It’s OK, because… it’s us, not them

Like the farmyard animals at the end of ‘Animal Farm’, when I look from one side to the other… what I see is always indistinguishable in every detail

That has always been a rather glaring flaw with the whole ‘us and them’ mentality, you know. It presumes that, when the chips are down, some kind of substantial difference must exist to distinguish between those two categories. Yet I’ll be damned if I could ever see any myself.

Like the farmyard animals at the end of ‘Animal Farm’, when I look from one side to the other… what I see is always indistinguishable in every detail.

The Panama Papers is by no means the only example: but given how much political capital has been invested in it over the past three years… it might be the best place to start.

Looking at all the press coverage given to that scandal locally, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri were the only two Maltese individuals named in that data leak of overseas shell companies in Panama, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, etc.

In reality, however, the full list of persons/entities (especially legal and accountancy firms) named on that list could easily be mistaken for the entire corporate section of the Malta Yellow Pages.   Incredibly, the leak includes 84,487 ‘entities’ traceable to 347 Maltese addresses.

The addresses themselves coincide with pretty much the ‘great and the good’ of all Malta’s legal and financial infrastructure.

Admittedly, not all those 84,567 entities would be traceable to local owners; and in any case, the ICCJ database itself comes with the following disclaimer: “There are legitimate uses for offshore companies and trusts. We do not intend to suggest or imply that any people, companies or other entities included in the ICIJ Offshore Leaks Database have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly…”

Having said this: there are also illegitimate uses for offshore companies and trusts: and not always associated with government corruption, either. In most other countries, the scandal associated with the Panama Papers actually had very little to do with politics at all. Among the most publicized names, in the rest of Europe, were those of footballers, Formula One racing drivers, rock stars, celebrity-chefs, media tycoons, reality TV stars… basically, anyone with a LOT of money to hide from the taxman.

What clearly irritated and upset so many people worldwide had less to do with corruption, than with inequality. They seethed and raged against a system which allows the world’s wealthiest to pay the least tax possible, and get away it (while they, of course, are squeezed for every penny they earn).

In Malta, on the other hand, the entire scandal took on a very different template. Just as it is impossible to assert that all the Maltese law and accountancy firms were doing anything illegal, by helping so many people set up complex financial structures in dodgy tax jurisdictions… it is not a possibility you can exactly exclude out of hand, either.

In the three years since the Panama Papers leak of 2016, however, I have not heard one, single solitary voice calling for an investigation into what could quite easily be evidence of widespread fiscal/financial illegality across the whole financial spectrum. Entire NGOs have sprung up like jackrabbits, to demand that kind of investigation into only two or three of those 84,467 cases… the only two with immediate political connections, naturally… without even pausing to ask themselves any of the remaining 84,464 or so entities may also have been breaking the law.

Not by opening their secret, offshore companies in the first place, mind you… if nothing else, we all now know that there is nothing illegal about that. What you use that company for, however, could be a very different story: a story that absolutely nobody in this country seems remotely interested in, when the possible suspicions are limited mostly to otherwise respectable, upstanding members of Malta’s financial/commercial elite.

No sooner does a politician’s name turn up on the list, however… hey presto! The Panama Papers suddenly becomes a ‘scandal’. Suddenly, it seems to interest everyone and his dog, to the exclusion of all other issues…

And it’s probably just as well, when you stop to think about it. For let’s face it: had we responded to the 2016 Panama Papers leak in the same way as practically everywhere else – i.e., demanding investigations, not just into the political cases, but also into the possibility of large-scale criminality facilitated through perfectly legitimate Maltese firms - well, there’s a possibility that we’d end up having to prosecute pretty much Malta’s entire legal and financial services sector (only there wouldn’t be enough lawyers left to handle all the cases…. with so many of them in the dock themselves).

Heck, we might even have to build three or four new prisons to accommodate the whole new class of criminal we would have just invented. And by the end of it, we would also have dismantled our country’s financial and legal infrastructure: kissing a massive chunk of our precious GDP goodbye in the process.

Good thing, I suppose, that we only ever think of tax evasion or money laundering as ‘crimes’ when they’re committed – or believed to have been committed – by politicians we don’t like. After all, it would be a bit awkward to have to extend all that moral outrage and indignation also to our own lawyers and accountants, if not to our extended family and friends… possibly even to ourselves…No, much safer to carry on just concentrating on the political scandals, while sweeping everything else under the carpet as usual…

… except that it only brings us right back to where we started. For that approach can only work if there really were a practical difference

between the two sides; if it actually was possible to trust ‘us’ more than ‘them’ on the subject of corruption (or indeed, anything else).  Leaving aside the small observation that – in any case – ‘us and them’ does not cater for the entire population; it is, after all, perfectly possible not to identify with either of those categories. But even those among us who do identify with one faction or the other… what on earth fuels their delusion that their choice of political allegiance makes them any better – or even remotely different, in any way – from the others?

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for… let’s see now, around 25 years minimum… and rarely have I got such a spectacularly convincing answer as this week.  And again, it emanates directly from the Panama Papers scandal.

Around a year ago, the company ‘17 Black’ – named in the leak as a target client for Konrad Mizzi’s overseas company – was revealed to belong to Yorgen Fenech of the Tumas Group: which also owns a 10% share in Electrogas. Ever since that date, the Nationalist Party has done nothing but call for inquiries and investigations into Fenech’s association with Mizzi and Schembri… understandably enough, as the details do suggest that some form of payment was expected from 17 Black to Konrad Mizzi. To date, there has been no satisfactory explanation for why, and in connection with what.

Yet while all this was going on, two prominent members of Adrian Delia’s shadow cabinet (who also happen to be two of his closest allies, in a splintered parliamentary group) saw no contradiction whatsoever in holding private meetings with Fenech… to ask him for money. (Oh, Ok, ‘sponsorship’, if it makes any difference to you. But whether it’s in cash or kind, it is still a favour that creates a political obligation… or, as any businessman would no doubt see it, ‘an investment opportunity’).

That, at any rate, is my interpretation. I can see no rhyme or reason in Kristy Debono or Herman Schiavone deciding to court Yorgen Fenech like that, after their party had spent an entire year making public demands for his head on a plate. Try as I might, I can only see one possible reason (apart from sheer stupidity, that is): it is the PN’s way of reassuring Mr Fenech that… once they are safely back in power… all this unfortunate business will be forgiven and forgotten, never to be brought up again.

And yes, I’m a sceptical, suspicious old sod at the best of times. Always was, always will be. But on this occasion, my sentiments seem to be shared by most of the (mostly Nationalist) onlookers who have taken to Facebook to vent their indignation. Like me, they took it as a confirmation of their suspicions that there is more than meets the eye to the Opposition’s ‘anti-corruption crusade’… that, even from now, the PN is laying down the foundations for the mother of all future U-turns: that once the shoe is on the other foot, all its ‘anti-corruption’ zeal will simply fizzle out like a puff of smoke in the wind… and hey presto: it will be back to ‘you scratch my back, we’ll scratch yours’ in no time at all.

Yet just look at the reaction from the PN itself. It is indistinguishable – nay, genetically identical – to Joseph Muscat’s reaction to the Panama Papers three years ago. Just as it was an ‘error of judgment’ for Konrad Mizzi to open a secret Panama company the day after getting elected in 2013… it was an ‘error of judgment’ for PN officials to get caught red-handed in secret meetings with Mizzi’s presumed accomplice.

More bizarrely still, both parties seem only capable of ever seeing this gargantuan contradiction when it comes from the other side, and not from themselves. Labour pundits, for instance, have now gone into overdrive pointing out this latest instance of the PN’s hypocrisy… little realizing that the PN is merely quoting from the exact same rule-book as Joseph Muscat in 2016 (after Muscat had similarly built his own campaign strategy around an ‘anti-corruption platform’…).

Again, it’s just like the ending of Orwell’s Animal Farm. You look from one side to the other, and see the exact same delusions at work, in exactly the same way. Behaviour that is shocking, scandalous, criminal, or corrupt - when it comes from ‘them’, naturally - suddenly becomes, at most, a harmless little mistake of the kind that could happen to anyone… but only when it comes from ‘us’.

Where does that leave everyone else, exactly? Pretty much where I chose to begin this article. If both political parties insist on attributing criminal corruption only to the other side… while seeing absolutely nothing wrong in anything they ever do themselves… then we are clearly condemned to an eternity of crooked governments, no matter what.

That, too, is part of what Daphne Caruana Galizia must have meant with her much-quoted last words. And while I’d be lying if I claimed to have agreed with her on a great many other things… on that one, there is no doubt in my mind that she was 100% spot on.

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