argue it doesn’t have such authority. The police have the exclusive authority of launching investigations and no one should interfere or apply pressure on them to investigate or not to investigate one way or another.

Sounds straight forward.

When the PN MPs pointed out that John Rizzo as police chief had been, in the past, called in by the PAC to testify on another investigation that Labour MPs had been keen on, Glenn Bedingfield said something fiendishly true.

He said the reference to past evidence was in connection with the scandal on oil procurement at Enemalta. And the PAC had only started to review that scandal (and the police investigation) after charges were issued against the culprits.

Since this is Glenn Bedingfield talking, you are right to expect this to be a disingenuous twisting of facts.

First the fact Glenn Bedingfield was correct about.

The PAC met to discuss the oil procurement scandal in August 2013. But Tancred Tabone and Frank Sammut were charged with bribery and money laundering in connection with the scandal in February 2013.

Glenn Bedingfield misrepresents the sequence of these two dates as suggesting that the PAC decently held back, waited patiently and humbly on the side-lines for the police to do their job without undue pressure, and then stepped in when they were satisfied the police were quite done.

What really happened at the time was that the police (and the entire infrastructure of the state) moved rapidly to act on the culprits, far quicker than any parliamentary committee could even hope to mobilise.

Perhaps people don’t realise but the oil procurement scandal emerged in the press on 20 January 2013. By 10 February 2013 cabinet debated and approved the attorney general’s and the police chief’s recommendation to give a presidential pardon to the whistleblower in the case. By 19 February, less than a month after the story broke in the press, the police had wrapped up the investigation and charged the former Enemalta chairman, Tancred Tabone, and his (alleged) accomplice Frank Sammut.

You see, that’s how things should be done.

In any case the Labour MPs used the PAC investigation as a fishing expedition because they could not bear the fact that the procurement scandal – for scandalous it was – did not, as they hoped, reach political levels. They did their damn best to try to get politicians (or people who worked for them, such as the author) implicated in the scandal and they expressed no concern about how this behaviour might impact “potential” police investigations. They wanted to influence the course of justice with their politicking. And, this is the significant bit, PN MPs stepped to the side and made no attempt to obstruct their Labour Party colleagues. The logic was if there was a truth that needed unearthing, it would be unseemly (not to mention, wrong) to try to slow the effort down.

Now read again the quote from Times of Malta’s report of the grounds for the government’s veto of the Opposition’s request to ask questions from Angelo Gafà: “to question the commissioner about a potentially ongoing police investigation.”

‘Potentially’ is the operative word and really the crux of the matter here.

The Electrogas scandal did not erupt less than a month ago, or even (to compare with the start of the PAC discussion on the oil scandal in relation to when we first knew of it) 7 months ago. The Electrogas scandal erupted in 2016, 6 years ago. And now, 6 years later, we’re still talking about “potential” police investigations. Not even the government MPs are confident enough to speak with any measure of certainty about the mere existence of an investigation, never mind how far it is from resulting in charges.

In view of that the PAC has a duty to go beyond the examination of the narrow transaction that made Electrogas the supplier of electricity for the state monopoly of energy distribution. The scandal is not limited to the alleged kickbacks paid to the ministers who secured that deal. Not anymore. Not since so many years went by, and the scandal evolved into how it came to be that no action was taken against those responsible.

I understand the argument that Angelo Gafà and the police are not, at this stage, the subjects themselves of an investigation, though perhaps they should be. But it is unreasonable for the government to prevent Parliament from asking some very basic, and eminently understandable questions given the circumstances.

Is there indeed a criminal investigation into matters reported 4 years ago by the National Auditor which are the subject of the PAC’s inquiry?

Can you believe it? Four years ago.

I mean is the government seriously arguing that it is precipitously premature to ask the police if they’re doing something now about a report they’ve had for 4 years, quite apart from the 2-year head start given them by Daphne Caruana Galizia and the Panama Papers?

If the answer is yes, there is indeed an investigation, the police chief could then comfortably say that given that the police have not yet issued charges against their suspects he would be uncomfortable providing any further details and that would be that. But we’d know something very important, we didn’t know before. The PAC would have done the public and the rule of law a service, however hungry it might leave us after that amuse bouche.

If the answer is no, that there is no investigation because when there had been one, no evidence of wrongdoing was found and therefore no further action is appropriate, that would be quite a blow but at least it would be an answer. This is like a rejection after a marriage proposal, it’s not exactly great news, but it’s better than being left hanging, for ever, and being prevented from asking again because “potentially” they may be thinking about it.

If indeed the police have opened and closed an investigation and have decided Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri and Yorgen Fenech and Brian Tonna and Karl Cini and so on have no case to answer, it is also fair on them that such a decision is made publicly known.

I rather think the police would not dare saying that in an open forum and Angelo Gafà needed saving which the Parliamentarians who are buddies of Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri Yorgen Fenech, Brian Tonna, and Karl Cini were perfectly happy to do for them.

The government has a majority in the PAC, but the institution is designed for openness and transparency by giving the opposition the leadership and agenda setting of the committee. It’s meant to scrutinise public expense. It’s not going much further to suggest that that should mean that the PAC should examine systemic institutional failure to act when public expense, as clearly reported by the NAO, is grotesquely mismanaged. It is, I submit, entirely within its remit for the PAC to examine if our institutions function well enough to at least examine credible suspicions of corruption. They don’t come more credible than the contents of the NAO Electrogas report.

By shutting the PAC down in this case, the government has done more than protect Angelo Gafà from a PR inconvenience. They closed one of the last doors open to public scrutiny in cases of institutional failure.

From the findings of the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry that squarely blamed the killing of a journalist on our institutions’ failure to act in cases of corruption (particularly the same scandal, which was the subject of yesterday’s vote, Electrogas), we have now slipped further down the oblivion of institutional omertà.

This is dark stuff.