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michaelfalzon
Michael Falzon

Two sides of the same coin

Politicians and political parties need donors and financial support for their campaigns from businessmen who then expect to be rewarded for their efforts – This sort of thing happens everywhere and it is also the trend in Malta, where corruption is not the ‘monopoly’ of one political party

michaelfalzon
Michael Falzon
27 December 2016, 7:31am
Just this week, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, was found guilty of negligence over a €400m payment made to a French tycoon
Just this week, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, was found guilty of negligence over a €400m payment made to a French tycoon
Glancing at the front page of last Wednesday’s mid-week edition of MaltaToday, a friend of mine commented on ‘the obvious political balance’ that sent the message that impropriety, also known as corruption, is not the monopoly of one political party. 

The page carried two stories – the latest developments in the police investigation in the case of alleged corruption by a current minister’s trusted person and the Auditor’s report on the alleged improper transfer of government property by the previous administration, one of which was to the benefit of  a well known businessman and a PN supporter and donor.

These are two sides of the same coin that has come to be the common currency of Maltese politics.

In the first case we have a trusted friend of a minsiter allegedly abusing his power  – given on trust – in order to pocket some ill-gotten gain. It is a story of a supposedly loyal friend of a minister betraying his master to the surprise of the minister.

It is not the first time that this has happened. Our political system necessitates election candidates to have ‘loyal friends’ or canvassers working voluntarily in their campaign. Many do it as a demonstration of their political beliefs. They are then anointed as ‘trusted’ persons in the ministerial set-up organised after ‘their’ candidate becomes minister. Some fall into the trap of abusing their ‘power’, that is actually the minister’s power given to them on trust, and the minister unexpectedly finds himself in hot water.

As the sarcastic columnist of bygone times, ‘Maria l-Maws’ would have said in untranslatable Maltese: ‘Min jitkaża jaqa’ fil-każa.’ – which roughly means that he who shames others ends up being shamed himself.

The social networks in Maltese society are impressive, not only because we are a nation with a small population but also because our population density is one of the highest in the world. Everyone ‘knows’ everyone else, which is why I call our society an incestuous one. Guze’ Chetcuti’s play ‘Il-kerrejja’ is a metaphor for our society, with everyone squeezed in a small space and everybody knowing what everybody else is doing – including going to the toilet and making love with one’s spouse or with someone else...

This peculiar and astonishing network in Maltese society makes the canvasser’s job a particular one. It fits our electoral system to a glove – a symbiotic relationship if there ever was one. The big problem for candidates of the same party competing with each other in every election is overcome by canvassers utilising the network. Eventually, the candidate ends up depending upon them for his or her electoral success, to the extent that the more abusive ones end up holding their MP to ransom. They actually metamorphose from supporters to parasites.

When corruption raises its ugly head, the unwary minister realises that he or she trusted the wrong person – but this happens rather late in the day and the minsiter would have to carry the can for choosing to trust someone who turns out to be completely untrustworthy, even if after many years of enjoying this ‘trust’. 

I have always said that our electoral system gives rise to abuses and should be radically overhauled. This would lessen – if not eliminate completely – the chances of such abuse. But our system – originally imposed by Westminster for the expediency of the colonial master – seems destined to remain and MPs will keep on depending for survival on those who know how to use and abuse the social network.

The other case refers to the sort of abuses that result from the relationship between political parties and big business. In Malta ‘big’ is relative and our ‘big business’ would only qualify as small fry on an international scale. However for our society ‘big’ business is ‘big’ business. No need to mention names. Remember that in Malta everyone knows everybody else.

In this case, the National Audit Office (NAO) said that the process of a particular transfer of government land to a leading businessman had been negligent ‘and of the greatest concern’. It was a failure in terms of good governance accentuated by ‘the extraordinary haste of the process’. Anyone interested in the gory details can read the NAO report.

The dangers of the relationship between the party in government and big business are for all to see and one can hardly ignore the abuse that it leads to. This is no Maltese ‘invention’ – one can see it happening in any country.

Just this week, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, was found guilty of negligence over a €400m payment made to a French tycoon while she was France’s finance minister. Lagarde approved the payment from public funds to businessman Bernard Tapie, who was a friend of the then French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. 

The 2006/7 ‘Cash for Honours’ scandal in Britain is well-known and concerned the connection between political donations and the award of life peerages. A loophole in the UK electoral law meant that although anyone donating even small sums of money to a political party has to declare this as a matter of public record, those loaning money at commercial rates of interest did not have to make a public declaration. So these donations were camouflaged as loans.

This sort of thing happens everywhere where politicians and political parties need donors and financial support for their campaigns from businessmen who then expect to be rewarded for their efforts. This is also the trend in Malta, where corruption is not the ‘monopoly’ of one political party. 

This kind of impropriety is hard to eradicate and the only remedial action is to have strong independent watchdogs such as our Auditor General and Ombudsman, besides an independent judiciary that upholds the rule of law, and a free press. Plus, an ever attentive opposition, irrespective of the fact that all over the world, political parties switch from abusing and being shamed when in government to shaming abuses when in opposition. 

Many describe this as ‘the pot calling the kettle black’ but it is a stratagem that is useful to control abuse in a democracy... and ensures that the word ‘corruption’ will never have a holiday.

***

Best wishes

May I take this opportunity to wish the editors and staff as well as the readers of ‘MaltaToday’ a very happy Christmas. May they forget the troubles of this world and take a short break, relax and enjoy life, even if for a day or two.

[email protected] 

michaelfalzon
Michael Falzon is a former government minister who served under several Nationalist admini...
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