Bernard Grech’s ‘carelessness’ may prove costly

Grech’s ‘carelessness’ – not to mention his nonchalance in refusing to answer legitimate press questions on his tax affairs – may yet prove costly

To paraphrase Charles Dickens: this week has been both ‘the best of times’ and the ‘worst of times’ for PN leadership hopeful Dr Bernard Grech.

Last Sunday, this newspaper published a survey would surely have given the Grech campaign a much-needed confidence boost. The results showed that 75.6% of those who voted PN now trust the leadership challenger: contrasting heavily with incumbent Adrian Delia’s result, which shows a trust-rating of only 27.6%.

Moreover, Grech’s trust rating of 32.1%, when matched against Prime Minister Robert Abela, is higher than any level Delia has ever obtained over the past three years. It also surpasses the initial trust rating Simon Busuttil had obtained in June 2013 when he became PN leader.

The same survey even suggests that Labour voters may be more willing to listen to Grech more than the current PN leader. As expected, 51.6% of PL voters say they do not trust either Delia or Grech, and 12.2% are indifferent. Nonetheless, 23.2% of PL voters favour Grech, against only 13% who prefer Delia.

Naturally, this does not mean that an Opposition party led by Bernard Grech would be in pole position to defeat Labour at the next general election. It does, however, strongly suggest that Bernard Grech is widely viewed as the candidate capable of attracting voters back to the Nationalist fold.

And this, on its own, could be enough to seal Grech’s victory over Adrian Delia, in the imminent leadership election.

Unfortunately for Bernard Grech, however, the survey was conducted before subsequent revelations of the same candidate’s apparent history of unpaid taxes.

Documents seen by MaltaToday suggest that Grech has a proven record of not paying his tax bills on time:  having received a number of warnings for failing to pay his income tax and VAT, over €60,000 in total, over two decades.

Bernard Grech has twice been called up by the Inland Revenue Department to settle years of unpaid income tax and even VAT. Court records show that he was asked in 2006 to settle a hefty bill for unpaid taxes between 1990 and 1996, and then again in 2012 for the years 1999-2011. Even more recently, he was asked to settle VAT assessments for 2014 to 2019.

These disclosures are already embarrassing enough for Grech, given that one of the main causes for complaint against his rival Adrian Delia also concerned the latter’s private finances (including unpaid taxes).

It is to say the least surprising that Bernard Grech – who must surely have known what he was going in for – would not have put his own house in order before deciding to contest for the leadership.

But his own reaction to these revelations only raised more questions than answers. In his video comment, Grech failed to say when he settled his outstanding payments with the tax authorities; why he had failed to pay taxes in the first place (in two separate periods); and why he failed to settle VAT payments in a timely manner between 2014 and 2019.

It has since been reported that Grech sent his representative to the tax department on Monday morning to settle an outstanding balance of almost €30,000, believed to be penalties and interest owed, which were subject to contestation.

But it remains unclear how Grech managed to settle all these dues, when his average annual declared income to the VAT department for the years 2014-2019 was €32,600. And this discrepancy inevitably raises other questions: coming just a week after the Grech campaign launched a crowd funding campaign with the aim to raise €50,000.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect, however, is that Grech’s ‘carelessness’ in this matter seems to chime in with a long-standing complaint about Maltese politics in general. It reflects the same widespread culture of ‘ejja ha nirrangaw’ (everything can be fixed and arranged) that can already be seen to plague the decision-making process in Malta’s corridors of power.

Grech knows that people expect higher standards from those entering the political fray but he has failed to explain himself. That is a serious shortcoming. And unfortunately, he could not resist the temptation of blaming the stories in the independent press on Labour, taking refuge in tribal politics by undermining the role of the media in keeping him on his toes – journalists and civil society yawn at this tired equivocation on issues of good governance. Instead of questioning the motivations behind the story, Grech should be up front with a convincing reply to the questions raised by the media.

While it would clearly be an exaggeration to equate Grech’s faux-pas with the culture of institutional State-capture that made Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder possible…  both issues are nonetheless grounded in precisely the same laissez-faire attitude.

It is for this reason, too, that the events of 2017-2019 had precipitated a civil society movement calling for cleaner politics and better governance.  This is the context in which the PN’s leadership contest is taking place: with the ultimate aim, not just of choosing a new Opposition leader, but also of providing a serious, credible alternative to Labour in 2020.

From this perspective, Grech’s ‘carelessness’ – not to mention his nonchalance in refusing to answer legitimate press questions – may yet prove costly.