Saturday 31 October 2020

Do we measure politicians by our own yardstick?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

When the news spread like wildfire on Tuesday morning that the assets of (Muscat’s former Chief of Staff) Keith Schembri and (managing partner of accounting firm Nexia BT) Brian Tonna, as well as that of their relatives, had been frozen by the Criminal Court on “gross suspicion of money laundering”, a section of FB erupted into a potpourri of gleeful reactions. The euphoria was cranked up a notch at the news that the two men, along with Tonna’s business partner Karl Cini, had been arrested. This reaction is understandable as it is coming from those who for several years have called for the heads of Schembri and Tonna, the architects of what looks increasingly like a pre-planned strategy to be close to the seat of power, grab as much as they could through wheeling and dealing, hide their spoils, and become even richer.

(Here of course I must insert all the usual disclaimers that, to date, no allegations have been proven, there is the presumption of innocence etc, but let us just say that for it to have reached this stage where assets have been frozen, and arrests have been made, things are not looking very good). For the moment, Schembri, Tonna and Cini are out on Police bail and cannot leave the island.

Of course, the question begs itself. Why wasn’t everyone equally happy to see this latest turn of events? Surely we should all be applauding to see the lumbering wheels of our judicial system finally turning and justice taking its course?

If I had an answer to that I would be able to solve Malta’s greatest enigma: why are so many voters indifferent towards corruption or the unethical behaviour of politicians? Probably the closest I can come to explaining it is that, for many, it is taken as a given that politics is merely a stepping stone for not just attaining heady power and wielding considerable clout, but also to make money. Shocking as this may sound to outside observers, I have seen countless shrugs and ’so what’s?’ being voiced, at hearing the news that this or that politician has used his position for ill-gotten gains. The rationale behind this goes something like this, “miskin, it’s a hard job, who would want to do it, it’s not really that well-paid, they are always at people’s beck and call, never a private moment to themselves, always being criticised, so if they make some extra money on the side, well, allura hux? They deserve it.”

The concept that one runs for office purely to serve the public is often met by incredulous, “you have GOT to be kidding me” looks. The notion that taking a slice of the pie is completely unacceptable, not to mention illegal, and that it is considered as a kickback also does not seem to penetrate some people’s minds. It is also not easy to convince them that funds for public projects which somehow make their way into the private pockets of those in power, otherwise known as graft, is also not done. “No, no it’s just like any other kind of commission”, they will argue, for all the world as if they do not mind paying their taxes only to see them being funnelled into offshore accounts. Of course, if they are even paying taxes themselves, that is.

For that is the crucial and fundamental point here – the way in which people react to political corruption is often measured by their own yardstick. If that is the way they lead their lives, by evading tax at every juncture, and swindling others when and if they can, they will hardly bat an eyelid at what those in power are doing. It is such a way of life for them, that they are perplexed as to why it is even an issue. It Is comparable to those who are so used to peppering their every sentence with swear words, that they do not see what is so wrong with it, and do not even know they are doing it.

However, to get back to public reaction towards the above arrests, there is also a caveat to all this. Let us leave aside the blinkered diehards with vested interests who are omnipresent on FB, ready to justify even the most appalling behaviour. It will not go unnoticed that many Labour supporters were more muted, and their reaction is best described as grimly silent, as they digested the implications of this latest turn of events. Their reaction is equally understandable: here is a demographic which put their faith in Muscat pre-2013, only to be completely let down and disappointed by political scandals which flew in the face of all the grand electoral promises “to fight corruption”. Many are grappling with a whole array of conflicting emotions, wondering how they could have been so duped and so swept away by all the protestations of innocence. It is often difficult to admit that trust has been placed in those who prove to be untrustworthy, or that one’s judgement was flawed, but such is life. Politicians are mere mortals after all, even though they sometimes like to portray themselves as infallible superior beings.

Other erstwhile Labour voters are not simply disillusioned, but deeply angry and disgusted beyond words at how the party they once believed in has morphed into today’s version. All this goes beyond one’s political ideology, of course, for how can any parent these days try to instil sound values in their children with time-old idioms such as “cheaters never prosper”…when all around us we see examples which spell out the opposite?

Meanwhile, as Malta continues to be sliced into chunks of valuable real estate for money hungry property developers to build their high rise buildings on, I often wonder if the damage to the country, both physical and moral, is now irreversible.

What’s a little tax evasion between friends? (In bold)

The laissez-faire attitude which many people have towards evading tax was clearly amplified recently with the news that Bernard Grech only settled his tax bill when he threw his hat in the ring for the PN leadership race.

However, Grech did not explain why he had failed to pay taxes in the first place (in two separate periods) and why he had failed to settle VAT payments in a timely manner between 2014 and 2019. It is significant that all this has only emerged because Grech as well as Adrian Delia had to undergo a due diligence exercise by the PN’s candidate commission.

Delia’s tax problems, of course, have long been a matter of contention about his suitability as PN leader – ever since he was elected three years ago in fact. So the irony has not been lost on anyone that the man touted to be his “more respectable” replacement, seems to have had quite similar financial issues.

The message seems to be that ordinary people (or should I say chumps?) have to pay their income tax and VAT on time, but then if you fail to submit your returns for several years and happen to be a lawyer turned politician, then don’t worry, we can sort something out.

When so many people and corporations don’t pay their tax, or figure out how to evade tax through some creative accounting, we are all losers. The money which is withheld from the nation’s coffers is money which should be going towards social services, health care and education. It could also go a long way towards improving the salaries of professionals in crucial sectors such as our valuable front liners in the health service and teachers. Just think about that the next time you look at your paycheque.

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