August is the cruellest month, and Labour knows it

August is a time when most people ‘switch off’ from the usual routine of actively engaging in political controversies but the current Labour administration seems to have taken it to another level.

1 September 2016, 8:46am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
TS Eliot famously opens his poem ‘The Wasteland’ with the line ‘April is the cruellest month’. Had he been Maltese, he may well have changed the month to ‘August’.

In Malta, the hottest month of the year has always been something of a double-edged sword. Traditionally, it is a month reserved for holidays – a time of year when most people take a vacation from work, normally to coincide with the Santa Marija festa.

August is a time when most people ‘switch off’ from the usual routine of actively engaging in political controversies. Paradoxically, then, it is also the month when governments choose to unleash their most controversial decisions and initiatives: snug in the knowledge that the typical Maltese person would be too busy enjoying a break from it all to even notice… still less to protest or complain.

And while all governments tend to observe this pattern, the current Labour administration seems to have taken it to another level. This month we have seen several highly contentious issues leaked out into the public domain, under circumstances which strongly suggest that the government hoped no one would pay any attention.

Among these issues was the publication of the annual list of naturalised citizens – who include the global elite who are paying €650,000 for their visa-free access into the European Union – in the dead of the August heat. Not only was the timing significant, but the list itself was printed in such a way as to make it as difficult as possible to derive an accurate picture of the beneficiaries.

Since 2014, the Maltese government has been publishing these names in the Government Gazette in alphabetical order; but only according to the first name. That means that group applicants of the IIP do not appear under the same family name, but could be at either end of the list … if, for instance, the husband’s name starts with ‘A’ and the wife’s name starts with ‘Z’.

Apart from being specifically designed to be unreadable, it also prevents users from even transposing the names onto applications like Excel, so that they can group applicants according to the surname.

This would be reprehensible at the best of times. Given that the Golden Passport scheme has been questioned and criticised at the highest European levels, it also adds further to existing suspicions. The government has to date defended the scheme, on the basis that beneficiaries undergo a rigorous system of background checks. But if the screening process is so rigorous, and the scheme itself as innocuous as the government claims… why go to such lengths to conceal the identities of naturalised citizens?

Nor is this the only example. News of a police investigation into an alleged medical visa racket was likewise made public earlier this month. The investigation was sparked by Khaled Ben Nasan, a Libyan businessman turned whistleblower, who had allegedly served as middleman between OPM official Neville Gafa and Libyan patients. 

Nasan claims that Gafa had charged Libyans a €2,500 monthly fee to secure medical visas, treatment and accommodation in Malta – as well as an additional €100 charge – for over a year. According to Nasan, Gafa refused to reimburse €38,000 in payments for 42 medical visas that never materialized.

Neville Gafa, who was appointed on a ‘person of trust’ basis, denies the allegations. The police investigation likewise found no evidence to arrest him, leading the police to consider pressing charges against the whistleblower for filing a false report.

But additional evidence has since come to light: at best, calling into question the thoroughness of the initial investigation. As with the IIP list, one gets the impression that the authorities were keen to minimise – possibly even conceal – a potential scandal that could have embarrassing consequences for the present government. 

Elsewhere, similarly unpopular or contentious decisions were announced at a time when most of the country wouldn’t even be listening. Examples include the recent planning amnesty, whereby owners of partially or totally illegal buildings would be given a chance to sanction the illegalities against a fee. 

Coming hot on the heels of two highly controversial PA permits issued in the first week of August, this can only strengthen the perception of a government which is trying to introduce changes by stealth. Part of the effect of the timing is that people are less likely to attend consultation meetings, at a time when many would be abroad or indisposed. Objections or counter-arguments are thus automatically limited, making it easier to circumvent the traditional obstacles and push through divisive or unpopular measures.

Yet another example concerns the changes to TVM’s schedule, including the decision to axe two programmes from the cultural and current affairs schedule. One of those two programmes – Salvu Mallia’s ‘Madwarna’ – was hosted by an outspoken critic of the present government, and the other by a newspaper not known to support Labour. Such a decision is therefore automatically open to the charge of political motivation. 

Though unrelated, all these developments have one thing in common. They all seem to be part of a deliberate attempt to ensure that the citizenry is lulled into not debating controversial changes, so that the government benefits from Malta’s traditional quietism.