In praise of the principle

Side-lining the obvious media sensation of the fact that the accounts in question were located in Switzerland, we can only say that it is a singular act of political dishonesty that an MP does not declare the full assets in the parliamentary declarations.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

In 1994, Nationalist MP Lino Gauci Borda resigned his parliamentary seat following allegations he had evaded tax by not declaring a foreign account – a clamorous story published by Alternattiva, the defunct newspaper run by Green Party Alternattiva Demokratika in the 1990s. There was general opprobrium against AD at the time, because the story hit hard at the political class at a time when such fabled keywords as ‘good governance’ were not yet part the electorate’s demands. Twenty years down the line, we learn of two former Nationalist MPs who at the very same time had overseas accounts they had not declared in their register of assets.

Side-lining the obvious media sensation of the fact that the accounts in question were located in Switzerland, where the recent Swissleaks scoop by Le Monde and the ICIJ has once again uncovered a world of ruthless tax evasion, we can only say that it is a singular act of political dishonesty that an MP does not declare the full assets in the parliamentary declarations.

From this objective starting-point, readers should understand the gravity of ministers and MPs who do not come clean on their financial affairs and tax status in the House of Representatives. It can only follow that both Michael Falzon and Ninu Zammit were aware of their own shortcomings at a time when their colleague had to resign from the House; but rested on the comfort of Swiss banking secrecy to see that their tax affairs remain their own business and not their constituents’.

So even if both former ministers repatriated their monies under a government amnesty (pragmatically launched by successive administrations to recoup lost tax revenues from undeclared cash flowing overseas), the Opposition leader’s bold stand to demand the suspension of these former MPs from the Nationalist Party is based on the morality, and ethicality of MPs acting transparently and declaring their full register of interests in the House of Representatives.

Perhaps without regard to the internal political fall-out – for loyalty in Maltese politics is often accorded a higher value than morality – Simon Busuttil has set an important standard in MPs’ behaviour, and one that follows on his previous efforts to set up a parliamentary committee on standards in political life.

So it is baffling as to why Busuttil feels uncomfortable with according the same kind of moral judgment to former ministers like Austin Gatt, who admitted during the 2013 general election campaign that he held a Swiss UBS account, previously undeclared, to the House of Representatives.

At the time, Busuttil was PN deputy leader and leading an election campaign that was already bogged down by the Nationalist administration’s falling popularity and the Trafigura/MOBC/Enemalta oil scandal. Perhaps such an audacious reaction could not be expected from a newly-elected deputy leader at such sensitive time.

Nor should Busuttil’s important stance this weekend be misrepresented as a reaction to the media sensation of Falzon’s admission to having not declared a Swiss bank account. If the Opposition leader wants his political and moral principle to withstand those critics, both internal and external, ready to pounce on every word of his, he should be ready to extend his chastisement to former MPs and ministers, like Austin Gatt, who did not declare their foreign bank accounts. To simply tarry at the prospect just because Gatt’s deed was not made news to him at the time of his leadership, does not wash.

If ‘location, location, location’ is the mantra of the real estate business, ‘perception, perception, perception’ must surely be that of politics. It was this same perception that dented the credibility of former ministers like Tonio Fenech when they failed to declare particular gifts that are specifically forbidden by the Code of Ethics.

The same should also go for Joseph Muscat, who during the general election in 2013 had laughed off Austin Gatt’s claims that he “forgot” to declare a Swiss bank account, adding that this had significantly dented his credibility. “A Swiss bank account is not something you just happen to forget… any politician, anywhere in the world, saying such a thing would be asked questions.”

We would expect the same questions are asked of his MPs and ministers whose declaration of assets raise questions over the scale of their wealth, arising out of a lack of measurable detail (as in the case of Gozo minister Anton Refalo) or unorthodox cash hordes (former minister Emanuel Mallia).

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