A gift by any other name

Clear, unequivocal rules are therefore needed to ensure that Malta’s House of Representatives does not degenerate into a marketplace for politicians and businessmen to trade in influence.

For years there has been talk of revising the code of ethics for members of parliament, with particular reference to warding against an apparently pervasive culture of political nepotism.

Ever since the notorious incident concerning then Finance Minister Tonio Fenech and a traditional Maltese clock, the dangers of MPs cultivating close rapports with business interests have become all the more apparent. Simply put, the power wielded by parliament makes its members vulnerable to attempts at ‘buying’ their patronage: be it for an illegal petrol station, or any other political favour.

Clear, unequivocal rules are therefore needed to ensure that Malta’s House of Representatives does not degenerate into a marketplace for politicians and businessmen to trade in influence. And revelations this week have once again illustrated just how urgent this issue has become. 

Former health minister Joe Cassar has now admitted to accepting a car from Joe Gaffarena – the businessman whose son is at the heart of an inquiry over the expropriation of the BICC offices on Old Mint Street in Valletta – in 2012, against an anonymous €1,000 donation to the Nationalist Party that was turned in a year later, in 2013.

Cassar initially deflected the question of whether he had accepted a ‘gift’ from Gaffarena, and certainly made no mention of the acquisition of the car. He later confirmed it on Tuesday evening, saying that the Nationalist Party had issued a receipt for the donation when it was put to him that he had been given a car. Cassar said he acquired it, and Gaffarena wanted no payment for it. Two days later in parliament, Cassar said he felt sorry for Gaffarena and suggested he buy a car from him, ostensibly to help him out financially.

This speaks volumes, not just about the lack of seriousness with which parliamentary checks and balances are often taken, but also about the entrenched attitudes of both sides of the House when caught (so to speak) with their trousers down.

To begin with, Cassar’s is a serious admission. It means that, as a Cabinet minister, Cassar accepted to buy something without paying the seller for it – which makes the item (in this case, a car) a ‘gift’ by any other name. 

The former health minister also seems to think that, by donating the money to the party instead of to Joe Gaffarena, it would somehow legitimise the transaction. Even more bizarrely, he produces a ‘receipt’ from the party as if it were proof of innocence.

This is not an argument. In reality, it makes no difference whether the money was given to Gaffarena or to the Nationalist Party. Cassar himself admitted that his intention was to do Gaffarena – who claimed to be in ‘financial dire straits’ – a favour.

From this angle, Cassar’s decision to divert the money to his party only makes the deal look more, not less suspicious. 

Cassar claims that Gaffarena suggested the idea of a donation. But it could just as easily be argued that the idea was to conceal the actual nature of the transaction, to make it appear like a legitimate business deal. What if the car was worth more than Cassar’s donation of €1,000? That would be an easy way to whitewash such gifts…

But the real problem is another. Even the simple fact that Gaffarena did not take money for the car creates a sense of obligation: not just for Cassar, who accepted the car, but also for the PN (then in government) which accepted the money.

This is indeed the very reason why the ministerial code of ethics specifically prohibits MPs from placing themselves in positions where they may be indebted to third parties. And it applies to this scenario, regardless of whether the gift was free or paid for, and irrespective of whether Cassar himself was in a position to accede to some request in return. 

Ironically, Cassar himself has now underscored the danger, by claiming to being ‘blackmailed’. That is the whole point of the matter: it was his own decision to accept the car that placed him in a position where both he and his government could be blackmailed. After all, the sphere of influence of a minister is not just inside his own ministry, but also within his party and among other Cabinet colleagues.

To compound this already worrying situation, PN leader Simon Busuttil has once again resorted to the same old tactic of deflecting the embarrassment as a ‘political game’ played by Labour. This is not acceptable at the best of times… and less so in this case, because Busuttil has invested so much of his own political reputation on the promise to eradicate corruption.

Busuttil speaks a lot about ethics, and much of the criticism he levels at the government is usually justified. If he is to be taken seriously, however, he must also apply the same yardstick to his own party. It cannot be that every misdemeanour associated with Labour is a ‘scandal’ for which heads must roll… yet, when it concerns the PN, it is always a ‘frame-up’ or a ‘diversionary tactic’.

Besides, this strategy only downplays the seriousness of the issue at stake. Coupled with other allegations involving Gaffarena and the Labour government, what this episode also reveals is the sheer extent of the hold one man has managed to acquire over both parties. Who knows how many other people may have exerted the same kind of influence? 

Ultimately, what’s at stake is the public’s trust in parliament. The least the Opposition leader could do is treat this matter with the seriousness it deserves.

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