A PR exercise, for a worthy cause...

On the surface, it was a generous donation to a worthy cause. But even at a glance, it is evident that there were ulterior motives behind this generosity

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

The furore that erupted over a five-million-euro donation to charity, from a fund that administers cash derived from the controversial Individual Investor Programme, points towards much that is amiss with Maltese politics today.

In a live link from Australia – broadcast on Xarabank – Prime Minister Joseph Muscat announced a donation of €5 million to Puttinu Cares: an NGO which is raising funds to build new apartments in London for Maltese cancer patients. Every month, around 90 Maltese patients travel to the UK with their families for medical care, and the funds raised on Friday would ensure that adequate accommodation is provided.

On the surface, it was a generous donation to a worthy cause. But even at a glance, it is evident that there were ulterior motives behind this generosity. One cannot help but notice how stage-managed the entire set-up was. This was clearly a well-choreographed media event: Xarabank presenter Peppi Azzopardi announcing the telephone call in advance... calling for silence among the audience... Muscat calling in from Australia (where he was to attend the opening ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games) to make the special announcement.... even the well-rehearsed personal anecdote about his family being hosted by the nuns in the UK, when his father needed treatment there...

It was all highly self-conscious and self-congratulatory, and smacked heavily of a public relations exercise more than a genuine act of charity. Muscat and his government could just as easily have chosen to donate the same money to the same cause, without the media circus we witnessed last Friday... and which continued over the following days, as the Labour Party and government media machine immediately kicked in, with numerous public figures praising the decision of the Prime Minister.

Above all, the same donation could have been made without specifying that the money originated from the IIP scheme. 70% of the IIP’s revenues are hived off to a posterity fund called the National Development and Social Fund, which recently acquired a majority stake in Lombard Bank, while the remaining 30% are placed inside the government’s consolidated fund.

Effectively, once the money has been transferred to a government-controlled fund, it becomes the Maltese government’s to donate... not the IIP scheme’s. It was unnecessary to mention the provenance in such detail... unless the idea was to justify to the scheme to a sceptical public.

By making sure people understood that the money was coming from the IIP fund, Muscat’s gesture seems like an attempt to legitimise the IIP in the eyes of people who will now only associate it with the great good it does... rather than remember the many issues that have been raised about the citizenship for sale scheme.

For the record, these include serious misgivings about the principle of selling Maltese national identity in itself... but above all, doubts concerning the due diligence process, and suspicions that some of the Golden Passports are being bought for ulterior motives (including, but not limited to, money laundering).

Without even entering into the merits of the donation itself, it can already be seen that the intention was to influence public opinion about a highly contentious matter that has raised suspicions both locally and internationally. No matter how well choreographed, however, the donation does nothing to minimise those suspicions. Money derived from dubious sources can still be put to a good use; it doesn’t change the fact that the origin is suspicious.

There are, however, lessons to be learnt by the Opposition too. Outspoken PN MPs – namely Beppe Fenech Adami, Jason Azzopardi and  Simon Busuttil – immediately joined the social media fray, describing the donation as an insult, and even comparing Muscat to Mafia superboss Toto’ Riina.

Their attacks on Muscat and his decision inevitably infuriated hardcore Labour supporters who started haranguing the three as being always negative, criticising Muscat whatever he does and wanting to  deny cancer patients the accommodation that Puttinu intends to build in  London with the funds.

The reaction was over the top, but it must be said that those MPs did invite it by overreacting themselves. Like Muscat before them, they lived up to existing expectations – for it is true that this constant flow of criticism of all aspects of Labour’s governance is starting to sound repetitive and unconvincing – and thereby opened themselves up unnecessarily to attack.

They could have quite easily said that the donation was welcome, but that they did not appreciate Muscat’s decision to turn it into a media circus. Instead, they played into the hands of critics who capitalised on the (equally exaggerated) perception that the Nationalist Party would even deprive cancer patients of benefits, to score points over Muscat.

Also, maybe for the first time, we saw PN leader Adrian Delia take a stand against those PN MPs who, with their comments and accusations, only manage to damage their own party.

Delia’s statement about the matter was actually quite well thought out and well received, as it sought to move people – including his own MPs – away from an all-out ‘attack-PL-at-all-costs’ image, towards a more moderate and measured stance.

More such interventions by Delia in future might help start legitimising his beleaguered leadership.

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