Patrimonialism and the moral high ground

It is disturbing that the Muscat administration seems to have already lost the moral strength to stand its ground on unjustified demands

The Prime Minister should avoid falling into  the temptation of acquiescing to unjustified demands  (Photo: Ray Attard)
The Prime Minister should avoid falling into the temptation of acquiescing to unjustified demands (Photo: Ray Attard)

The Labour government elected by a landslide is now well into its second year after spending a quarter of a century in the opposition where presumably its leaders had plenty of time to adjust to the legitimate desires of those who elect or bring down governments.

When in opposition, without the burden of government, it is relatively easy to promise heaven on earth to all sectors in society, but it is quite a different kettle of fish when governments have to decide between the conflicting desires of different sections of society. This is where the determination to hold on to the moral high ground becomes essential for a democratically elected government, with every administration having to be accountable and acting in full respect for the rule of law.

This task is not an easy one. It may at times be unpopular but it has to be pursued with constant determination. The very natural human propensity to favour family and friends constantly and persistently reasserts itself in every system of government all over the world. Francis Fukuyama, in his book ‘The Origins of Political Order’, refers to the system of political recruitment based on the two principles of kin selection and reciprocal altruism and explains that this is a form of patrimonialism. Getting votes for undeserved favours is the sort of reciprocal altruism that is the bane of our political system.

In such a system, organised groups entrench themselves over time and begin demanding privileges from the State. This happens more during periods of prolonged peace, stability and prosperity, such as that which our country has been enjoying in recent years. However, governments must avoid falling into the temptation of acquiescing to these demands: it is the duty of every government to resist this natural human desire if it is to retain the moral high ground and earn the respect of all, including those who did not support its assuming power with their vote.

It is indeed rather disturbing to notice that the present Joseph Muscat administration, elected with a historic landslide, seems to have already lost the moral strength and determination to stand its ground when faced with constant but unjustified demands, many of which have their origin in the ‘heaven on earth’ promises made before the election.

The first abdication of this administration from the moral high ground was probably when it accepted that cameras in taxis can be turned off as a result of some excuse regarding the way these cameras were ‘taxing’ car batteries. It is common knowledge that taxi drivers had been cheating and occasionally bullying their clients ever since the Royal Navy days. Yet, the message resulting from this ‘concession’ by the government was clear: it is all right to cheat.

The installation of electricity services in illegal and abusive so called ‘boathouses’ belonging to people who took over prime public land is another case: an illegal action by a number of citizens is indirectly condoned by the sanctioning of the use of state provided utilities. Once again, the message from our elected leaders is clear: it is no problem to cheat.

Another serious abdication was that on the issue regarding the threatened impeachment of Judge Farrugia Sacco. Like all organisations made up of human beings, our judiciary sometimes errs on the wrong side of prudence, and subsequently loses the respect that society is expected to give it. Irrespective of the fine legalities that were resorted to in this case, I am afraid that what happened led to the strengthening of the popular perception that a member of the judiciary with the right political contacts is immune from impeachment.

Other less important abdications from the moral high ground were the giving in to the desires of the ‘monti’ hawkers who wanted to be transferred to a prime site in Valletta and the bloating of public sector employment with superfluous ‘jobs for the boys’.

These were not one-off decisions. A careful assessment of the reasoning that led the government to arrive at them reveals a conscious official trend tantamount to the dereliction of the government’s duty to uphold the common good and the rule of law in order to appease minorities for vote catching purposes.

All this is much food for thought. Constant pressure from organised groups is to be expected throughout the entire legislature but my gut feeling is that this government is giving in to them too much and too fast. It still has three more years to go, not to mention the strong probability of another five-year term. It does not need to be so weak as to abandon the moral high ground so quickly. At this rate, it will soon be as self-indulgent as the outgoing PN administration, if not more. Comparisons are odious, but one must point out that the PN took a quarter of a century to get to that inevitable stage.

The results of the last election are there for all to see. This administration is still in time to make amends and react to the writing that is already clearly on the wall.

PN’s efforts to regain relevancy

The moral high ground figured in more than one way in Simon Busuttil’s speech at the end of the PN ‘national convention’ organised over the last weekend. He made no bones about his stance of being unwilling to make compromises with corruption or with chumocracy and clientelism; more so when undeserved and unjustified handouts are involved.

In other words, he is determined to ensure that a future PN government would resist falling into the trap of patrimonialism. Even so, he still does not have a tangible vision of a post-Muscat Malta.

The convention itself was the biggest endeavour that the PN has made in its efforts, since the last election, to become relevant to society. The party that lost the last election heavily because it was closed upon itself – refusing to hear what ordinary people were saying ‘out there’ – turned the tables and invited representatives of a cross-section of society so as to hear from them what is being said and felt outside its Pietà headquarters. I am sure that there were occasions when old party insiders winced; but then, this is a good sign because it is an indicator of Busuttil’s willingness to break new ground.

The PN’s road to rehabilitation and relevance is not an easy one. The convention was a good start. One hopes that this effort will not be undermined by those who cannot understand the need for the PN to reinvent itself.

More in Blogs