A national culture of dependency

The time has come for both these parties to put their money where their mouth is. The current war of words regarding Gaffarena is not only hypocritical, it is also pointless unless proposals are made to deal with the issue on a legislative level.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna for MaltaToday Midweek
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna for MaltaToday Midweek

As the political parties trade accusations regarding their mutual involvement with the Gaffarena family, it is becoming clear that both are caught up in a culture of dependency and patronage that is partly of their own making.

Political links to Gaffarena are now the flavour of the month. But these latest stories only serve to underscore the reality of a phenomenon with which the country is already well-acquainted. All past administrations have been dogged by unsavoury relations with business moguls and shady characters in one way or another. Parties inevitably become dependent on donors to oil their electoral machines in order to get into power; once in power, they are obliged to fulfil promises which often go against the core principles of transparency, accountability and meritocracy.

On paper, both the Nationalist and Labour Parties are committed to improve the standards of governance in this country: yet recent political history suggests that neither is particularly willing or capable.

Much of the current controversy revolves around a permit for an illegal petrol station: initially awarded to Gaffarena under the Nationalists, only to be revoked shortly before the 2013 election.

That Gaffarena got his permit following a change of government speaks volumes about the way political allegiance shifts according to the interests of the donor. But what is conveniently forgotten is that while MEPA revoked this permit in 2011, the representatives of both parties (Labour and PN) on the MEPA board had voted in favour of the permit [they were overruled by the casting vote of former chairman Austin Walker].

Even if they now use association with the Gaffarenas to besmirch one another, in reality both parties in their day have been subject to the same influence. Nor are such relationships limited only to this one family. In 2007 this newspaper reported how numerous prominent businessmen – mostly building contractors, including tenderers for government contracts – had freely admitted to financing both sides of the political spectrum.

The latest Gaffarena revelations seem to fit neatly into a pattern of behaviour that has been standard in all administration of governments since at least the 1970s. Both parties have unashamedly taken advantage of a system whereby donors shift from one party to the other, according to who is most likely to be in power after an election.

Who is to blame for this state of affairs? Naturally there are two sides to any illicit relationship; and the big business interests that fuel this political rat-race could justifiably be regarded as greedy and unscrupulous.

But the system itself would not exist unless politicians give in to their demands. Donors merely exploit the weakness of politicians who are only too ready to put electoral success before the principles of good governance.

Clearly, then, the onus of addressing this systemic flaw lies with the political parties as legislators in parliament. For unlike businessmen, politicians are elected by the people specifically on the strength of their commitment to good governance.

To date, there has been no discernible effort from either side to seriously confront this challenge once and for all. Admittedly, there may not have been much electoral demand for this in the past, either. Sadly, the country’s tolerance levels for conflict of interest and sleaze have traditionally been far higher than one would expect from most other EU member states.

But this certainly does not give politicians carte-blanche to retain a status quo that is failing the country miserably. Especially not when both Labour and PN are locked in a conflict regarding which party can be ‘trusted more’ to counter corruption.

On this score, the time has come for both these parties to put their money where their mouth is. The current war of words regarding Gaffarena is not only hypocritical, it is also pointless unless proposals are made to deal with the issue on a legislative level.

The only thing that can address this problem is a holistic reform concentrating on the root causes of our culture of dependence: from the way parties are financed, to the electoral system, to how public appointments are made, to transparency and accountability in all decisions taken by government.

The recent party financing law was a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough. As for electoral reform, this may not resolve the problem in itself, but resizing the importance of districts could be one way to reduce nepotism. A reform could also help break a status quo that has limited Maltese politics to a strictly two-party affair… thus creating the political pressure that drives these parties into the arms of financiers in the first place.

On another level, public appointments should no longer remain the sole prerogative of the prime minister and/or Cabinet. They should be scrutinised and approved by parliament to ensure that no conflict of interest exists.

These and other suggestions have been made on countless occasions in the past, but to date – with the exception of a very diluted party financing law – it has proved beyond the capabilities to actually make the transition from words into action.

Ultimately, neither Nationalist nor Labour parties can be trusted to guarantee transparency, unless they implement the necessary checks and balances first.

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