Corruption is not a top issue for many: so should we stop talking about it?

Why is corruption so low on the list of the electorate’s priorities? James Debono gives six reasons why this is so and why politicians should not interpret this as an alibi for sidelining the issue

File photo
File photo

A MaltaToday survey showed widespread distrust in the government’s ability to fight corruption, with 57% expressing a negative judgement on Labour’s anti-corruption credentials. Yet only 7% thought that corruption was the most important issue facing the country. The finding is disturbing coming in the wake of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the arraignment of a powerful businessman with intimate ties to the political class for her murder.

These results can be interpreted as a clear sign that corruption is not a vote-winner and parties should focus on the issues that matter for the electorate. But here are five reasons why this would be wrong and harmful to society and the wellbeing of future generations.

The fact that corruption is low in people’s electoral priorities despite all that happened in the past years is itself an indictment of what is wrong in Maltese politics: namely, tribalism

Tribalism was the greatest obstacle to a national awakening following Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder. A pervading mentality that “my party’s shit smells better than yours” has resulted in a zero-sum game where the sins of each side end up cancelling the sins of the other, resulting in a situation where redemption remains elusive. This is why it is impossible to eradicate corruption without addressing tribalism.

But that would need a serious commitment for electoral reform, a reform of public broadcasting, the abolition of the party-owned media and concrete steps to regulate lobbying by businessmen and party financing. It is telling that on the eve of an election, and despite all that happened since 2015, parliament has still to approve a revised code of ethics to regulate gifts to politicians; and Malta still lacks a transparency register where meetings between ministers and businessmen are recorded.

Abela could win a bigger majority that Muscat’s: he’ll either be the continuity candidate or the statesman to shed Labour’s entrenched regime image and lead its moral renewal

Wishful thinkers believe that a strong vote for Robert Abela, possibly with a larger margin of votes than Joseph Muscat, would give him the mandate to ditch his predecessor’s legacy whose mandate he inherited. A strong mandate would certainly make Abela his own man.

But this gives the impression that the buck stops with arraigning and investigating the corrupt cabal surrounding Muscat, taking away the focus from reforms needed to stop the cycle from happening again.

Without Abela’s own ‘Khruschev moment’, a strong vote for Abela’s Labour may well be interpreted that the electorate has also absolved this legislature despite the long list of corruption scandals which plagued it. By side-lining the issue, Abela would be sending a mixed message to his electorate, which includes many who still believe that nothing was actually wrong and that corruption is an invention of the opposition.

But to address this Abela also has to ditch the army of sycophants, including those on the party media, which downplay corruption by acting like the mouthpieces for some Third World regime, just with the aim of entrenching their party in power forever.

Like the mythological Janus, Abela will probably seek to keep his electoral bloc united, giving an impression of change to those appalled by his predecessor’s antics, and an impression of continuity to those who still adore Muscat. The risk is that Abela will keep his two faces even after the election.

Instead Abela can make two clear commitments: that of leaving no stone unturned in investigating all deals involving Yorgen Fenech, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, and to introduce a firewall between his party and big business, which would prevent this from happening again.

The solution to clientelism is not a technocracy for ‘whizz-kids’ like Konrad Mizzi, but an overhaul of party financing laws which limits spending by aspiring politicians

While his candidates have spent lavishly on their constituency offices in the last two years, Abela has suggested that Malta needs to discuss reforms through which the PM can directly appoint technocrats.

Let’s not forget that Konrad Mizzi was introduced to the electorate as some kind of all-knowing whizz-kid.  Technocrats, especially those entrenched in the private sector, bring with them a baggage of conflict of interests, and connections which further erode any notion of a firewall between business and politics.

Even dictators like Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet relied on technocrats to govern the economy but that did not save their countries from both corruption and murderous authoritarianism.

A strong democracy is one which produces capable politicians, not one which has to resort to ‘experts’ to make up for their incompetence.

The opposition failed us by weaponising corruption instead of fighting for structural change and communicating this as the basis of a manifesto based on transparency, fairness and equality

The opposition and some of its perceived allies are at fault for weaponising corruption in a bid to fast-track their way back to power. In this mind-frame the opposition still finds it hard to recognise that Abela has taken some significant steps to restore institutional sanity in the country.

Not only have some overdue reforms been implemented under pressure of FATF and European institutions, but Konrad Mizzi has been expelled from the party and Keith Schembri has been arraigned. Since Panamagate, the Opposition has been keen on focusing on Labour’s defective DNA rather than acknowledging that the problem is rooted in the absence of a firewall between politicians, big business and criminal elements.

Unlike Sant in 1996, the PN is reluctant on tackling the friends of friends network, because it has historically relied on the same networks to hold on to power in the past. That the Opposition is also compromised by its own past and present ties with big business is something, which only die-hards can deny.

What the Opposition can do is not to repeat the 2017 electoral campaign, which equated corruption with Labour, but to campaign on a platform which restores fairness and transparency in all aspects of life. In this way the anti-corruption outcry can be translated in to a programme for a better life for citizens who resent having to suck up to politicians to get what should be theirs by right.

It was corruption in the form of the undue influence of big business on politicians that led to the assassination of Daphne. The government’s failure to send a message of healing by recognising Daphne Caruana Galizia as a victim of the criminal nexus sends a chilling message. On the eve of the first election since here assassination, Abela still owes this to the nation and party he represents

Last Sunday, Nationalist leader Bernard Grech was right in slamming Prime Minister Robert Abela for failing to speak on assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia four years after her murder. While Abela had put an end to the odious confrontation which saw government removing flowers from the shrine opposite the law courts, a segment of his supporters continue right up to this day to vilify her legacy.

Abela has missed a golden opportunity of making a symbolic gesture aimed at his own supporters: sending them a message that her assassination was not the deserved outcome of her mockery and gossip, but a terrorist attack against a democracy of which Labour is an integral part of.

Doing so before the election would not harm Abela’s electoral prospects, as Muscat loyalists have nowhere else to go. But it could go a long way in restoring his party’s social democratic credentials and to root out online haters from the party.

Corruption has long-term economic and environmental impacts. Corrupt nations may still thrive but they end up paying a big price for keeping beneficiaries happy

The country has already paid the price of corruption by being grey-listed by FATF. But corruption generally becomes a big issue when people especially those in business start feeling left out from patronage networks. As long as there is enough wealth to keep everyone happy, people are less likely to complain.

But even if the economy keeps growing, corruption has a corrosive effect. Lobbying by big business also undermines the common good and casts a shadow on privatisation deals and planning regulation.

For example in a bid to keep all developers happy, Labour has changed planning regulations which permit five storey blocks in most areas. The end result was a construction boom which left Malta uglier.

And while Malta has benefitted from its small size and its niche in the world economy as a financial centre, it also shares the maladies which contributed to the ruin of other southern Mediterranean nations despite their previous growth spurts.