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An offensive truth

If both parties are content to be labelled ‘big shops’ – and even revel in the compliment – they are certainly not in a position to also pontificate about ‘good governance’. And if business leaders acknowledge this fact without even a trace of self-deprecation, it only indicates that any contract of sale involves two parties. 

17 November 2015, 7:51am
Sandro Chetcuti
Sandro Chetcuti
There is an old saying that ‘the truth offends’. It certainly applies to Sandro Chetcuti’s recent comment that “for businessmen, the parties are like two big shops”. 

Coming from a representative of Malta’s entire business community, the candid description also hammers home the sheer pervasiveness of this state of affairs. For Chetcuti is undeniably correct. Even the parties themselves appear to subscribe to his description wholeheartedly. 

Political engagement at all levels has come to have a certain mercantile aspect to it. Even on a superficial level, the image projected by both Nationalist and Labour Parties – now locked in an arms race to win over the same electoral segment (i.e., the business community represented by Sandro Chetcuti) – is almost indistinguishable from the ploys used in corporate marketing campaigns.

During election debates, voters are invariably urged to choose between respective party programmes almost as though they were bargain-hunting through brochures for commodities. Which offer of a better deal on electricity prices is the more attractive? Whose offer of free Tablets for schoolchildren is preferable? 

The party leaders themselves, increasingly obsessed with public image, seem almost indistinguishable from shop-window mannequins (only modelling electoral promises instead of clothes).

None of this, of course, is in any way new. So deeply entrenched is this attitude that the two parties even have electoral offices to handle transactions. Rumours of fridges and freezers traded for votes on the eve of an election may or may not be an exaggeration; but there is material evidence of increases in permits issued by MEPA – among other ‘special offers’ – coinciding with imminent elections.

Nor did it pass unnoticed, even at European Commission level, that the government’s economic forecasts always seem to go awry over the same period. Expenditure invariably shoots up as election draws near. In 2013, the last year of the Nationalist administration, the deficit overshot the 2.7% projection and reached 3.3%. The Commission wryly noted that this was a ‘recurrent theme’ in all pre-election budgets.

Recently, the analogy took a twist for the bizarre when Opposition leader Simon Busuttil accused the Prime Minister of being a ‘salesman’. Joseph Muscat’s reply almost pre-empted Chetcuti’s brusque frankness: “My job and my duty is to promote our country. I am proud to be called a salesman for the good of families and business. I am proud to be a salesman of investment… not a salesman of envy and bitterness.”

Muscat is free to take as much pride in the taunt as he likes. There may even be some truth in his boast. But a cursory glance at his first two years as Prime Minister undeniably reveals that he sold more than just investment for the good of Maltese families. 

His government’s rise to power, viewed retrospectively, seems to have involved numerous contracts of sale in a number of respects. Questions continue to mount over the Labour Party pre-electoral dealings with Gaffarena – where Muscat’s government is accused of having ‘sold’ an illegal petrol station permit, as well as facilitating the sale of the requisitioned Café Premier in Valletta. 

How much was promised by whom to how many? It is a question repeated after every election, regardless which of the two supermarket parties comes into power.

Prime Minister Muscat has displayed his salesmanship in other ways, too. He has also proved ready and willing to gift acres of ODZ land to Jordanian investors, while binding even future governments to unpublished energy deals which remain obscure and indecipherable to this day. 

To date his greatest economic achievement was the sale of ‘golden passports’ to the Eurozone, for which his government was eviscerated by the European parliament.

Even Muscat’s declared vision for the future seems rooted in the same mercantile concerns. He talks of Malta as a ‘Dubai in the Mediterranean’, oblivious to the inherent contradiction of a supposedly Socialist government modelling its aspirations on one of the most extreme models of free market capitalism in the world.

What is entirely missing from the equation is any acknowledgement that this is a deeply undesirable state of affairs. In an arena where electoral success depends on ingratiating oneself too closely with business interests, any promise of ‘good governance’ must perforce be recognised as the barefaced con it is. 

A ‘higher standard of public administration’ (of the kind that both parties simultaneously promise) involves resisting this culture, not embracing it as a pivot on which to rise to power. 

All this only underscores the poignancy of Chetcuti’s remark. In a context where both parties also present themselves as ‘magic-wand solutions’ to Malta’s inherent nepotism, the contradiction between fact and fiction becomes too enormous to ignore. 

If both parties are content to be labelled ‘big shops’ – and even revel in the compliment – they are certainly not in a position to also pontificate about ‘good governance’. And if business leaders acknowledge this fact without even a trace of self-deprecation, it only indicates that any contract of sale involves two parties. 

It takes a government to sell its soul, and a buyer to buy it.

This, ultimately, is why the truth pronounced by Sandro Chetcuti remains so irksome. It spreads the blame for Malta’s endemic maladministration issues right across the entire landscape.

DealToday
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