A tradition of petty corruption

The Maltese were taught it was a sin to be violent with and steal from one’s neighbour, or have extra-marital sex. In their eyes, however, cheating the system that protects the common good has never been a sin

Many years ago, I was pilloried by the Labour press because I described a case of a motoring school paying to get driving lessons for its students as ‘petty corruption’. The case happened under a PN government and therefore the then-hypocritically ‘pious’ Labour press was scandalised by what I had written, spinning my words to mean that petty corruption does not matter – which I certainly had neither said, nor intended to imply.

The reaction of the general public intrigued me. It was not considered serious and even deemed acceptable that people pay a few Maltese liri to obtain an undeserved driving licence. The efforts of the Labour press to inflate the incident into a very big scandal were not successful. Apparently, many looked at that sort of corruption with a gracious and lenient eye!

I recalled the incident when last Monday I read in The Times that hundreds of traffic fines had been cancelled from the LESA (Local Enforcement Systems Agency) system. According to the report, politicians, their aides, business-people and former top LESA officials were the beneficiaries while the rest of the population had no access to the ‘system’ which meant that traffic tickets were somehow ‘cancelled’, ‘withdrawn’ or ‘not guilty’.

One particular vehicle was ‘forgiven’ about 200 contraventions.

The report gave the impression that this was the doing of one man putting a spanner in the works, and that this particular employee was facing disciplinary proceedings.

The reaction of the man in the street was not positive – but the true sentiment implied that people were bothered not by the abuse itself but by the fact that they had to pay their traffic fines as they could not avoid paying them, while a select few had the means to do otherwise.

Rather than looking at it as corruption, many Maltese strongly feel that access to this sort of ‘help’ should be universal and not restricted to the few. Otherwise it is apartheid - and that’s a bad thing!

Petty corruption is OK, as long as it is possible by all and sundry. The problem is the ‘preferenzi’ – the way that it is restricted to a select group.

Former Labour PM Alfred Sant said in a recent interview that we live through a system of ‘friends of friends’. He boasted that in the 30 to 40 years he has been in politics, he has been preaching about the ‘friends of friends’ phenomenon, explaining “it’s a Gonzi problem, it’s a Joseph Muscat problem, a Mintoff problem, a Fenech Adami problem…” He now admits that this is not just a PN problem, as he always had projected it in the past. It is a national trait. And he actually lost the battle to overturn this trait.

Nor is it limited to Malta. It is clear and obvious – and practically acceptable – in all Mediterranean countries, while it is frowned upon in Nordic countries where it still happens in surreptitious and subtle ways.

In this sense, the traffic fine system scandal is an interesting development.

When Austin Gatt removed petty traffic fines from being totally dependent on the police, his ministry planned a new system that was to be run by the local councils. The new system was tamper-proof. Once a booking was registered in the system, it could not be removed or ‘put to sleep’.

The only way one could avoid paying the fine was for the relative Tribunal to give a not-guilty verdict or for the Petitions Board to accept a reasonable explanation or circumstances that justified pardoning the fine. No one could breach the system and hide the ticket. Austin Gatt got no kudos for this – again a reflection on the Maltese attitude to petty corruption.

This was changed by the first Muscat Labour administration with the system being altered to be run by one entity – LESA – rather than the different local councils. The PN has accused the government that the new system was not as tight and secure as the previous one it replaced and such abuses – as were reported – became possible.

The real problem is the lack of ethos in Maltese society that would effectively stamp out this trait in the Maltese character.

The Maltese were taught it was a sin to be violent with and steal from one’s neighbour, or have extra-marital sex. In their eyes, however, cheating the system that protects the common good has never been a sin.

End of the USSR

Thirty years ago, on 08 December 1991, the leaders of the Russian Soviet Social Republic, the Byelorussian Soviet Social Republic and the Ukrainian Soviet Social Republic signed an agreement on the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The USSR officially ceased to exist, and was replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States.

On December 25, 1991, the Soviet hammer and sickle flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin, to be replaced by the Russian tricolor. Earlier in the day, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned his post as president of the Soviet Union, leaving Boris Yeltsin as president of the new independent Russian state.

Conditions in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union had changed rapidly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

US President George Bush met with Gorbachev in Malta in early December 1989.

They laid the groundwork for finalising START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) negotiations and discussed the rapid changes in Eastern Europe. Bush encouraged Gorbachev’s reform efforts, hoping that the Soviet leader would succeed in shifting the USSR toward a democratic system and a market-oriented economy.

Gorbachev’s decision to allow elections in May 1990 with a multi-party system and create a presidency for the Soviet Union began a slow process of democratisation that eventually destabilised communist control and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The unsuccessful August 1991 coup against Gorbachev sealed the fate of the Soviet Union. Planned by hard-line Communists, the coup diminished Gorbachev’s power and weakened his position while propelling Yeltsin and the democratic forces to the forefront of Soviet and Russian politics.

All this happened, without a shot being fired!