Malta’s ‘amoral familism’, revisited

Malta's two-party system knows it is kept alive by patronage and businesses ‘insuring’ themselves with party donations. To find an antidote, look to the rigorous checks-and-balances systems of advanced nations

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Much has been said of Malta’s problem of ‘amoral familism’: a term coined by Edward Banfield in his book on the Italian south, ‘The Moral Basis of a Backward Society’, and applied to Malta by the late anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain.

It describes the typical, self-interested, family-centric society where the State – or even the community’s better interest – is sacrificed on the altar of one’s own personal benefit. It is the gateway for nepotism; and in a liberal democracy commandeered by two parties, patronage is what feeds Malta’s dependence on the political class.

In the light of the ongoing discussion on institutional reform, this description of Malta, dating back over 40 years, remains every bit as relevant today.

Though half a century has passed since Independence, Malta remains an imperfect state and, as a liberal democracy, an immature nation.

Since 1964, Maltese life has been occupied by the dominance of two mass political parties. Through this dominance, we have come to accept a situation whereby the two parties supervise all things that permeate public life. They are omnipresent inside regulatory structures that control data and information, such as the Electoral Commission and the Broadcasting Authority; through government-appointed representatives, they remain in control of the Planning Authority; and they also preside over a nation besotted with the political class.

Even in public spaces and private companies, parks and doorways, footpaths
and motorways, we find constant reminders that the blessing of the minister has preceded one’s enjoyment of said space. It would seem like a case of deus ex machina, where the political class is the ultimate solution to any conundrum... not only that, but politics is the vehicle through which Maltese life is umbilically nourished.

Though first identified in the 1960s, these problems persist in Malta in 2017. The consistent flouting of planning regulations, the uncritical adulation of the free market, the privatisation of open space and countryside, the unbridled property market and worship of profit for its own sake, a weak sense of heritage, and the wider sense of ‘family’ – the party-political one – all find a cosy arrangement in the alternation of power that the two-party system allows.

The two-party system knows this. It is kept alive by the culture of patronage, and by business interests regularly ‘insuring’ themselves on policy-making with their donations to parties and financing of their unsustainable media vehicles. The two-party system relies on the domination of people’s psyche with its hyper-presence in the media – with television at its forefront, and then with social media and its apologists and pundits ever present in all other forms of public life.

This reality has seeped into the consciousness of even the most independent thinkers, until the freedom to be a heretic

in Malta is constrained by working and living cheek-by-jowl with political logrollers. Artists who employ satire and rail against the political class and their apparatchiks are considered sacrilegious; citizen movements must contend with the inevitability of overlapping with party movers and shakers; journalists shorn of partisan links remain mistrusted, even when carrying out their duties to the best of their capabilities.

It is this poisonous culture, ever-present since Malta’s pacific passage into Independence, that gives rise to the weak character of those who lead its regulators, those who are supposed to be guardians of a system of checks-and-balances, but who often end up rubber-stamping government’s policy decisions.

To be fair, it is by no means a unique problem to Malta. The most advanced democracies in the world are susceptible to democratic coups of populists, crooks and illiberal politicians. The United States is a case in point. But in its 241-year history it has matured into a nation that is buttressed by a grand system of checks-and balances. One watches how the Comey and Mueller investigations take on the powerful in what is, hopefully, a selfless quest in the search of truth.

Herein lies the rub for the ‘young’ Maltese. Only a well-resourced system
of checks and balances can serve as a defensive buffer against patronage and the domineering power of political parties. A full-time parliamentarian system would keep professional interests at bay, and engage MPs into the public role of scrutinising government appointees on a rolling basis; an independent and autonomous State Prosecution Service would devolve from the Attorney General, currently occupying the mutually incompatible roles of government advisor and State prosecutor, the latter role.

These are systemic flaws, and as such cannot be easily attributable to the officeholder in person (or even, for that matter to the party currently occupying government) – even though this newspaper has embraced the call for a Commissioner of Police who can truly carry out his duties independently of the government of the day. It is only through systemic changes that the much-needed system of checks and balances can be buttressed.

It is for this reason that the country needs a new legislative model that separates the roles of legal counsel to the executive, leaving the power of prosecution in the hands of investigative and legal minds that can carry out this national duty without fear or favour. We need guarantees that a Commissioner of Police can display the character to act free from political pressure, and likewise, a national broadcaster that can act equally freely of political influence.

These are just a few of the urgent structural changes Malta still has not experienced since Independence. Clearly, the time has come to introduce them.