Stopping the rot

At this point, we must either resign ourselves to powerlessness in the face of an unsavoury culture that infects various strata of society… or we must try to do something about it.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

What started out as a scandal concerning corruption in the procurement of fuel for Enemalta, has outgrown its original scope and now points towards a far wider and more pervasive culture of rot.

Emails published in today’s edition reveal that the questionable relationship between George Farrugia – the oil trader at the heart of the original corruption probe – and the former chairman of the Malta Resources Authority, Godwin Sant, extended well beyond the issue of Malta’s fuel purchases. 

They confirm that Farrugia, who had commercial interests in a wide range of spheres, was privy to confidential information regarding imminent legislative changes of crucial strategic importance in competitive business sectors. 

Bizarrely, Sant even provides Farrugia with draft legislation and minutes of MRA meetings on petrol stations, a business Farrugia was actively involved in. This stark revelation alone betrays the extent of influence, not only of a government contract bidder over the State regulator, but also – indirectly – over the government of Malta. 

One is reminded of the ‘tangentopoli’ scandal which rocked Italy in the 1990s, and spelt the end to the Democrazia Cristiana party.  Both revelations imply an entire culture of rot that has been allowed to fester uncontrolled for years. And in both cases, what started out as an investigation into a single case, spiralled into something much larger and more pervasive… until a point is inevitably reached when such cases surface practically everywhere you look.

But the emails reveal far more than just specific details of individual cases of corruption. What emerges from an analysis of this dubious relationship is also an entire culture of corruption at various levels of the public service. 

The camaraderie and informal, almost casual tone with which such serious matters as high level corruption were communicated in those emails suggests that – beneath the superficial levels of morality to which we all pay lip service – the ongoing ‘scandal’ was not at all scandalous to the persons involved. It was merely business as usual.

This aspect of the issue has so far been broadly overlooked. In responding to corruption allegations, both politicians and the media tend to shift the emphasis towards the political responsibility to be borne in such cases. We tend to forget that in all cases of corruption, little and large, there will be public officials willing to be bribed – and also ordinary citizens willing to bribe them.

These emails hint that this same paradigm underpins entire sections of the bureaucracy which sustains Malta’s way of doing both business and politics. But there is more evidence beside.

In the case of the recent Smart meter tampering revelations, there was likewise an underlying sensation that people out there – not just in government employment – would willingly cheat the system given half the chance. This also means that the challenge facing the country as a result of these revelations is likewise greater than the responsibility to act only on individual corruption cases which come to light. 

There is – it must be said – a level at which such behaviour is not only condoned by Maltese society at large, but almost encouraged. And when talking about a culture of corruption, individual actions are clearly insufficient to address the issue. No amount of arraignments in connection with the oil scandal itself would undo the harm caused by ignoring the root cause of this problem for so long.

At this point, we must either resign ourselves to powerlessness in the face of an unsavoury culture that infects various strata of society… or we must try to do something about it.

How does a country overcome a problem of this magnitude? Cultures cannot be changed overnight, that much is certain. But they cannot be expected to change at all, if no effort is made to eradicate them.

In this matter we all bear collective responsibility. If the common goal is indeed to create a fair and equitable society where such matters are frowned upon, it is imperative that we start taking the issue of corruption much more seriously than before.

To date, all governments have declared a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards corruption, but in truth they have all broadly tolerated the above state of affairs for years. Until governments really do live up to their ‘zero tolerance’ claims in actions as well as words, the perception among the wider population is likely to remain that corruption, far from being a serious crime, is just the way things are done in this country. 

Yet governments have to date proved singularly resistant to corruption allegations. Indeed, the oil scandal also revealed cosy relationships with government ministers, whose reaction was invariably to minimise the seriousness of such offences as accepting ‘gifts’ from bidders for public contracts.

Clearly, things cannot be expected to improve if even the people entrusted at the highest level of responsibility react to such issues with nonchalance. The popular Maltese expression holds that “a fish stinks the most from its head”; and this also implies that if the ‘head’ proves impervious to the smell, there is no reason for the rest of the ‘body’ to complain. 

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