Politics at the mercy of hidden interests | Erica Schembri

In moving forward, the political parties should also realise that this is an opportunity to no longer be beholden to corrupt businessmen

Local scandals have a common cause at their heart – government projects sacrifice the common good to enrich the select few. This cabal contains politicians, of course, but it would be incomplete without a core of unethical businessmen driving it forward.

Politics in Malta is entirely at the mercy of hidden interests who exploit the system, and when the system inconveniences them, they seek to have the rules changed or twisted. Often the rules can simply be ignored entirely. Until this rot at the core of Maltese democracy is addressed, the symptoms will keep returning. To stop this endless cycle of exploitation, we need an urgent reform of party financing legislation.

It is common knowledge that businesspeople and developers make significant donations to political parties. Often it is the parties who go begging for these handouts in the first place. Mark Anthony Sammut admitted as much in comments to the press on the 7 September, and went further, saying that after making donations to the Nationalist Party, DB Group had tried to “use those donations to silence the party”.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, and these seeming charitable souls expect a return on their investment. In August, it was revealed that Yorgen Fenech had offered Edward Zammit Lewis employment opportunities for his supporters with Tumas Group. The quid pro quo attitude appears all-pervasive in our political system. A similar story emerged from leaked Electrogas e-mails, which demonstrate how officials from Konrad Mizzi’s Ministry at the time sent CVs of preferred candidates to Yorgen Fenech’s private power station company, to exert influence on hiring procedures.

It is in this fashion that, public life becomes an auction house, where amongst other crimes, public land is put up for sale and where the country’s heritage and environment are erased in favour of the short-term profits of the few. As a result, quality of life declines, and the fact of this is covered up by greenwashing and marketing campaigns. How can Malta call itself free and fair when the rich are able to get whatever they want with the right price tag, at the expense of everyone else?

At present, the country’s Party Financing Act is not even functional. When the Nationalist Party was found to be in breach of party financing rules over DB group donations, they filed a Constitutional court case. The Nationalists won this case not because they were innocent, but because the Party Financing Act was written in an unconstitutional way. It was ruled that the Electoral Commission was acting as investigator, judge and jury. Too much power was being centralised into a single institution.

Since then, the Electoral Commission has been unable to act as a watchdog as the law regulating it is practically invalid.

When Arnold Cassola had requested that the Electoral Commission investigate Egrant, they stated that they were unable to do so because the Party Financing Act was still dormant, long after that ruling. Furthermore, the irony of its role as a watchdog is that the Electoral Commission consists of political appointees from the two major parties.

Therefore, one has a situation where the parties are essentially responsible for policing their own poor behaviour.

Alternatives to the sorry state of affairs in Malta do exist. European countries have strict party financing laws which may serve as an inspiration, such as Germany’s, which offers state financing of parties. In Malta’s case, the objective should be to eliminate legalised corruption. What is corruption, if not gaining a special advantage over other citizens with cash? Donations by businesses should be made illegal.

An alternative way to finance party activities is then a strict set of rules allowing state funding of political parties. The details, of course, must not only be discussed, but must afterwards ultimately be matched by the proper implementation of such rules.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party has so far proved resistant to considering this topic and others, including a discussion on party-owned media. This must surely be because at present, the Labour Party gains a far greater advantage from the status quo than the Nationalist Party. However, at the end of the day, a broken political system ultimately harms everybody, including the Labour Party, over the long term.

The irony is that should there ever be a change in government, then Labour might call for much needed reforms to level the playing field, only to find many roles reversed. At the end of the day, the real objective has to be to find out what will serve the common good, and to work with organisations like Moviment Graffitti to find true and lasting solutions for everyone. After all, it is not in the interests of the Labour Party to have its agenda dictated by corrupt businessmen. If politics becomes cleaner, then genuine politicians will be able to pursue the real reason they are in politics – public service.

However, it is about time that Malta had this discussion.

The problems at the root of our society will not be resolved otherwise, and we will merely be fighting the symptoms.

In moving forward, the political parties should also realise that this is an opportunity to no longer be beholden to corrupt businessmen. With party financing reform and a level playing field, politicians can focus on public service, instead of begging people without scruples for handouts, at the expense of the entire country.

Erica Schembri is a member of Moviment Graffitti