Lands revamp not enough to prevent further corruption, MP warns

New lands parliamentary secretary Deborah Schembri says Falzon’s resignation proof ‘bar has been raised on political responsibility’ 

Lands parliamentary secretary Deborah Schembri and Opposition MP Ryan Callus with Saviour Balzan on Reporter. Photo: Ray Attard
Lands parliamentary secretary Deborah Schembri and Opposition MP Ryan Callus with Saviour Balzan on Reporter. Photo: Ray Attard

The Prime Minister’s plans to revamp the Lands Department will not be enough to prevent future incidents of corruption and abuse, Opposition MP Ryan Callus warned.

“While the PN welcomes any improvements to the law, we must bear in mind that the Gaffarena expropriation cases did not occur because of problems within the current law or legal loopholes, but because the law wasn’t respected,” Callus – the PN’s spokesperson for planning issues – said on Monday night’s edition of Reporter. “Improving the law won’t be enough to prevent corruption, as the government itself is corrupt.”

As such, he disagreed with AD deputy chairperson Carmel Cacopardo’s claim that the problems within the Lands Department had been accumulating for several years.

“The Gaffarena scandal was not the fault of Lands’ employees, but of the politicians who interfered.”

Deborah Schembri – making her first public appearance as lands parliamentary secretary – came out fighting against the Nationalist Party, accusing it of “living on another planet by not recognizing the importance of revamping the laws that regulate government-owned land.

“There doesn’t exist any legal mechanism through which land is evaluated or through which it can be ascertained whether land to potentially be expropriated serves a public purpose or not,” she said. “The problems within the Lands Department have existed and were ignored for years, but we will finally tackle it for the sake of transparency and good governance.”

Schembri was named parliamentary secretary last week, replacing Michael Falzon who resigned in the wake of a damning National Audit Office report into the expropriation of half a Valletta palazzo from businessman Mark Gaffarena.

During the programme, she praised her predecessor for having “raised the bar” on political responsibility in Malta and defended Prime Minister Joseph Muscat for having embraced and publicly thanked the shamed MP during a PL political event on Sunday.

“It wasn’t a case of turning Falzon into a hero,” she said. “The very concept of political responsibility is that politicians shoulder responsibility for problems that occur underneath them, even if they may not have been personally responsible for them.

“Falzon shouldered political responsibility, despite having disagreed with certain aspects of the NAO report.

“No politician under previous Nationalist administration had ever resigned in the wake of an NAO report. The Labour government has raised the standards of governance, while [Opposition leader] Simon Busuttil merely speaks about doing so.”

When asked by host Saviour Balzan whether Maltese politicians will someday shoulder responsibility and resign without having to await the conclusions of a report, she said that “political standards are continuously improving and it wouldn’t surprise me if we go down that path”.

However, Callus argued that Falzon did not resign out of his own free will, but was rather forced to resign by Muscat, who had his back against the wall once the NAO report was published.

“Muscat was handed a report by the IAID [Internal Audit and Investigations Department] several months ago, and it turned out to be very similar to the NAO report. Why didn’t Falzon resign then?

“I admire politicians, like [former Opposition MP and health minister] Joe Cassar who choose to shoulder responsibility and resign out of their own free will.”

He teased Schembri to tread with caution in her role, as “parliamentary secretaries are made to shoulder responsibility for Muscat’s errors”.  

‘Busuttil’s mafia allegations due to disgust at state of affairs’

Simon Busuttil on Sunday described the government as “mafia operating from Castille”, an accusation that Schembri promptly denounced as “disgusting”.

However, Callus defended his leader and said that his accusations were made “due to his disgust at the level of corruption uncovered by the NAO”.

“If you had owned one of the four quarters of the palazzo, wouldn’t you have been disgusted when you found out that the government was negotiating with Gaffarena to expropriate his share behind your backs?” he questioned. “Busuttil was so disgusted that he described the government as mafia.”

The Opposition MP claimed that “everybody is now speaking about the web of corruption that the government has spun”, citing a recent MaltaToday survey that shows that public concerns on corruption have reached the highest level ever reached by the newspaper’s surveys.

“Muscat’s attempts to revoke the deal through a court case are too little, too late.”

However, Schembri hit back, arguing that Muscat has admitted that the Gaffarena case was undignified to the government but that he is now trying to do something about it.

“The Opposition had every right to open a court case but chose to sit on its hands instead. Busuttil’s claim that the case has been designed to fail is the latest in a series of attacks on institutions, this time against the Attorney General.” 

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