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raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo

‘This is the system’ is not an answer

Business donations are not acceptable...as many seem suddenly to understand

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
16 March 2017, 7:22am
Until a few elections ago, it was customary for both Labour and PN to file cases in court to have individual voters stricken off the electoral register
Until a few elections ago, it was customary for both Labour and PN to file cases in court to have individual voters stricken off the electoral register
There are definable moments, it seems, when public tolerance for certain situations – no matter how pervasive the situation, or how ingrained the acceptance – suddenly snaps. Things which until that point had been accepted as ‘inevitable’ – sometimes even defended as ‘essential’ – seem to suddenly appear bizarre, unsettling and utterly indefensible. 

In such moments, we tend to ask ourselves how on earth we had even permitted such a situation to persist all those years. Surprise quickly turns to shame and remonstration. Fingers of blame start being pointed left, right and centre: and as for the people on the receiving end, they always seem to be caught off-guard by the public outcry. But guys, they plead in response... it was only yesterday that this was considered business as usual. How can it suddenly be a problem only now?

One example out of many: until a few elections ago, it was customary for both Labour and PN to file cases in court to have individual voters stricken off the electoral register. All it took to be singled out for this outrageous practice was to reach your 80th birthday. Each time an election date was announced, both the Nationalist and Labour parties would rifle through the Electoral Registrar in search of octogenarian voters from known Labour and Nationalist (respectively) backgrounds, and try and disenfranchise them on the grounds of ‘mental infirmity’. Because as is common knowledge everywhere: anyone over 80 is by definition senile, and should not be allowed to vote...

This did not take place in some distant, antediluvian past. It happened with depressing regularity before every single election until 2008... when, inexplicably, something suddenly snapped. When newspapers reported this phenomenon in 2008 (as they had always done before), the reaction was a public outcry. People cringed in disgust at the thought of citizens in their 80s being forced to prove their mental prowess in court... or risk being stripped of their most basic democratic rights. 

Their revulsion was of course quite justified. But why did we never react to it before? Why did we all accept such a brazen mass-defecation on human rights for so long?

But the really interesting thing about this example was the reaction by the two culprits themselves. Like teenagers caught watching internet porn by their parents, and scrambling to close the browser window in time... they were stung into the ghastly realisation of how utterly indefensible their actions had been all along. Instantly they rushed to withdraw the cases they had filed just a few days earlier... and then started (predictably) accusing each other of being the ‘guiltier’ of the two parties over this issue. 

Well, no cases at all were filed ahead of the 2013 election. It had to take a public outcry to put a stop to this abomination once and for all.

I may be jumping the gun, but I detect a similar outcry in public reactions to the recent party financing scandal. Again, none of us can claim to be ‘surprised’ at the revelations. The PN has been forced to admit receiving undisclosed ‘donations’ from the same business interests it accused of ‘collusion with Labour’. Leaving aside that this is precisely the sort of hypocrisy we have come to expect these days, it was something we had always long suspected and tacitly accepted.

Yet it is not acceptable... as many people seem suddenly to understand only now. It is not acceptable at the best of times... still less at a time when the entire world has developed an obsession with ‘money-laundering’; when Europe and beyond is engulfed by cries of ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’... and when the rest of us are bullied and threatened into giving a precise account of our every single financial transaction, or face severe consequences. 

Perhaps the only difference with the previous scenario is that the reasons for the change in perception are visible at a glance. This preoccupation with ‘accountability in matters of finance’ did not just erupt like a volcano out of nowhere. It has been years in the making: you can trace it back all the way to the introduction of VAT in the mid-1990s. Then as now, the idea was to make all local transactions traceable... to force out into the open that which had previously been hidden and festering in the shadows.

In other words, your average Maltese businessman – across the full spectrum of economic activity, from the very small to the humungous – was being told to get his house in order. The age of widespread tax evasion was at an end... and after VAT, we had money laundering legislation threatening with imprisonment anyone who could not give a plausible account for any sum of money over a few thousand euros, traceable to his or her name, in any form whatsoever.

And we accepted it, too (though it cost the PN the 1996 election, and derailed EU membership for years). Not that we had much choice, of course. Unlike political parties, individual businesses do not have the clout to tell the fiscal authorities where to get off. And this, I fear, is the context which our two political parties seem to be entirely oblivious to when sheepishly trying to justify their outrageous actions to an exasperated population. 

There is more to this issue than the usual narrow partisan sphere of interests: there is also a seething rage at the sheer unfairness of it all.

Consider how Simon Busuttil actually responded: “This is the system,” he said. “Maltese parties live on these donations. Our commercial interests, like Media.Link, are experiencing hardships. We don’t have government subsidies, sacks of money, or stolen property like Labour has… we depend on donations.”

Erm... sorry, but ‘Media.Link’ is not the only media house on the island; and some of the other ones ‘experience hardship too’, you know. Yet they are not allowed to use that as an excuse to sidestep their legal obligations. More to the point: not all media houses are owned by political parties which also get to draw up legislation (not to mention dish out contracts to its secret donors) when in power.

The problem here does not concern only the wholesale disregard for basic commercial law... it also concerns the obligations a political party undertakes – wittingly or unwittingly – when entering into this sort of secret financial arrangement. 

But Busuttil’s reaction overlooks something else. The fact that we all ‘used to accept’ something doesn’t mean we have to continue being lumped with it today. A point must come when ‘This is the system’ becomes ‘This WAS the system’. For one thing, perceptions change... as we all saw with the voter disenfranchisement issue. For another, the law of the land has changed, too. In more ways than just the new (and evidently useless) Party Financing Act.

Before getting to that new law, there are all the other articles of legislation governing financial matters in Malta. It is illegal not to declare sums of money – running into hundreds of thousands, if not millions – to the FIAU. For that reason alone, it is simply inconceivable for the Opposition leader to stand up and say: ‘hey, but that doesn’t apply to us.’ It does apply to the PN, and even more so to all the PN’s commercial enterprises: which, in case no one’s noticed, are all in competition with other businesses involved in the same sectors.

How are we to explain that one media house among several – well, two, because Labour has the same unfair advantage – is allowed to benefit from unlimited sources of illicit, undeclared funding, when the rest of us have the tax authorities breathing down our necks over every single financial investment or bank deposit?

But party financing is only one dimension to this issue. Just look for a moment at how many other laws the two parties routinely defecate on in the course of running their daily operations. Paying utility bills, for instance. As many have discovered to their cost, there is a limit to how many ‘arrangements’ one makes with ARMS Ltd in case of late payments. Yes, you will get a scheme by which debts can be settled over time... but if the debt persists, sooner or later they will cut off your supply; and you will have to pay 140 euros to get it reconnected.

Well, by ARMS’s own admission (in 2016), Labour and PN between them owe the tidy sum of 2.5 million euros in unpaid utility bills... spanning not years, but decades. Was their supply ever discontinued? Did they have to pay to get it back? For that matter: did they even repay any of that 2.5 million euros since then? We don’t know, you see, because ARMS Ltd itself refuses to disclose the information. And to add insult to injury, the same ARMS Ltd to this day insists that ‘it treats all its clients equally’... 

Speaking of equality: utility bills also constitute a fair proportion of the expenses incurred by other businesses in competition with Media.Link and ONE TV. Is it fair for one set of companies to be spared this expense, while their competitors are threatened with suspension of services if they don’t pay their bills on time?

Meanwhile, I won’t delve too deeply into recent public speculation that at least one of the two parties (the PN) owes an estimated 1.5 million euros in unpaid VAT. Glenn Bedingfield made this assertion on his blog, but so far hasn’t substantiated it. Well, it’s a pretty darn serious allegation to leave unsubstantiated... given what would befall any ordinary mortal under similar circumstances. 

Sadly, however, it also chimes in perfectly with all the other bits and bobs of information now leaking out of the two parties from every orifice. Whether true or not, it becomes but a tiny detail in a much broader tableau of shocking abuse everywhere you look. 

Again, I may be mistaken: but something tells me Malta’s tolerance levels for this sort of brazen impunity are on the brink of snapping, too. There is, after all, only so much we can be expected to put up with. 

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