Cleaning the Augean stables

Simon Busuttil’s bravado knee-jerk reaction was simply that – bravado that solves nothing but exposes everything

Simon Busuttil announced, after he had some time to think, the setting up of a commission on party funding. It is by far too little too late
Simon Busuttil announced, after he had some time to think, the setting up of a commission on party funding. It is by far too little too late

Cleaning the Augean stables was a Herculean job. When Hercules was ordered to clean them, he knew this job would mean getting dirty and smelly, but sometimes even a hero has to do these things!

Apparently Simon Busuttil naively thought that he could avoid becoming dirty and smelly and clean the financial mess in which the Nationalist Party was wallowing when he took over the mantle of its leadership. This week’s astounding revelations mean that the Nationalist Party is in a mess that led it to act in quite a different way than the paragon of virtue that is so piously touted by its leader. 

Cleaning the PN’s internal financial set-up is indeed a messy Herculean job. Getting rid of the system that has now become ingrained in Malta’s political milieu is even messier but necessary.

We were led to believe that the recently passed law that regulated political parties and their financing would solve the problem. As it is, the PN is hardly observing the letter – let alone the spirit – of the law. Conveniently, the Labour Party is not obliged to observe the law as it has not yet registered as a political party because it first needs to change some clauses in its statute. No hurry, of course!

Simon’s bravado knee-jerk reaction when he exposed the implicit threat in a text message he received from the people who were given the ITS site in St George’s Bay for peanuts was simply that – bravado that solves nothing but exposes everything. His action announced later, after he had some time to think, which was the setting up of a commission on party funding, is by far too little too late. The terms of reference given to this commission are not clear. Perhaps they are still to be published, as I write.

Simon Busuttil’s declaration that whatever the Commission recommends will be part of the party’s electoral manifesto exposes the way he habitually short-circuits the party’s organisational structures and statute. For me, appointing a commission to decide (not recommend) on part of the party’s electoral manifesto goes well beyond the remit of the party’s leader. One may say that I am an obsessive stickler to the rule of law, but on the other hand...

Solving the messy problem by rethinking the law on financing of political parties as soon as it was obvious that the law (approved hardly a year ago) has failed its first test is simply a pious hope. 

Yes we do need state subsidies for political parties so that they will not be held to ransom by so-called ‘donors’. But this is not enough. The reform that is needed is radical. It involves our electoral system and the way candidates are elected. The financial mess in which our political parties find themselves is a symptom, not the cause, of the malaise. 

What is wrong with Maltese politics? a friend asked me recently. A difficult question to answer. From one point of view our politics could be considered alive and kicking. From another angle it seems to be rotten and putrid.  

I have seen too many people entering the political arena with all good intentions determined to stick to the straight and narrow only to find themselves – at some stage – in the centre of controversies somehow involving corruption – directly or indirectly.

Let’s begin from the beginning, i.e. when a citizen decides to take the plunge and is accepted by one of the two political parties as a general election candidate. The candidate needs a team to run his campaign – and incredibly he (or she) starts to find so many people willing to volunteer their help, enough to form a core of canvassers in no time. It is normal for candidates to be so flabbergasted with the willingness of the team that surrounds them that they foolishly start to believe they are a real inspiration to the brotherhood of man.

Eventually the candidate makes it to the House and each one of his or her helpers/canvassers is so proud of him or her. The problem is that a majority of these helpers expect to be rewarded in one way or another. Their ‘voluntary’ help becomes less idealistic and more down to earth. The candidate becomes a minister. Then the game of ‘tit for tat’ starts, more often than not, behind the back of the minister.

So financing the political system is on two levels: on the party level for which we thought we had finally approved a regulatory law and on the personal candidate level for which the law of the jungle applies.

Our system pits candidates of the same party competing with each other and this has led to a lot of waste of money, energy and effort as well as to clientelism to a very high degree. This has given some voters the power of blackmail and the political class the bad name that it has – besides being the real reason behind the over-manning in the public sector that is ruining this country and the backbone of so many citizens.

Suggesting that MPs should be full-timers while we retain the current system is a recipe for an even greater disaster. Only people who cannot make it in the real world will go in for politics and they will depend for their livelihood on personal votes in a country where many voters think that it is not immoral to abuse of their right to vote in order to blackmail politicians.

The electoral system must go. Candidates of the same party competing with each other for individual votes must go. The direct relationship between candidate and voter in our incestuous country has led to the birth of monsters.

We should have the courage to go for a radical change. Abolish electoral boundaries and make the country one district. Get people to vote for parties with the vote being reflected in the number of seats assigned to each party. Candidates are chosen from party lists – thus ensuring that political parties have genuine capable people in Parliament: MPs who dedicate their life to politics without depending on donations or ‘supporters’ in a position to blackmail them.

Allow the ‘personal’ relationship only in local council elections.

Will the two parties go for this?

Of course not – they prefer to keep wallowing in the mess and accusing each other of impropriety.

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