Political responsibility must be shouldered

As long as the party funding remains unregulated at law, one can only expect such scandals to continue regardless of who is in power. The only difference is that the Labour administration came into power on a very clear, unequivocal promise to address such issues once and for a

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

As more light is shed on the Marco Gaffarena expropriation deal, the smell of something rotten is becoming ever more distinct.

Michael Falzon, the parliamentary secretary responsible for lands, has now admitted to having signed the valuation of the 50% share owned by businessman Marco Gaffarena in the Valletta offices housing the Building Industry Consultative Council. 

Gaffarena was paid €1.65 million in cash and parcels of land selected by the Government Property Division, in compensation for the expropriation of his 50% share, which he had purchased for something in the region of €150,000.

Deflecting criticism, Falzon said that it was ‘usual practice’ for the minister responsible for the GPD to sign such valuations made by a government-appointed architect. But the parliamentary secretary failed to explain how the lands in question had been selected for compensation: a consideration that assumes paramount importance, given that some of these lands abut on property already owned by Gaffarena, which is already earmarked for re-development.

Already, then, it is difficult to escape the suspicion that the compensatory parcels of land in question had been selected specifically to boost the value of other land owned by the same developer, who is (today) closely linked to the Labour administration. This impression becomes inescapable, in light of the fact that Gaffarena was also seen entering the offices of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority accompanied by a GDP official, at a time when the expropriation deal was still being formulated.

A senior government source revealed this week that the exact identification of lands that Marco Gaffarena needed for his own personal and business interests could only have been possible through inside information from a highly-placed official at the Government Property Division. One does not need to be a detective to join the dots in this case, and conclude that something is seriously wrong at the lands department.

Given the gravity of the implications, it is simply unacceptable that a GDP official would hide behind a ‘no comment’ reply when asked to account for his dubious presence at a meeting between Gaffarena and MEPA, to discuss an expropriation deal worth over a million euros.

Nor is it excusable that the parliamentary secretary responsible for the GDP would fail to provide any explanations, other than to insist that everything was ‘above board’… when all indications to date seem to point very clearly in the opposite direction.

One cannot describe an expropriation order as ‘above board’, when there is serious suspicion of collusion between the property owner concerned and the government department responsible for lands. Separately, one must also question the speed – a matter of just a few weeks – with which the moneys and lands were granted to Gaffarena, when other land owners have had to wait years (sometimes decades) for compensation of their expropriated property.

From this perspective alone, the Gaffarena case illustrates that (to quote George Orwell) ‘some animals are more equal than others’ in this country… despite the fact that the Labour Party came into power in March 2013 specifically on a promise to end the culture of political back-scratching, which it had been so vociferous in criticising when in opposition.

It is also significant that Michael Falzon initially resisted calls for an independent inquiry, only for the Prime Minister to eventually relent under pressure from the Opposition. In view of the suspicions this case has raised, an inquiry should have been a sine qua non. Indeed, it is in the government’s own interest to clear the air and dispel any notion that Gaffarena may have been favoured for party-political reasons.

Yet Falzon strangely opted for the opposite course of action. By attempting to block any such inquiry beforehand, the parliamentary secretary for lands has only greatly reinforced the perception that he has something to hide in this increasingly questionable affair.

One must now await the outcome of two separate inquiries, by the National Audit Office and the Internal Audit and Investigations Department, before determining whether the suspicions raised by this case are founded. But the Labour administration has already failed the all-important transparency test, and Michael Falzon’s position as secretary responsible for lands has arguably already been compromised as a result.

On another level, the same case also reinforces (once again) the urgent need for a serious law to control party financing in this country. This is after all hardly the first time a contractor known (or suspected) to secretly fund political parties has been (apparently) favoured by a controversial government decision: past Nationalist administrations had likewise suffered from the same perception problems.

As long as the party funding remains unregulated at law, one can only expect such scandals to continue regardless of who is in power. The only difference is that the Labour administration came into power on a very clear, unequivocal promise to address such issues once and for all. Yet not only have these issues been ignored since the March 2013 election, but the aura of rotten governance has continued to fester as a result.

At this point, the country is tired of hearing the same old excuses repeated ad nauseam. Labour must deliver on its promises of good governance, it must show the electorate that its electoral campaign promises were not just air, but honestly meant and intended, it must show that it is not a copycat of the PN of two years ago, or be prepared to face the ignominy which the PN suffered in 2013.

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