Has Bernard’s baggage bruised him or knocked him out?

Grech underestimated the impact of his troubled tax history, so how do the latest revelations change things for the PN aspirant?

Bernard Grech claims he gave up the right to contest the interest and penalties he was due for not paying tax, not to drag the party into his own troubles
Bernard Grech claims he gave up the right to contest the interest and penalties he was due for not paying tax, not to drag the party into his own troubles

Bernard Grech entered the political scene with one major advantage over both Delia and Labour: an outsider without baggage to raise the bar of political propriety, giving hope to the Opposition. So will revelations on his tax troubles undermine his appeal and how far can his adversaries take advantage of this?

Grech seems to have underestimated the impact of his troubled history with fiscal authorities over the past two decades, thinking that by simply settling his dues he could start off on a new slate, without dragging his party into his own personal issues.

That is only partly true. He might no longer be in a vulnerable position when facing government due to an exposed Achilles’ heel, but his decision to settle his dues now raises two crucial questions: why now, and how?

The two questions Grech needs to answer

Why now and not before? That’s tricky. People are bound to judge a politician’s moral integrity based on their actions when they were not above the radar.

Grech now claims that he gave up the right to contest the interest and penalties he was due for not paying tax the moment he decided to contest for the leadership, not to drag the party into his own troubles. But that in itself does not suggest any zeal for fiscal morality, which one would expect from an aspiring prime minister hailing from a party whose main platform is good governance. The onus is now on Grech to demonstrate otherwise. He could soon find himself in a position of leadership where he will have to set the moral yardstick in his own house.

The second pertinent question is how did he find the money to settle what has been reported as a €33,000 bill? Grech needs to answer these questions fast if he wants to clear his name from a cloud of suspicion and rumours that other people paid this bill.

A case of bad judgement?

Considering the expectations of change he raised within his own party, he could have anticipated criticism by being upfront with a public declaration immediately upon settling his tax arrears and explaining himself.

Instead, it seems he chose to hope for the best, perhaps expecting that nobody would notice anything as he unburdened himself of a problem that had been haunting him for some years. Surely settling matters before running for leader was better than to leave this matter pending. It is also true that the party’s candidates commission had to scrutinize the aspirants. But Grech could have controlled the narrative by setting the agenda. He also failed to answer questions by MaltaToday and Illum, losing another opportunity to explain his position.

Then the next day on Monday, on Facebook, Grech “recognised” that people expected higher standards from those entering the political fray and that he could have tackled the situation better. But he was still short on detail. Significantly he could not resist the temptation of blaming the stories appearing in the media on Labour being scared of his impact on the polls. It smacks of taking refuge in tribal politics and risks undermining the role of the media in keeping politicians across party and factional divides under scrutiny, with the tired insinuation that the government is using the media for its own ends.

Rather than questioning the motivations behind the story, Grech should be busy giving a factual and convincing reply to the questions raised by the media. And while Grech emerged damaged, how far can his opponents use this episode without further harming themselves?

Labour cannot play equivalence

Only Labour’s most fanatical voters would not see the irony of Labour lashing at Grech’s fiscal morality when most of its MPs gave a vote of confidence to Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, both of which had set up a company in Panama which included Yorgen Fenech’s 17 Black as a client, a confidence vote. Although Abela raised the bar by kicking Mizzi out, he still faces the problem posed by Joseph Muscat’s legacy, leading a party, which is collectively responsible for a state capture that ensured impunity for those involved in scandals which weigh so heavily on Labour’s moral credentials.

Neither is Abela, a beneficiary of massive direct orders under both PN and PL administrations, the best person to attack the integrity of others. Abela himself refused to commit to drop his own family’s legal brief for the PA when first asked about a potential conflict of interest. It was only following an outcry on the media that Abela committed himself to drop the legal brief.

Moreover, the scrutiny accorded to Grech’s fiscal affairs may well end up raising the bar for all aspiring professional and self-employed politicians, including those who switched to Labour’s side. This could be the most beneficial consequence of this case: that of raising the bar for all the lawyers, architects and businesspersons who join the political fray.

Delia can’t raise the bar for Grech

At best, news of Grech’s fiscal troubles may give Delia some respite from the media focus on his own troubles. It somewhat exposes a degree of double standards on the part of those who were keen to exaggerate any failing on the part of Delia, but are quick to absolve Grech before he even answers the questions.

However, there is also a danger of the Delia camp using this case to create a false equivalence which absolves everyone. Twistin the moralism of the so-called ‘holier than thou’ just to normalize irregular behaviour, ignores the sizeable percentage of PN voters in 2017 who found Labour’s corruption intolerable. Delia may benefit from the disillusionment of PN members who expected better of Grech, but even this could backfire by generating greater interest in the PN’s ethics commission’s report.

Delia can only benefit if his position is found to be any better than Grech, i.e. if he has settled all pending dues and is no longer in a weak position when confronting government to which no Opposition leader should owe money.

Anyway, Delia’s problems go beyond fiscal compliance. Reports of extensive communication between Yorgen Fenech and close aide Pierre Portelli are bound to reverberate on Delia. In the circumstances, the greatest consideration made by members will be which of the two candidates is most electable. To win Delia will have to prove that he is more electable than Grech – and therefore, Grech will therefore probably win this contest.

Neither Grech nor Delia

There is a chance that the latest revelations may frustrate those within the PN who settled for Grech, simply because they had been deprived of a wider choice of candidates. It was under the impression that Grech had no skeletons in his cupboard that other valid candidates withdrew from the race. Will they be resentful at Grech for entering the race with baggage of which they were not aware of when they agreed to withdraw? Grech’s candidature was based on the assumption that he is the closest you can get to a Delia without a baggage. Now PN members have no alternative to Delia but Grech, two outsiders that to different degrees, have brought some of their baggage to the party’s stables, with Grech disposing of it just before entering.

People are likely to become more cynical

While Grech still has a strong chance of winning, his major problem will be convincing an even more cynical electorate that he really means it when he speaks of higher standards in politics.

His fiscal problems and his failure to come clean before the news emerged in the newspapers, may well have weakened his credentials among M.O.R. voters who were warming up to the new PN leader but are now disappointed.

Grech can only narrow the gap with Labour if he reaches out to this category. Rather than blaming Labour for the bad news, he could show more humility, explain his position, if need be apologise, and move on with dignity.

Otherwise he would be contributing to increased cynicism, something which may lead to a paralysis in the battle against corruption.

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