Tuesday 07 February 2023

Holding up a mirror to Maltese society

This column first appeared in Malta Today

A can of worms has been opened as a result of this political crisis which has brought into the open things we have always known but which we have either never really questioned or which, over time, have become part of what we nonchalantly dismiss as “our culture”.  

Never as much as these last few weeks have we been forced to examine our own values, our conscience and our concept of right and wrong. How much do we tolerate it and close an eye when lines are crossed (sometimes, occasionally, never?). Now is a good a time as any to be honest and ask ourselves whether there is even a line in the first place or does everything become blurred and fuzzy the closer we get to those tantalising temptations which present themselves in various shapes and forms thanks to an abuse of power?  “U iva, compared to what other people do, this is not really that bad”, we console ourselves reassuringly. 

Conflicts of interest abound in all strata of this small society of ours, and yet they seem to be shrugged off without batting an eyelid, because at the nucleus of it all we privately feel that if there is anything which can give us that extra edge in this dog eat dog world, then it is justifiable.   

In short, the shockwaves which have ripped through the nation with every new revelation have led us to this point in time, our very own day of reckoning.  We have had to stop running away from what has been staring us in the face for so many decades and admit to ourselves what it is we hold to be acceptable or not in the way things are done on this island.  Whether we like it or not, the unravelling of the Muscat administration has placed us in a tight corner which we cannot wriggle out of, and the current situation is holding up a brutal mirror to Maltese society, making us confront our own reflection.  Not surprisingly, not everyone is happy with what they are seeing, not only in themselves, but also in people they thought they knew, including family members, close friends and work colleagues.  

“I don’t care whether Muscat knew or did not know what was happening, he is still the best thing to have ever happened to Malta” is a sentiment I have read and heard in several variations over the last week and a half  The unwillingness or refusal to even consider the very idea of political and moral responsibility speaks volumes.  Many have pointed to a failure in our educational system; personally, I think it is more the consequence of decades of brainwashing where it is considered perfectly OK to take young children to mass meetings where they are indoctrinated from birth to be PL or PN for life, along with hefty doses of political party TV and radio stations blaring in the background of so many homes and turned on at full volume in so many cars, as they churn out unabashed propaganda. 

The real test of where everyone stands in the ‘what is right or wrong’ stakes, however, was particularly exemplified with the news that middleman Melvin Thema, who has been granted a Presidential pardon to turn state’s evidence and testify as a witness in the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder case, was handed a job with the public sector. It is appalling and horrifying enough that someone involved in an assassination was being paid from our taxes, even if it was only for a few months, with all the chilling implications that brings with it.  But without detracting anything away from the horrific reason this job was given to him, it is the breezy casualness of it all which is the crux of the matter.

A powerful businessman (who commissioned the murder) tells Theuma he will be receiving a phone call from an employee at Castille, in the heart of the Office of the Prime Minister, and this employee then puts Theuma in touch with the PM’s own Chief of Staff (arguably the second if not THE most powerful man in the country) and just like that Theuma is given a job with the Housing Maintenance and Embellishment Co., one of the many hastily set up Government-owned companies which have flourished over the last few years.  He never shows up for work, he gets a couple of paycheques and his job is terminated a few months later.   Bella la vita. 

The OPM employee and the former head of the company have both been called in for questioning and yet Keith Schembri, the man who gave Theuma the job, is still out and about. 

Even without the dark, sinister reasons for Theuma’s employment, the very fact that a couple of phone calls get you a Government job is something which everyone knows about, but no one really talks about.  Even those who should know better have defended the OPM employee (“he was only following orders”) and the head of the Government agency (another one who seemed oblivious to what was happening under his nose).  If we are ever going to get out from under this quagmire of “how things have always been done” we first need to make it clear that no, a ġobb mal-Gvern for votes or dispensed as a favour is not something we should dismiss with a light wave of the hand and a cynical chuckle.  

And yet it is common knowledge that canvassers, constituents, chums and buddies (and assorted members of their extended families) of any politician who gets elected are always the first in line with their palm extended waiting for that handout, usually in the form of a non-job in which you don’t have to do much, but simply show up. In some cases, as with Theuma, even showing up is too much of an effort.  The fewer the skills and qualifications, the more likelihood these people will be in that queue, because that is how they have been raised and that is the environment they were moulded into. “Il-Ministru” is the key to their no-stress life and a guaranteed income, which explains the deference, the kowtowing,  and the nauseating reverence with which politicians are held.  For decades, whole constituencies are rumoured to have landed phantom Government jobs, for which me and you are paying as we slog away at real jobs, while dutifully paying our taxes. 

But do not think that this attitude merely stops with those who come from a disadvantaged background and who were brought up to grovel for a handout in this humiliating way. 

When I was made redundant from my senior post with The Malta Independent 8 years ago, an acquaintance immediately and very nonchalantly told me “you should go speak to someone”.  To say I was taken aback by this suggestion is putting it mildly. Now, anyone who is Maltese (or who has lived here long enough) knows exactly what the euphemism “someone” actually means.  In case you have just landed here (in which case I sympathise for such bad timing), it means someone high up, in power, in politics, some politician, or even a Minister.  Knowing ‘someone’ in this country can get you through the door in more ways than one, whether it is getting ‘someone’ to push through a permit or to wangle a favour, wriggling out of penalties or the ultimate jackpot, a cushy, highly lucrative job.  

And as we know lucrative, cushy jobs have been handed out like sweets from a candy shop. Jobs for the boys and girls who are educated and have plenty of qualifications behind their name are merely dressed up in a much nicer package than some low level employee like Melvin Theuma. “Persons of Trust” they are called, and boy are there a lot of them.  So many persons, so much trust.

Others are given the blanket name of “consultants”. This too is a decades-long habit, as is the habit of stuffing Government department and ministries with people who were former journalists with the respective party media.   Labour simply took it to a whole other level, seemingly determined to out-do the PN in a sickening game of “anything you can do, I can do better”.  The only trouble is that it is doing it with our money, instead of our money being channelled to where it is really needed in education, health, public transport, social services and other crucial sectors. 

As for the current crisis, despite the fact that each new story has hit our senses like the waves of a relentless tsunami, I for one am glad it has all been gushing out, like an infected boil which was festering below the surface but which needed to be lanced so that all the pus can come out. I know that is a gross analogy but it is deliberate – everything we are hearing is truly gross. It was high time for a thorough purge.  It was high time that we took a long hard look at ourselves in the mirror to understand what really got us to this point. 

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