Oh ye of too much faith

We are expected to ‘have faith’ in an investigation that can only be inconclusive at best and highly politicised at worst

The all-male electoral commission includes four members appointed by the opposition
The all-male electoral commission includes four members appointed by the opposition

Personally, I’ve never really understood why ‘faith’ would be included as one of three ‘virtues’ along with ‘hope’ and ‘charity’. 

No real issue with the other two, as far as I can see. I think we can all safely agree that ‘hope’ is a generally useful quality to possess. Proverbially, it is ‘the last thing to die’; not so much because of any natural longevity of its own... but simply because the will to live follows it rather quickly to the grave.  

In my book, that makes ‘hope’ a good thing. I certainly won’t be getting rid of my own stock any time soon.

As for ‘charity’, it is now self-evident that Malta’s main political parties would not be able to actually exist at all without it.  And let’s face it: where on earth would we all be, without those two monolithic, crumbling and colossally anachronistic dinosaurs to oversee every aspect of our daily lives?

Where, indeed. I almost wish I never asked...

But ‘faith’? Belief for the mere sake of believing? How on earth is that supposed to be a ‘virtue’?

In my own humble experience... it isn’t, quite frankly. Unlike hope and charity, ‘faith’ doesn’t actually bring any benefits to the faithful. On the contrary, it benefits the object of their belief (rather hugely, too). And that alone is enough to explain its definition as a ‘virtue’, in the context of a Catechism aimed at spreading one particular religious doctrine.

Fair enough, I won’t argue with that. But the moment you take this thing called ‘faith’ out of its religious context, a rather different picture comes into view. Suddenly, it transforms into a giant liability, with the word ‘DANGER’ emblazoned all over it in bright red letters. 

It is ‘faith’ – and certainly not its antithesis, ‘scepticism’ - that drives people to place their trust in woefully untrustworthy causes. It is ‘faith’ that induces people to believe those who would deceive or mislead them.  Without ‘faith’ there can be no real deception; without deception, there can be no fraud. 

So take this supposed ‘virtue’ away from the world altogether...and what would become of all the world’s con-men, fraudsters, liars and cheats? They would all have to get an honest job, every last one of them. How can that possibly be a bad thing? 

Yet just look at the way we use the word in our daily lives. We have somehow managed to turn the above reality clean on its head: ‘having faith’ is presented to us as noble and virtuous... lacking it, as devious and wrong.

PN leader Simon Busuttil, for instance, doesn’t have faith in the Electoral Commission as the entity entrusted with investigating his own party for fraud and deception. Labour MP Michael Falzon, on the other hand, has faith in the Commission... and for some obscure reason, he expects the rest of us to all share in this boundless confidence of his, too.

Well, by now it should be clear where someone like myself would stand on this issue. For once, I agree with Simon Busuttil. Of course it shouldn’t be the Electoral Commission to investigate party financing irregularities. It should very obviously be the police (which even have an ‘economic crimes unit’ to handle this sort of thing)... and the investigation should have been automatically triggered by the allegations themselves, not by the go-ahead of a political party.

After all, if we were talking about a commercial company allegedly issuing fake invoices for illegal non-transparent and unaccountable cash- contributions... the police would not exactly wait for permission from government to get cracking with the investigation. 

So no, I don’t have faith in the Electoral Commission. And I can’t see why anyone else should be expected to, either.  

What are we supposed to base this ‘faith’ on, anyway? The fact that all nine of its members were appointed by the same two parties they are now supposed to investigate? So that half the Commission will approach the investigation on the basis of pre-determined guilt... and the other half, pre-determined innocence? How is that supposed to inspire confidence? Who on earth could possibly be taken in by such a blatant ruse?

The last question turns out to be the easiest to answer. Whose idea was it, anyway, to empower a laughably politicised entity – a supposedly ‘autonomous’ commission with not a single independent, impartial member anywhere in its ranks -  with the same powers as the police and the judiciary? Last I looked, it was a proposal by the Labour government which – somewhat strangely – enjoyed the unanimous backing of the Nationalist Opposition when it came to a vote in Parliament.

Everyone else had reservations, though. This newspaper took an editorial stance against the appointment of the Electoral Commission as the Party Financing Law’s official regulatory body. This, for instance, is from an editorial we ran last month: “the law made two cardinal mistakes. It allowed too much discretion to the parties, almost to the extent of making enrolment with the Party Financing Commission ‘optional’; and two, it placed the Commission under the aegis of the Electoral Commission... which is itself politically appointed. [...] All this illustrates one of the chief obstacles to an effective reform. Political parties cannot be expected to regulate themselves, without building escape routes into the system.”

Fast-forward less than a month, and... my, just look how effective the ‘escape route’ has proved to be. Having approved the bill in parliament, the Nationalist Party supplied itself with all the ammunition necessary to use against its own investigators. Now that the Electoral Commission has been called to investigate – as per a law approved unanimously by the PN – it has objected on two specific grounds.

One that the Commission cannot be trusted for all the above reasons; two, because the law permits it to play the part of both investigator and judge... which is ‘unconstitutional’.

Excuse me for asking, but... if the Commission was all along too untrustworthy to be appointed regulator... and if this law is suddenly so very ‘unconstitutional’... then why the blazes did the PN approve it just last year? The Constitution itself hasn’t changed in the meantime, you know. So if that law is ‘unconstitutional’ today, it will have been equally ‘unconstitutional’ when the PN unanimously voted in its favour.

Ah, but then again... there are certain advantages to approving a party financing law which you know won’t work in practice; especially when you also know that the law will be applied to your own party far more than to others. 

Quite crafty, when you think about it. Simon Busuttil gave himself and his party the perfect ‘escape route’ there. And an ironic one, too... as what makes the Commission so ‘untrustworthy’ is partly the fact that PN itself appointed four of its nine members in the first place. So I guess by the same token, the PN shouldn’t really trust itself, either (judging by that party’s recent history, I’d say it would be wise not to). 

But the question remains: why should the rest of us trust the Electoral Commission to regulate party financing? I for one certainly do not, and these are my reasons:

1) Investigating crimes is not the job of an electoral commission. 

It’s a little weird that I should even point this out, but... why not, while we’re at it, appoint any other constitutionally-appointed body that has nothing whatsoever to do with law enforcement? Why not the Planning Authority, for instance? Or the Water Services Corporation? Or the NCPE? Or even the V18 committee?

Every one of those entities is every bit as qualified as the Electoral Commission to undertake police work. That is to say, not qualified in the slightest.

Yet that is precisely what the party financing law has done. It has transferred the onus of investigating certain financial crimes (the ones committed by political parties) away from where it should be – the police – to an entity which has no business whatsoever to be investigating any form of crime at all. The very idea that an electoral commission should even think of playing Sherlock Holmes is, in fact, utterly ridiculous. How could anyone possibly take it seriously even for a second?

2) It is not even remotely impartial

Let us for a moment imagine that we were talking about any other form of law-enforcement here. What are the basic pre-requisites for a fair trial? The judge has to be disinterested in proceedings. The jury (where applicable) has to be impartial. The investigating officers would have to ensure that there are no personal links of any kind with the subjects of the investigation. These are pretty darn fundamental principles, too. In a criminal case, the defence would move for a mistrial if any were in any way infringed.

In this case, however... how do you even begin to apply those principles? The chair of the Electoral Commission owes his position directly to the Prime Minister (who just happens to be the leader of a political party). How’s that for being ‘disinterested in proceedings’? 

As for the rest of the board: leaving aside that they are unaccountably all male (and therefore wouldn’t even qualify as a jury in a criminal court)... well, one of them is also the PN’s own lawyer, Dr Joe Zammit Maempel; Another is a former president of the PN, Victor Scerri. On the Labour side there is at least one former MP (Salvu Sant). Others – though to be fair, not all – are what you would call trusted party insiders on both sides.

As such, they themselves were (in some cases still are) part and parcel of the same party system they are now supposed to be investigating. They know perfectly well what their own parties were up to all those years. It had never even been an issue before.

Now, however, these political appointees are expected to suddenly forget any part they may have once played in the intricate machinery of party financing, and treat what was previously ‘business as usual’ as a ‘crime’. 

And we, by extension, are expected to ‘have faith’ in an investigation that can only be inconclusive at best; highly politicised at worst. Sorry, but no. ‘Faith’ is simply too much to ask for under the circumstances.

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