Harry Potter and the ‘ultimate judgment’

I won’t resuscitate all the reasons the Nationalist Party lost that election: but the two migrant deaths in question could not have been one of them, unless by virtue of some form of time-reversal incantation.

Failure in the detention regime, which under Carm Mifsud Bonnici had been relegated to the lowest rung of political priorities
Failure in the detention regime, which under Carm Mifsud Bonnici had been relegated to the lowest rung of political priorities

I’ve often wondered why so many people end up going into politics. Well, this week I got a very good indication of what the pull-factor really is. Never mind power, or any of the other usual suspects (you know, free coffee at coffee-mornings, the occasional hand-crafted clock here and there… that sort of thing). Oh no, they’re in it for the magic and mysticism. It’s not political power they crave; it’s the thrill of enchantment and the irresistible allure of the arcane arts.

Take the Opposition leader’s recent statements on the subject of political responsibility, for instance… about how the Nationalist government ‘paid the price’ for the deaths of two migrants in detention simply by ‘losing an election’.

Wow, that’s a pretty good bargain for a couple of human deaths, you know. I imagine you’re doing your Christmas shopping at Lidl, too... 

But apart from what it tells us about the value of human life on the political market these days, Busuttil’s words also have a certain magical ring to them. It’s almost like a spell he must have picked up in his younger days at the Brussels school of witchcraft and wizardry. 

Two men dead, as a direct result of the Nationalist government’s policies; but that’s OK, because the same Nationalist government went on to lose the 2013 election. And… ‘Evanesco Culpa!’ That’s it. Responsibility shouldered; no other atonement necessary. The entire issue is wrapped up in an invisibility cloak, never to be seen again. 

Meanwhile, in case you think I’m making this up – for I concede that it does sound kind of incredible – kindly note that those were his very words. Here is the verbatim quote:

“With all due respect,” Busuttil told an inquiring journalist at a press conference, “you seem to be forgetting that there was an election since that time. The people passed the ultimate judgment… which probably included people who [were influenced by] what happened, the deaths of two immigrants… which I in no way want to minimise or reduce the gravity of the situation like that… God forbid. God forbid… but the people passed judgement in a general election; and its judgment was, ‘listen, you lot go into Opposition, and the Labour Party goes into government.’ So judgment was passed; political responsibility was shouldered... we paid the price…”  

Hmm. For some reason I am also reminded of Lady Macbeth’s line: “A little water clears us of the deed. How easy ‘tis then!”

Ah yes, how easy. You just lose an election that was fought on around a million other issues – every issue, in fact, except for those two deaths (the report wasn’t actually published until last week, remember?)… and automatically, your entire slate is wiped clean of any previous blot or stain. Back to being all as squeaky spotless as George ‘Mastro Lindo’ Pullicino: untouched and unaffected by all the trappings of a political power your party had wielded for 25 years. 

So like I said, they must be in it for the magic. Let’s face it: it must be fun to be able to just automatically absolve yourself of anything with a few words like that. And it’s an ability only politicians seem to possess.

Does the same sort of magical ‘return to innocence’ happen in any other sphere of life, I wonder? Do prostitutes instantly go back to being virgins the moment they retire? No, I didn’t think so either. But then again, they’re prostitutes, not politicians. They don’t get to actually live in their own magical fantasy universes. 

But there is also a small snag with spells of illusion: they’re sort of see-through. The ‘price was paid’, yes… but what Busuttil omitted to mention was that he also unilaterally fixed that price on his own terms and conditions, and he also chose terms and conditions which are kind of favourable to his own cause. 

Others may have a problem with the rate of exchange, however. I happen to think he is setting the bar for political responsibility far too low.

Nor is he correct on a number of points. I won’t resuscitate all the reasons the Nationalist Party lost that election: but the two migrant deaths in question could not have been one of them, unless by virtue of some form of time-reversal incantation. It was not even known back then that the inquiry had been concluded, still less handed in and not published. 

In more general terms, ‘ill-treatment of migrants’ might admittedly have been a concern to some voters; but it would have swayed only a handful of votes here and there. What we saw in March 2013 was a groundswell migration of votes on an infinitely broader level than that. I am sure Busuttil is well aware of all this: it was his specific job, as deputy PN leader, to stem the haemorrhage.

But the report revealed much more than the circumstances of two isolated incidents and 2012-2. It also revealed shocking, disturbing patterns of abuse that had evolved in step with the government’s loss of control of detention centres over a span of several years. And here is why I think Busuttil is indeed lowering the price that he claims to have paid; and in so doing, “reducing the gravity of the situation”.

On top of the deaths of Mamadou Kamara and Infeane Nwokowye, there is also the small matter of the colossal systemic failure in Malta’s entire detention regime… which, under former Home Affairs minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici, had been relegated to the lowest rung on the ladder of political priorities. Detention duty was in fact treated as a punishment for unruly AFM soldiers, with the result that the heavily overpopulated detention camps of Safi and Hal Far were manned by people described in the same report as ‘the worst of the worst’. Among the problems identified was abuse of vulnerable female detainees by an AFM sergeant described as a ‘sexual predator’. There are also indications in the report that this behaviour may have been more widespread.

We also know from separate sources that the same unwholesome situation resulted in an epidemic of mental health disorders and suicide attempts among detainees: some 40% of those admitted to Mt Carmel Hospital from detention had either already attempted suicide in the detention centre, or would attempt to take their own life in hospital.

None of this could have come as a surprise to government by the time the Valenzia inquiry report was handed to the Home Affairs Ministry in 2012. The report itself reveals how Lt Col Brian Gatt, former Detention Services head, had informed the ministry of such shortcomings long before. Elsewhere, NGOs (the only other entities with access to some parts of the camps) had likewise raised the alarm over suspected abuse of vulnerable detainees for years.

And all along the ministry did nothing at all, until it was forced to take action by the conclusions of the above-mentioned report… by which time two people had already died, and an unknown quantity of detained women had already been abused. 

This all boils down to a question of chaotic mismanagement, of the kind that ‘good governance’ (‘safe pair of hands’, remember?) is supposed to preclude. And this in turn broadens the definition of ‘political responsibility’ slightly. 

The question is no longer: how was political responsibility shouldered for the contents of that report? It is now: why should the electorate trust the same party with the reins of government once more, when it is still ducking responsibility for all that mess today?

For in all places except for fantasylands, the fact remains that losing an election is not tantamount to shouldering political responsibility at all. Otherwise: well, what would have happened had the Nationalists won the election in March 2013? Would it have published the report that prompted the question of ‘political responsibility’ in the first place? Or would it just have discreetly carried on with business as usual?

Even in the extremely unlikely chance that it went for option A: what sort of political responsibility would there have been left to shoulder, anyway? They’d have won the election: and if losing an election ‘passes judgment’ on all matters, including issues voters didn’t even know about… then surely winning an election would automatically vindicate your every position on absolutely everything. And what is that, if not a classic case of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’? 

So yes, I suppose I can see the attraction of living in a fantasy world instead of just dreaming of one. But in the other world the rest of us call home, things do not really work that way. 

In 1981, another man – Nardu Debono – also died in suspicious circumstances while in police custody. Was political responsibility shouldered for that incident when the Labour government lost in 1987? Or subsequently in 1992? Or any election since?

Not quite. As I recall the death of Debono was one of several incidents from that era that would go on playing its part in every Nationalist election campaign until fairly recently… no matter how many elections the Labour Party lost in the meantime. For remember: it’s Busuttil’s fantasyland we’re visiting, so we have to play by his rules. If it’s a blessing for the PN, the same thing must also work as a curse for Labour.

Well, by Busuttil’s logic, the Labour Party has been absolved of all its past misdemeanours not once, not twice… but no fewer than six times in the last 23 years. The ‘ultimate judgment’ was passed… and re-passed… and re-passed… and re-passed… so many times that it has now been reduced to a soggy, mushy puree. 

However, we don’t all use that logic. Busuttil is himself usually the first to ditch it, when dealing with Labour’s entire graveyard of skeletons in the closet. And well he should: because there is always something slightly dangerous about tampering with magic spells. They have a nasty tendency to rebound on the user (ask Hermione Granger for further details).

As it happens, this one doesn’t work out too well for Busuttil in the long run. If losing the March 2013 election was a political judgement by the electorate for the outgoing government’s failures… how does he account for the fact that he now leads the party, when he had also fronted the losing campaign? By ‘passing the ultimate judgment’ on the PN, didn’t the electorate also pass ‘the ultimate judgement’ on the PN’s leadership? And didn’t that also include Simon Busuttil, as deputy leader and chief party spokesperson?

I don’t know. Something tells me he might need to go back to Hogwarts to brush up on a few of the basics…

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