Never been a better time than right now

Having howled for years about the secrecy of the Gonzi administration with regard to public contracts, the present government has doggedly refused to publish its own contracts for the construction of a new power station

That, as far as I recall, is a lyric from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Give It Away’, from the utterly magnificent album BloodSugarSexMagic (1991). 

It’s also a pretty good reminder that excuses such as ‘I should have reacted sooner’ – which the Prime Minister actually had the nerve to say at the weekend – do not exactly cut the mustard at times like this. Should have reacted sooner? Damn right, he should. But as things stand, I am unaware that Joseph Muscat actually reacted at all. 

OK, I suppose it depends what you mean by ‘react’. The word has specific applications in the field of chemistry, for instance. I imagine several such ‘reactions’ took place behind closed doors… volatile explosions of temper, and so on and so forth.

But the sort of ‘reaction’ people out here actually expected was considerably different. I find it odd that this even needs to be repeated, but evidently, it does: Muscat’s government was elected on the promise of a cleaner way of doing politics than we were used to under the previous administration. Yes, yes, I know the Nationalists don’t like being reminded of this (and quite frankly I don’t give a toss)… but they were equally filthy-dirty in their time, and there were several hidden overseas accounts to prove it, too. Labour was in fact elected more on the strength of Nationalist corruption, than for any merit of its own.

But these are points I’ve already made in previous articles, and in any case… the issue now is the failure of the government to actually live up to those promises. Remember? Transparency, meritocracy, accountability: the three magic words that just didn’t materialise after the March 2013 change of government?

Let’s take them one by one: Transparency.

Having howled for years about the secrecy of the Gonzi administration with regard to public contracts, the present government has doggedly refused to publish its own contracts for the construction of a new power station and the supply of gas to power it… and, well, it’s becoming rather obvious why, too.  

Meritocracy? Muscat’s Cabinet approved a number of new magistrates and judges in the last three years. One of the judges was its own former MP, Wenzu Mintoff, also a long-time editor of the Labour Party’s newspaper. Of the new magistrates, one was former Labour Party international secretary Joe Mifsud, who was for years an outspoken critic of the Nationalist government as a Super One journalist. 

Then there was the most blatant case of all: Caroline Farrugia Frendo, who just so happens to be the daughter of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Anglu Farrugia… who was also a former Labour Party deputy leader. This, it seems, is her only qualification for the role. It certainly can’t be her age (30) or long years of practice at the bar (in fact, she barely scrapes through the minimum seven years, hardly any of which were spent in court).

In all honesty, I don’t think I have ever seen a more in-your-face example of (literal) nepotism in my life… and that is really saying something. In any case: one politically connected appointment, I’d more or less understand. Two is pushing it slightly. But three in three years? That’s rubbing our noses in it. That’s the equivalent of a: “Nyah-nya-nya-nyah! You fell for it, suckers!”

This leaves us with accountability, which is what the present controversy is all about. The energy minister, together with the prime minister’s chief of staff, has been discovered having an overseas trust that seems designed to keep amounts of money (and even more so, the money’s provenance) hidden from view. To call that ‘suspicious’ would be to use the word ‘naked’ to describe that Asian jogger on the Sliema seafront the other morning. It is sort of unnecessary.

Mizzi’s reaction? ‘I will not resign’ (front page headline the following day, in fact). The Prime Minister’s reaction? So far, nothing… other than to tell us he ‘should have reacted sooner’.

Not good enough, I’m afraid. This issue has seriously dented the government’s credibility, and every day that goes by without acknowledging this reality can only increase the damage. All along, there is a very clear, very obvious course of action to take. If Mizzi and Schembri will not resign of their own accord – and they evidently won’t – then they should be sacked. Simple as that, really. 

Meanwhile, it is not just Muscat’s government that has been kind of slow to react. At last Sunday’s mass meeting organised by the Nationalist Party, Simon Busuttil called for a police investigation into all contracts signed by Konrad Mizzi, in the light of evidence pointing towards arcane sources of funding, etc.

Once again (for the umpteenth time) I find it bewildering that the Opposition leader – or anyone else for that matter – should have to even make a statement like that. It should go without saying that the police should investigate contracts when the minister who signed them was discovered to have secret overseas trusts involving ‘shell companies’ in places like Panama. The whole reason why ‘Panamagate’ is scandalous is precisely because it raised questions regarding how the money invested in this trust was made in the first place, and whether due tax was paid on it.

Last I looked, that is what the Police Force actually exists for: to investigate the possibility that a crime may have taken place, when suspicions are raised in public. So what is the Police Commissioner waiting for? Someone to hold his hand? 

Let’s imagine it was a different type of crime we were talking about. A burglar breaks into your home in the middle of the night. You call the police. “Sorry, sir (or madam), but without the go ahead of a high-ranking politician, we are powerless to take any action.” 

Of course it doesn’t actually happen that way in that kind of scenario. The excuse is usually different: “Sorry, sir (or madam) but I’m all on my own at the station and can’t leave”. The other excuse is only ever used when the possible crime involves government ministers or officials enjoying the trust of the government. 

What that in turn suggests is that the Malta Police Force is not (as it should be) independent of government. Added to the judiciary scenario outlined above – whereby judges and magistrates are handpicked by the government of the day, largely on their strength of their connections to the same government – it also means we have a full-blown institutional crisis on our hands that goes way, WAY beyond Panamagate.

Again, this is hardly anything new… I’ve been pointing out similar scenarios over (roughly) the last 20 years. It is also what the Nationalists were elected to sort out in 1987, but never did. And, oh, look: history repeated itself, in that this government was also elected precisely on the promise of an administrative reform that would iron out all these bizarre shortcomings once and for all. And once again, we were duped.

Nor is it just the police that seem permanently reluctant to ever investigate possible crimes committed by government officials. As far as I am aware, Malta also runs something called a Tax Compliance Unit… which tends to come down rather heavily on lesser mortals who cannot give a clear account of every penny they deposit in local bank accounts. As things stand, we still have no idea of the extent of the funds/assets invested in this overseas trust (other than Mizzi’s own declarations, which – at this stage – are clearly insufficient). Shouldn’t this be a job for the Tax Compliance Unit? Or does tax compliance mean something different, when the taxes are owed by politicians?

In any case: one step at a time. The first and most obvious step is to immediately remove Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri from their positions. The second step is to launch a goddamn serious national discussion on how to strengthen institutions that are clearly dysfunctional (and, if necessary, create new ones), in order to introduce the necessary safeguards that would really guarantee transparency, meritocracy and accountability once and for all.

For both those steps, the Chili’s advice is still pertinent: ‘Never been a better time than right now’.

More in Blogs