Wanted: a quantum leap forward

A public protest? Against corruption? Organised by the Nationalist Party? You may as well expect us to attend an anti-racism rally organised by the Ku Klux Klan. 

Some things in life are predictable. Among them, that any argument latched onto by the Nationalist Party (in its current, sorry state) will go on to be spectacularly lost in the bat of an eyelid.

So it was with Simon Busuttil’s great blustering “I’ll Huff and I’ll Puff” ultimatum over the weekend. Seriously, though. What an anti-climax. At least, the Big Bad Wolf blew down a couple of houses after all that huffing and puffing. Simon Busuttil? “I’ll give you 24 hours to shoulder political responsibility, and if you don’t… I’ll… I’ll… I’ll get really, really cross. So there, too!”

What was the point of keeping us waiting 24 hours just for that? If all he ever intended to do was gather the party faithful for another picnic in the sunshine, like he did at Zonqor Point last year… well, he could have spared us the apprehension and announced it straight away.

Then there’s the staggering irony staring us all in the face: an irony so offensively gargantuan that it can clearly be seen from the furthest reaches of the known Universe (though it still seems invisible to Busuttil himself). A public protest? Against corruption? Organised by the Nationalist Party? I mean, come on. You may as well expect us to attend an anti-racism rally organised by the Ku Klux Klan. 

And who will address this protest, anyway? Ninu Zammit, to berate Konrad Mizzi for holding undeclared companies in Panama (instead of undeclared bank accounts in the British Virgin Islands, in which case, everything would have been hunky dory)? Austin Gatt, tut-tut-tutting at the impropriety of a Cabinet minister who failed to include overseas interests in his annual parliamentary declaration of assets? Giovanna Debono, to stress the importance of maintaining a clear distance between family and political interests…? 

Or how about every member of the PN’s current parliamentary group – including Simon Busuttil himself – who defended the Gonzi administration tooth and nail before the last election… despite the fact that corruption, nepotism, bad governance and sheer incompetence had caused it to practically implode upon itself?

Sorry, but no. The Nationalist Party has no credibility to organise a protest against corruption…just as it had no credibility to organise a protest against the ODZ development at Zonqor Point, after having expanded the development boundaries by 16.6% in 2005/6. 

That protest was (unsurprisingly) a fiasco, and I suspect the outcome will be the same here, too. We have a genuine cause, embraced by honest people who are truly sick and tired of the hypocrisy and grime that continues to leak from the political establishment at all levels…that will now be hijacked by the very last people who should be talking about corruption in this county. People who are rumoured to be scrambling to hide their own undeclared assets further even as we speak... to the extent that (according to our sister paper Illum, last Sunday) they have even asked Busuttil to ‘go easy’ on Mizzi, for fear of getting caught in the crossfire.

The sheer weakness of Busuttil’s response seems to heavily underscore the plausibility of that scenario. “I’ll huff and I’ll puff… but I won’t blow your house down, because mine might come crashing down with it, too…”

So we’ll have a nice little picnic instead, while the good weather lasts. And what, in any case, does Busuttil hope this protest of his will achieve? The only possible effect I can anticipate is the worst one imaginable, under the circumstances. A return to the trenches, to carry on fighting a war of attrition that has clearly not done this country one iota of good in the past 40 years.

I, for one, will not set foot in those trenches. If this is going to turn into a battle to elect one rotten party at the expense of another – without any guarantees that a Nationalist government would be any different under Busuttil as prime minister – then quite frankly it will not be worth the fighting.

After all, you don’t take off a dirty set of underwear, just to replace it with another, equally dirty set of underwear. You either invest in a washing machine, buy a bottle of Dixan, and scrub the goddamn shit off once and for all… or you spend the rest of your life wearing a kilt. 

This brings me to what I actually expected Busuttil to come up with, after making the entire country hold its breath for 24 hours. We can all see the filth and the grime with our own eyes. We can all see that electing Labour, after 25 years of Nationalist mediocrity, just wasn’t even remotely close to a long-term solution to these endemic problems that have crippled us for so long. 

What we can’t see – because it just isn’t there – is a genuine commitment to clean up the mess. Where is the washing machine that will clean it all up? Where are the proposals for a genuine reform of Malta’s entire approach to transparency and accountability? 

And no, I don’t mean a bundle of ‘good governance’ proposals that – surprise, surprise – hinge on the election of the Nationalist Party to ever become a reality (though experience strongly suggests it won’t be enacted even then… like the electoral reform, the justice reform, the police procedural reforms, were all promised by the PN but never delivered).

What I expected to come of all this huffing and puffing was a programme of reform that would actually strengthen the (seemingly non-existent) independent governance watchdogs in this country… and, if necessary, set up new ones: for instance, along the lines of the system of ‘Inspectors General’ in the USA… who are empowered to “require by subpoena the production of all information, documents, reports, answers, records, accounts, papers, and other data in any medium (including electronically stored information, as well as any tangible thing) and documentary evidence… from Federal agencies.”

As far as I can see, there is no equivalent structure that can legally force a Cabinet Minister to divulge such information on pain of criminal prosecution. Why not, if withholding such information is illegal?

Meanwhile, what structures do exist seem to all be at the beck and call of the government of the day. Why, for instance, do we never see or hear of the Malta Police Force – so quick on the ball, when it comes to arresting teenagers for smoking pot – investigating politicians and public officials for white-collar crime? 

Why does Konrad Mizzi have to ask the National Audit Office to investigate his assets – a gimmick if there ever was one, as the NAO has no power to extract information from the Panamanian authorities – when all it took for details to emerge on the social media was a computer with an internet connection? 

Such investigations should be a regular, routine process going on continually in the background… like the anti-virus software on your computer. In Malta, however, there is no equivalent to a permanent anti-virus programme. We are riddled with viruses at all levels, yet still the financial/criminal investigation authorities only ever kick into action when it is manifestly too late… and even then, only when a Cabinet minister holds their hand.

What we need, in a nutshell, is a quantum leap forward in matters of accountability and governance. Labour has proved it is incapable and unwilling to make that leap; the PN claims it is willing but just passed up an opportunity to actually make a difference.

The answer to all the above questions, therefore, is as obvious and predictable as Busuttil’s damp squib last Monday. Neither the Nationalist nor the Labour Party actually wants to clean up the mess; all they really want is to be the only ones to reap the benefits.