There is no ‘vaccine’ for corruption

Over and above the immediate urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, we also need to start talking about a return to some form of institutional normality - and this would entail finally confronting a problem that has long been diagnosed

Welcoming the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine to Malta, Prime Minister Robert Abela this week expressed the hope that: “Today we can start looking at a return to normality.” 

With regard to the COVID-19 pandemic itself, one can only pray that Abela is indeed correct: even if his optimism remains dependent of the success of the vaccine itself, as well as its general uptake by the wider population. 

But COVID-19 is not the only sickness wreaking havoc in Malta at the moment. As 2020 draws to a close, indicators continue to point towards a deep institutional malaise that afflicts the country on a wide variety of levels. 

The latest twist in the Yorgen Fenech saga, for instance, is that the police are now probing messages exchanged in 2014 between Fenech and the Inland Revenue Commissioner, Marvin Gaerty, over some tax issues. 

As a result, Malta’s tax chief is currently on police bail; and the Police are understood to have raided his home and car, as well as his Floriana office, to collect evidence. 

From this perspective, one must also question what sort of ‘normality’ we intend to return to, when (or if) the current health crisis is resolved.  

Certainly, it is not ‘normal’ for a country to have its tax commissioner out on police bail. Closing an eye at the possibility that the police are now being overzealous in their approach, after years of beating around the bush, this development suggests that the investigation must be serious enough to warrant interrogating the tax chief under caution.  

But this is not just about Gaerty and Fenech.  Other senior public officials in other regulatory authorities have also been probed and questioned over claims of trading in influence; and this is not ‘normal’, either. 

The whole affair points towards a malaise in our system of governance that has been allowed to fester for decades. It also is part of the house of cards that could come tumbling down due to the intimacy of Yorgen Fenech within the workings of government, aided by the Muscat administration.   

In fact, the zealousness of these investigations could easily shear off the Abela administration of some of its more formidable government administrators. 

One aspect of this is the proximity of businesspeople with public officials and politicians: a point raised separately by former PM Joseph Muscat when testifying before the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry earlier this month. 

“Every government in the world, including Malta, has to be close to business. […] I wasn’t just close to those businessmen, I was close to all of them,” a defiant Muscat told the inquest; and naturally, in a small country like this, a certain degree of proximity is inescapable.  

These are realities that cannot be written off by well-crafted laws or high-flying statements. But when proximity leads to complacency, unfair treatment, and – worse still – corruption, it becomes a serious problem for society. And when this is aided and abetted by a government administration that harboured the notion of ‘everything goes’, the situation becomes both dangerous untenable.  

Over and above the immediate urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, then, we also need to start talking about a return to some form of institutional normality. And this would entail finally confronting a problem that has long been diagnosed, but for which no cure has ever been successfully implemented. 

Over the years, not enough checks and balances have been built into the system of governance to, at the very least, minimise the negative aspects of proximity. The changes and reforms that have been enacted of late – mostly under pressure by international regulators – were generally a step in the right direction. But the next step is having people of integrity, who can truly ensure that the laws are not only upheld to the letter, but also in spirit.   

While respecting this country’s social make-up, that more often than not allows for a certain level of political camaraderie, public institutions must also ensure that a level playing field exists for everyone… not just for those who know how to manoeuvre the levers of power.  

For this reason, corruption may even be a more serious national problem than COVID-19: even because, while a vaccine now exists for the latter disease, there is no known cure – short of a concerted national effort, of the kind that hasn’t really started yet – for the former.