Saturday 17 November 2018

Politicians behaving badly 

This article first appeared in Malta Today

I completely agree that gutter journalism which only attempts to smear the  reputation, ruin the relationships and attack the psychological wellbeing of a person in the public eye purely as an act of partisan revenge should not be encouraged. After all, everyone potentially has skeletons in their closet and when the gloves are off, adversaries are not above using dirty games in politics to bring their intended target down.  The end result is a mud-fest as the ultimate aim is to dig up as much dirt as possible, especially with an election drawing closer. 

There are, however, instances when the public’s right to know means that the information should be published because it is directly relevant to their character and whether they are fit to hold public office. It is especially essential that it is made public when it is damaging enough that it may expose the politician to probable blackmail.

Whether or not it will be proved that David Casa snorts cocaine, what has struck me most about this story, like the Chris Cardona brothel story before it, is the public’s reaction.

Let’s leave aside the hypocrisy of justifying or believing/not believing something depending on whether it is a politician from the party you support. For that kind of twisted reasoning, I am convinced, there is no real cure.  No, what interests me more is the mindset of those who state that what a politician does in their private life is immaterial, irrespective of what the behaviour is, and that it should not matter when it comes to their political career.

Is that really the point we have reached? Have we set the bar so low and given up on finding decent, upstanding people to stand for office that allegations of unseemly behaviour are now being casually brushed aside?  It is also interesting to me how the public, which used to be so utterly shocked by things which to me seemed irrelevant to public office, has now become so completely nonchalant.

For example, it does not seem that long ago that attempts were made to vilify the character of former PM Alfred Sant simply because in his annulment proceedings he had stated he did not believe in marriage.  But, in fact, when I checked the date of when this story broke, I was surprised to learn that 20 years had passed. That’s right, it was in 1998 when the headline ‘Alfred Sant does not believe in marriage’ was considered a front page story.  Of course the most contentious aspect of that story was the fact that this was an extremely private matter, and splashing this information in a newspaper tabloid-style was considered unheard of up until then.  For all intents and purposes, in Malta there was an unwritten rule in the media that politicians’ private lives were off-limits. 

I still remember my reaction to that story which was, really, who cares? I was of the opinion, and still am, that the breakdown of someone’s marriage should not impinge on their ability to lead a country or hold public office.   And yet, because successive Labour leaders were not the cookie cutter image of what the Maltese electorate seems to prefer, it was easy to attack them on this front. Mintoff was de facto separated, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici was a confirmed bachelor (and by extension, considered rather an oddball) and Alfred Sant’s marriage had been annulled.   Repeated references to these details had an effect on the public’s psyche especially when on the other side of the political fence there was always a Church-going leader with a traditional Maltese family in tow.   So predictably, and as intended, Sant’s statement was met by a lot of shocked tut-tutting and x’għarukażas (how shameful) being bandied about by those who considered themselves morally upright, and whose own families had never had the misfortune of being struck by marital discord. Those were the pre-divorce years, of course, and little could they know how much Malta was going to change in less than two decades.  

When I recall how much ruckus the (relatively innocuous) Alfred Sant story had caused, it seems almost laughable.  The recent stories about a Minister who allegedly frequented a German brothel while on Government business or an MEP who is an alleged cokehead while he is supposed to be representing our country in Brussels have, in comparison, elicited only a fraction of the reaction.  The latter two stories are on a completely different, more serious level, of course, and I am only using the former as an example of how much has changed in the way the average voter thinks.  

From the comments I’ve read, I’ve learned that half of Malta (and half of Parliament) is allegedly doing coke.  The general sentiment is that doing drugs is so commonplace that it is no big deal if an MEP is (allegedly) doing the same.  The relatively breezy attitude towards the story was surprising to me – you would have thought that David Casa had been caught furtively smoking a cigarette behind the EU Parliament building in a no smoking zone.   Even the comments which were critical of him veered towards quasi-grudging admiration, and satire with quips about the white line.  Very reminiscent, in fact, of the way in which the Cardona brothel story tended to draw the wink, wink, nudge, nudge type of comment as people guffawed and made jokes to their heart’s content. 

Yes, the Maltese zeitgeist has indeed changed.  If we go even further back, there was the notorious porn film in the 80s, photos of which were leaked to Nationalist newspapers, which featured a high-ranking official within the Labour Party – the scandal was so great he was forced to leave the island.  If it had to happen today, he would probably be slapped on the back like a hero, handed a cigar, and have a Facebook page opened in his honour with 300,000 followers registered within the first two hours.  

It seems to me that the majority of the public no longer cares about expecting high standards from its elected representatives.  The general sentiment of, “well he is just doing what everyone else does, anyway” is worrying to me, because if we are so blase’ about this type of behaviour from those who should know better, then what does that say about the state of moral decay in the country?  This is exactly the way people shrugged off the revelations from the Panama Papers implicating Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, and the general casualness with which this news was met.  I lost count of how many times I heard the phrase, “well it’s their money”, and the inability of the people saying this to comprehend that you cannot have someone in public office hiding their money to evade tax, when we as common taxpayers have to declare and pay every single cent.   Of course, the logical conclusion to this is that, given half a chance, those who shrug off tax evasion by politicians would do the same (or are already doing so).

In the same vein, those who shrug off allegations of a politician visiting a brothel or a politician who uses cocaine, see nothing wrong with it because they would (or might already) do the same.  It is not considered immoral or unacceptable or even illegal, because in their eyes, it isn’t.  This to me speaks volumes about the deterioration in the moral fibre of this nation – not moral in the Bible-thumping, religious sense, but just basic morals of people who know right from wrong.  People who can recognize that when one holds public office then one has been elected to serve the nation and yes, set an example. 

For, if we close one eye and are unaffected by politicians behaving badly, then I’m afraid we have no one but ourselves to blame if the next generation becomes more and more degenerate, with no role models to look up to and no moral compass to speak of. 

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