Losing the popular fight

MaltaToday Editorial | There is a reason why the moralistic anticorruption fight has failed to achieve any proper result or institutional concessions

One of the great disappointments of the Labour administration was Joseph Muscat’s failure to provide a suitable response and peace of mind over the taint of the Panama Papers, merely years after having mobilised voters – to some extent – on the routine anti-corruption plank; nobody was sacked for holding undeclared offshore companies... indeed, the neoliberal PM felt there was nothing inherently wrong (read: illegal) about tax shopping overseas.

When the Opposition, aided in great part through the partisan jabbing of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s historically anti-Labour agenda, launched its own anti-corruption drive against the Castille ‘gang’, it was also doing it at a time when Labour’s expansionist economic programme was benefitting many – indeed even the most vulnerable of society – and not just the economic elites. It placed Labour in good stead electorally.

It has always been an accepted fact in Maltese politics that private actors seek out corruption to influence public policy in their favour. This newspaper has no doubt that corruption and bribes play a strong part in various planning and public procurement decisions (even at party level, the PN itself was caught in this snare when Simon Busuttil inadvertently revealed his party employees’ salaries were paid by the mighty DB business group) – not to mention undeclared private donations to MPs, or other declared donations to seek out ‘insurance’ on future party or government policy.

In this sort of reality where parties and government devolve their public role by allowing the private sector to influence policy decisions (even through bribery), the vicious cycle of clientelism and patronage finds strong roots. These too have been longstanding features of Maltese life, as justifiable strategies for individuals to “get things done”, or what the Italians call l’arte di arrangiarsi.

In the 1980s, corruption poisoned socialist policies because of the individual greed of ministers doling out favours at a price. In the 1990s, the devolution of the public sector to the private took corruption elsewhere, this time with the private sector actively dictating policy. Today this relationship between mighty private lobbies and business groups, and the State, continues and thrives amid a great lack of public trust in ‘independent’ yet state-captured regulatory bodies.

The Panama Papers protests led by Simon Busuttil were national events that principally demanded that Labour’s culprits be taken to jail and move out of power so that the swamp could be cleaned out.

Daphne Caruana Galizia, who prior to 2013 was generally seen as an enlightened apologist for the Nationalist Party, was this new movement’s reference point.

That movement partly lives on in the vigils that mark each month since the brutal assassination of Caruana Galizia; but its demographic make-up remains markedly anti-Labour and equally suspicious of the PN’s new populist leader, who has side-lined his rival Busuttil, traditional middle-class elites, and the political dynasties that controlled the party since the late 1970s.

Certain facets of this movement stick out: during one vigil, an activist mocked so-called “bread and butter issues” and the PN’s renewed interest in people’s daily affairs, to a hissing audience; Caruana Galizia herself would rubbish voters’ democratic choices (for Labour) as the malady of ‘amoral familism’, a sputtering notion that alone cannot justify Labour’s 38,000-vote majority in 2017; government jobs and political appointees of all hues were strategically lynched by the PN from 2013 onwards (having been itself a masterful co-opter of non-meritorious appointees when it was in power).

Egrant was arguably (seen from the conclusions of the magisterial inquiry) a failed attempt at criminalising Muscat and Labour. Interestingly, it is a strategy to which Busuttil, darling of the Occupy Justice movement, remains faithful; Adrian Delia on the other hand, does not, best illustrated this week when Delia used Net TV to air a live interview while Busuttil was giving a winding-down speech to double down on his Egrant conviction.

Muscat could have certainly scotched the serpent, but chose not to. This disappointment will be part of his legacy.

But the question for us who believe in decent politics and good governance is whether this moralistic, good-versus-evil battle on anti-corruption has reaped any fruit.

Unfortunately, it ignores the institutional shortcomings of the Maltese political system that have been with us since Independence. Personalising the battle well beyond the need to demand strong institutional concessions, has failed to gain popular traction.

Secondly, it has not directed its anger sufficiently at the power of business elites or how Malta’s economic boom is leaving people behind: the long arms of corporate interests and the forgotten losers of the cantering Maltese economy. And that’s because both parties, even Busuttil’s brigade of well-to-do ‘moral familialists’, have been in thrall to these business elites for decades – elites which were mercifully exempt from the PN’s antagonist narrative after 2013.

This is a historical aspect ignored by the international press, whose very myopic analysis of Maltese politics antagonises many in Malta. It is probably why Caruana Galizia’s lionisation is not reflected domestically a year after her murder, or why the Great Siege monument has become such a contested space of political identity, and (partly) why Labour has consolidated its power amid the political fracas.

And that, unfortunately, also clouds the perception of the most serious and heinous murder of a journalist and its implications for democracy in Malta