Political parties are not above the law

Even as the Nationalist and Labour parties spent years arguing over their respective plans to ‘rescue’ the State energy corporation, both were directly contributing to its financial unsustainability by depriving Enemalta of €2.5 million in dues.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Asked to comment about the extraordinary fact – revealed in last Sunday’s edition of MaltaToday – that the Labour and Nationalist parties between them owe a staggering €2.5 million in unpaid bills to Enemalta and the Water Services Corporation, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the PL would “proceed like everybody else”, and declared that: “No one is exempt from paying electricity and water tariffs, and that includes the political parties.”

These are fine words, but the reality staring us all in the face speaks a different language. Those debts were not incurred in the past few months alone. Information seen by this newspaper suggests that some of the bills have been unpaid for years. Yet it is clear that no action was ever taken by ARMS Ltd – the debt collecting agency set up specifically to rein in the €80 million debt owed by Enemalta (as it stood in 2009) – against political parties.

Even now, there is no indication that ARMS Ltd intends to pursue these debts with the same assiduity that it regularly pursues debts incurred by other entities: sometimes cutting off the service for far smaller amounts, and slapping on a reconnection fee on top of exorbitant interest rates charged for late payments. From this perspective, it is simply absurd to argue that the political parties are not treated differently from ordinary citizens. The difference is blatant and visible to all.

Moreover, such cavalier disregard for the most basic social obligations – i.e., paying one’s dues – is simply not acceptable coming from political parties which also presume to dictate legislation: sometimes with the express aim of inculcating public morality. The parties’ debts with the energy sector must also be seen against the backdrop of a political endgame in which their respective energy policies have always been a pivotal battleground.

The last election campaign was fought primarily on energy issues: not just the skyrocketing cost of water and electricity (a cost that we now know was simply not borne by the political parties at all), but also plans for a reform of the energy infrastructure, and above all a corruption scandal involving the procurement of fuel by Enemalta… and which was partly to blame for the energy price hikes in the first place.

Now we discover (or more accurately, we have confirmed existing suspicions) that even as the Nationalist and Labour parties spent years arguing over their respective plans to ‘rescue’ the State energy corporation, both were directly contributing to its financial unsustainability by depriving Enemalta of €2.5 million in dues.

The irony is self-evident, and can only be made more unpalatable by the unbridled hypocrisy at work behind the scenes. The Nationalist Party – which owes the lion’s share of the debt: €1.9 million – was also at the forefront of a drive to collect as much of Enemalta’s debts as possible. Apart from creating ARMS Ltd and empowering it with questionable rights over debtors, the Gonzi administration also installed Smart meters specifically to combat energy fraud. These and other measures were justified on the grounds that the Maltese public needed to be ‘disciplined’.

Yet it would seem the same PN which also preached public morality from the pulpit, also excluded itself from the categories which needed ‘discipline’ to honour their social obligations. And the Labour Party, while criticising all other aspects of the PN’s energy policy, kept silent on this issue and upheld the same behaviour when in government: benefitting from the same secret amnesties and advantageous repayment conditions that are denied to everyone else.

These are the sort of revelations that can only shatter an already shaken public confidence in the political class. But there is more to this issue than a simple case of some animals being treated more equally than others.

ARMS Ltd is officially a “commercial company owned by the government” – in fact this was used as a pretext to try and prevent disclosure of the political party debt scenario through the Freedom of Information Act – and we must therefore confront the fact that the political set-up that oversees its administration is to a degree infiltrated by partisan interests.

The Labour Party (and, in its day, the Nationalist Party too) gets to directly appoint the minister responsible for ARMS Ltd, and the agency’s board of directors is likewise appointed by the government. After the last elections, unsuccessful political candidates were appointed to the boards of ARMS, Enemalta and the Water Services Corporation.

It is not possible, therefore, to argue that these corporations are free from incestuous relations with political parties which are, at the end of the day, also their clients. In any other commercial sphere, the conflict of interest would be too conspicuous to ignore. Yet in the energy sector, it seems to have been invisible for years.

Clearly, empty words are not enough. There is also the credibility of the two parties at stake here: until both the PN and the PL explain exactly how they intend to settle their outstanding debts, they will have forfeited the right to ever insist on fiscal morality on the part of the public. Indeed, neither will ever be able to insist on any form of morality at all.

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