It’s time for Labour to talk about greedy fuckers like Keith

Was 2013’s Taghna Lkoll entirely in bad faith? And can Labour have a big reckoning on the Muscat years? 10 things going through my mind after the events of Saturday, 20 March

Keith Schembri leaving the courthouse after testifying in the public inquiry probing the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Keith Schembri leaving the courthouse after testifying in the public inquiry probing the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

1. Was 2013’s Taghna Lkoll entirely in bad faith? 

The charges against Keith Schembri are a red alert on the modus operandi he introduced to Castille. If Schembri devised a network of offshore companies to channel kickbacks on business deals to keep partners happy, he was willing to do it even inside government. That is what the Panama Papers was all about, with the 17 Black link to Tumas and Electrogas magnate Yorgen Fenech further imperilling the good will invested in the Labour project. How many other government decisions are compromised by this way of doing things? And did Joseph Muscat leave Schembri to get along with his business while he stewarded the rest of the country’s affairs? 

We are now left wondering as to what kind of bad faith propelled the so called “moviment”. Nobody had any doubts as to the kind of clever ploy it served in the democratic marketplace of electioneering. But a lot of good will on the promises of meritocracy, social justice and civil liberties, was manipulated to hide the ulterior interests of Keith Schembri. ‘Malta Tagħna Lkoll’ is starting to look like one of those ‘junk bond’ CDOs in The Big Short: a crafty plan for enrichment enveloped in the most aspirational of political campaigns ever. 

1 January 2013, the disruptive election campaign
1 January 2013, the disruptive election campaign

2. Again, Malta keeps suffering from a lack of rigorous checks and balances and autonomous regulators 

Like Alfred Sant was quick to point out, Labour’s elite and the new middle class that kicked against the Nationalist establishment was also co-opted in a certain traditional structure of Maltese politics. The ‘friends of friends’ network was alive and kicking well before, but also in the Muscat administration. But it has been so ever since Independence. Do we accept that this is a natural state of affairs in a small Mediterranean society like ours, or do we keep working to enforce the system of checks and balances that can reduce discrimination, inequality and injustice? The choice is pretty clear. 

3. Keith Schembri is no working-class hero. He is a greedy fucker 

Let’s not ignore class in this whole story. Labour bought into the traditional structures of powers. You can see it in the likes of Schembri and all the people who cosied up to millionaire Yorgen Fenech. When Schembri claims the charges of money laundering and corruption – read, greed – are part of a campaign that victimises him as a Bormla lad done-good-for-himself being hunted down by the “establishment”, he reads from a playbook that requires Labour followers (historically downtrodden by elites) to be seduced by the power of the party’s leaders and have no form of consciousness on where the real power lies. 

That is what allows corporate types inside the party machinery to have first dibs on the wealth and largesse of the State: liberalised services, national assets, land and property, and consultancies. The rest get to enjoy decent social welfare, government bonuses and entertaining Sunday sermons destroying the ‘opposition’. 

‘They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool’
‘They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool’

4. Labour must have a big reckoning on the Muscat years 

Labour needs to have its own big intervention. This is political PTSD that cannot be ignored by (1) toasting the unprecedented economic growth from Muscat’s neoliberalism (2) the emancipatory social programmes (3) the civil liberties revolution. The alleged corruption represented by Panama, 17 Black, and the €200 million LNG plant deal that was Labour’s chief policy plank in the 2013 election, has Keith Schembri at its heart. 

You cannot talk about Labour’s success with Muscat and Schembri, without talking about the suspected corruption they harboured while in power. Labour must discuss “the moral question” as elaborated upon by the great Enrico Berlinguer, who said that morality in civic and political life was not simply resolved by prosecuting the thieves but by fighting the political conditions that allow the germination of this immorality and criminality (a rejoinder to no. 2 above). 

5. Sure Daphne was ‘problematic’ but she is not the one who sought power to enrich herself, right? 

Daphne was killed by the murderous logic of unbridled greed and capitalist power. From what we know today, this was a political murder – the work of the mafia as we know it. So was Daphne right, all along? Yes, in 2016, the Panama Papers was already the culmination of Schembri’s corruption but this did not go investigated by a police force that was willing to cooperate with the overweening power of the Muscat administration. But there were many who could not believe the sheer bad faith of Labour’s leaders – so soon after the 2013 victory. 

But the accuser was Daphne “the Nationalist”, whose historically anti-Labour (party, voter, class) agenda made her part and parcel of Malta’s toxic political dichotomy. We may concede this as a partly ‘problematic’ aspect in the entire story, but it was Daphne, a Maltese citizen, who was murdered; it was not Daphne who sought political office to enrich herself. 

So even in the highly-charged partisanship of Maltese politics, we must also challenge our perception of Caruana Galizia and her work, at least by viewing the Panama Papers as well as Malta’s role in international tax avoidance, as a regime that enables white-collar criminals, like (allegedly) Schembri and his finance rogues. 

6. Back to class: STFU with all this bogan bullshit 

Let’s bring class back into the equation. It is often said that Caruana Galizia was disliked much as she was revered by fans. To critics, she represented her class’s prejudices towards the great unwashed, with the unkind manner in which she faulted appearance, speech, “lack of breeding”... ‘bogans’, as she enjoyed taunting Labourites. Should this be the face of the fight against the mafia, against corruption, the fight for justice? 

If we turn this fight into a Victorian-style moralism that berates the lower classes, the people whose main priority is eking out a decent living, or that derides anyone who did not vote for the PN in 2017 as ‘amoral familialists’ (as if voting for the Nationalists automatically makes one a moral communitarian), we will be back to square one. Talk on good governance, or “the moral question”, will be turned into identity politics for the middle-class, the Nationalist right and its entitled backers, instead of a civic Maltese ambition shared by all, from ethically-minded business people to the working class, immigrants and new citizens. 

A Labour Party supporter in Paola, 6 June 2018. Photo: James Bianchi
A Labour Party supporter in Paola, 6 June 2018. Photo: James Bianchi

7. People reached boiling point and are justifiably pleased at seeing Keith in Corradino. But the wheels of justice must work too. Then again... thanks for nothing 

I can understand the schadenfreude at seeing Keith Schembri spending some quiet-time in Corradino. We allowed this to reach boiling point when the Maltese police force refused to investigate the Panama Papers in full in 2016. To see the mighty fall in this way, is quite something to behold. 

But the house was burning down before, yet the firemen only turned up now when the whole place has been turned to cinders. Don’t ignore the fact that a Labour-appointed magistrate ignored the precedent of countless people being granted bail on money laundering and corruption offences: we still need justice to have the faith of everyone, Labourites included, and not just playing it for the political theatre. 

So, sure this looks normal... investigations, prosecutions... and, while it happens under a new Labour administration, Robert Abela needs to treat the moment with humility and self-awareness. But let’s not use it to whip the infidels. 

Keith Schembri (centre), the former chief of staff to prime minister Joseph Muscat, being driven to prison after a magistrate denied bail. Along with 10 others he was charged with corruption, fraud and money laundering.
Keith Schembri (centre), the former chief of staff to prime minister Joseph Muscat, being driven to prison after a magistrate denied bail. Along with 10 others he was charged with corruption, fraud and money laundering.

8. Coming to think of it, the power of business elites is a PN problem too 

To simply blame political corruption on a mass of voters accused of being “ignorant”, “lacking in critical thinking”, or easily diverted by populist cant and the baubles of benefits and cash-back grants, ignores the power of business elites: the long arms of corporate interests which have long captured both parties, even those who would mercifully think of themselves as moral sorts. 

Even the Nationalist Party has its own PTSD to attend to. People’s democratic choices of government are not based solely on questions of moralistic, good-versus-evil notions (that alone could not justify Labour’s 38,0000-vote majority in 2017). Was then the same malady of ‘amoralism’ responsible for propping up various PN administrations despite allegations of corruption? Probably not. People just vote those who make their lives better. 

  9. And you know what else I think... 

We are at the tail-end of some big historical changes in Maltese society. Mintoffianism broke a lot of the traditional elites’ powers (the church, the aristocracy of bankers, lawyers and other high-ranking civil servants) but the violence and thuggery of the 1980s, the sharp edges of balancing the economy against a high import bill, and failed experiments in education (church schools and university courses) has left some scar tissue. 

The same can be said of the 1960s interdiction by the Church, to punish Labour voters with the threat of mortal sin, and ultimately the punishment of hell. 

This divide has a way of perpetuating itself even as new elites get created. You end up with Nationalist voters thinking Labour is ‘morally inferior’, and Labour yuppies getting their own back with their own generation of little rich fuckers. It’s a kind of partisanship that manages to transcend class division, even obscure it (‘Keith’s a capitalist fucker but at least he’s our fucker...’). 

But what happens at election time? The poachers turn to gamekeepers, and as they learn what kind of weak structures underpin Maltese governance, they become the new elites (again, the antidote is to rein in these elites with strong rules and civic awareness). 

While the silly old elites laugh at the gauche, colour-coded pocket squares and the accented English of the nouveau riche (as if that is even important in a country where less than 15% speak it as a main language), the new elite keeps yapping at them with an anti-establishment shtick. 

But what are common citizens getting? Did we get higher wages, open spaces, safer neighbourhoods, or did we lose our countryside, saw greater xenophobia and hate crime, and higher rents...? 

10. You might as well listen to Aleks Farrugia talking sense here...