Laughing all the way to the Seabank...

The two parties have spent their energies assiduously weakening and sabotaging the system of checks and balances

Hotelier Silvio Debono speaking about his €300 million project
Hotelier Silvio Debono speaking about his €300 million project

There was an internet meme some time ago, posing the question: what would happen if Microsoft designed cars instead of computer operating systems?  

I can’t offhand remember all the very ingenious answers that were supplied beneath; but one of them stands out clear in my memory (probably because I had just experienced the same thing myself... only with a computer, not a car): 

“One day your car will suddenly break down, and all its mechanical and electrical components will cease to function. You will receive an error message saying ‘TOTAL CAR FAILURE’, without any form of additional explanation whatsoever. And for some reason, you will just accept this like it was the most natural thing in the world...”

It was the last part that struck a resonant chord with me personally. I, too, had adopted a philosophical air of resignation when confronted with the sudden (and apparently inexplicable) total failure of an operating system I had paid for like any other product. 

Had it really been ‘any other product’, I would have demanded to know exactly WHY it stopped working, and how (or if) it could be fixed. As things stood, however, I accepted without question the technician’s professional diagnosis that ‘these things happen with computers, you know’... and simply reformatted the bloody thing. 

But that meme also planted a seed of revolution in my mind. Until that point, I had never really asked myself why we tend to treat things like computers so differently from any other indispensable contraption. I’ve given the matter considerable thought since then, and come up with two possible answers. 

One, ‘things like computers’ are so unreasonably incomprehensible that probably not even the technician himself had any clue what went wrong. Two (much more importantly), even if the cause of the malfunction was painstakingly explained to me in a way even Salvu Mallia’s sausage dog would understand... there is simply no alternative but to keep on using the same product regardless. 

Yes, I am aware that alternative operating systems to Microsoft do exist... but the obvious contender (Apple) presents pretty much the same scenario anyway... and as for the open source varieties out there (Linux being the only one I can actually name)... apparently you need to be something of a technician yourself to actually use them. 

So it is ultimately the lack of choice that makes our collective acceptance of such an unacceptable situation so inevitable. We accept things from computers that we wouldn’t even dream of accepting from almost any other entity... for the simple reason that they, and not us, are now the real masters of this planet.

It is (almost) exactly the same with our country’s political operating system. This week, we all received a very clear message from the databanks of the central political computer. ‘Total system failure’, it said in a flashing box against a blue-screen backdrop. Not that we really needed the latest developments to know that, by the way... all the same, however, the fat is now sizzling so merrily away in the fire that absolutely nobody can carry on pretending not to see, hear or smell it anymore.

There are however a couple of slight differences from the Microsoft scenario. For starters, the situation facing Malta’s political operating system is a lot easier to understand. No technicians are even needed: the mechanics of the thing almost explains itself as it goes along.

We have two major political parties – by ‘major’, in this context, I mean with a real chance to actually get to be in government every once in a while – and to different degrees, both are up to their eyeballs in debt... with neither having any reliable source of revenue to speak of. 

On paper, of course, they’re both sitting on mini media empires, with a couple of travel agencies and around two million kazin bars thrown in for good measure. But owing to a mixture of mismanagement and spectacular overspending (on what, exactly, remains unclear), both Labour and the PN’s commercial enterprises are on the whole bankrupt. (Until recently, the PN in particular couldn’t afford to regularly pay its staff at Medialink. I imagine you can already see the relevance to what just happened, so I’ll stop there). 

Meanwhile, both parties have so far resisted publishing their accounts, despite a recent Party Financing Law which (again on paper) requires them to do precisely that. Or perhaps it’s because of the new law, as (being ultimately a case of the parties regulating themselves – something else we all ‘simply accept’) it allows about a tonne of discretion regarding when to actually register with the Party Financing Commission. Both Labour and PN have very generously given themselves protracted deadlines, which they have both had to extend. 

Needless to say, the upshot is that we have no idea of the actual financial state of the commercial enterprises registered under their names... we have no idea how much money either party receives from undisclosed sources: still less where all this money comes from, and how it was originally generated.

The revelations regarding the DB Group’s funding of the PN do not substantially add much to the little we already knew. But you don’t even need to factor them in; it is already visible at a glance that these two parties operate on an entirely different platform from any other non-political (but equally commercial) entity. 

I shudder to think what would happen if a private company – or even a private individual, for that matter – even so much as thought about pulling off the same stunt.  You try depositing hundreds of thousands of euros into your savings account – without giving any explanation of where they came from, or whether due tax was paid, etc. – and see what happens.

Yet when the Labour and Nationalist parties do exactly that, and a lot more beside... all of us – including the country’s law enforcement agencies and financial investigation units – just accept it like it was perfectly normal. Even if we ourselves, in the same situation, would all be in jail for money laundering, and our private companies liquidated for bankruptcy.

And that’s only the start. This collective, nationwide acceptance of such an appallingly unacceptable situation has come at a devastating cost: to the environment, to governance, to the rule of law. The fact that we don’t ‘know’ who is pumping the two parties with money (though we all do, really) also means that at any point, under any administration, we wouldn’t ‘know’ to whom the party in government is indebted, and under what sort of ‘arrangement’.  

I, for one, knew perfectly well that the PN accepted donations from all sorts of commercial interests; and it was obvious from the long-standing connections (Mario de Marco, Francis Zammit Dimech, etc) that Silvio Debono was one of them. That the arrangement extended to paying the salaries of two top PN officials was however news to me.

Not that it matters that much, but if true – strangely, it is still unconfirmed despite DB claiming to possess receipts – it would heavily underscore the central cause of the ‘Total System Failure’. From now on, it would no longer be a metaphor to talk about the two parties being on the private sector’s payroll. It would be an official fact.

Either way, however, the metaphor still stands. We now have very compelling evidence that the state has been hijacked by private business interests – not just Debono, of course – and that at least one of the two parties is in a sense little more than a private investment of the DB Group.

This must be added to the common knowledge that both parties – Labour is deluding itself if it thinks this only looks bad on the PN – are now so dependent on hand-outs from the private sector, that they can both equally be described as ‘ghost companies’ operating in the paid service of an unseen conglomerate of millionaires.

And of course, both parties have jealously defended a political operating system that restricts the actual share of political power in this country only to themselves. They have resisted reforming electoral law to open up to multi-party representation; and, much more seriously, both in their day chose to retain full control of the most sensitive nodes of non-political power – mainly the police – in defiance of the separation of powers.  

Likewise, both have spent most of their energies while in power assiduously weakening and sabotaging the rest of Malta’s system of checks (or should that be ‘cheques’?) and balances. The environment is the most pertinent example, because it is the one area that has suffered the most. The PN drew up local and national plans which it proceeded to shatter with impunity... Labour came in and finished the job: demolishing what was left of the Planning Authority, and making it no secret that it considers the island itself – rocks, trees, shrubs, lizards and all – to be its own private fiefdom, to be distributed among its paymasters as a return on their investment. 

And they call that an ‘unholy alliance’. Honestly, what an insult to all the genuine, hard-working forces of unholiness out there...   

But then again, it is an ‘unholy alliance’ we have repeatedly accepted for decades, and which we help to prop up ourselves with our vote every five years. Well, most of us anyway. And I don’t doubt for a second that most will continue to do so, even while the real rulers of Malta laugh all the way past them to the Seabank.

But I won’t. Not anymore... not until the entire operating system has been reformatted and debugged.

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