Monday 19 April 2021

I think we’re going to need a bigger jail

This column first appeared in Malta Today

The latest Malta Today survey published on 15 March asked about people’s main concerns, and the replies are very telling.

When the data is broken down by political allegiance, COVID-19 is a concern among 88% of Labour voters and 75.3% of Nationalist voters. However, while the survey showed that the second highest concern for PN voters is corruption at 16.3%, significantly, corruption does not feature as a concern among Labour voters. Their second highest worry after COVID-19 is the Opposition at 2.7%.

I use the word ‘significantly’ because it demonstrates yet again the recurring malaise Malta has always suffered from, namely how people’s concerns shift and change depending on whether it is their party in Government. Although it seems like a lifetime ago, Muscat campaigning on the back of the oil procurement scandal which hit the news during the 2013 election campaign, now sounds like a twisted joke in the light of everything that has happened. But as pointed out in May 2017 by James Debono in his incisive comparison of Labour’s 2013 and 2017 campaigns, “Judging by polls conducted before the election, the oil scandal was not itself a game-changer but served to reinforce the views of switchers who had already decided to vote for the PL.”

When Alfred Sant made corruption his rallying cry in the 2008 election, it did not really hold any sway over the electorate; Labour voters did not exactly flock to vote for him in their droves, and among the PN crowd, he was mocked about his wig instead.

And while PN voters are more concerned about corruption than Labour voters at the moment, 16.3% of 649 respondents in the MT survey is not exactly an earth shattering number either.

We often hear that people get the Government they deserve, and if this adage is true that also means that PN supporters who switched their vote not once but twice (despite the Panama offshore scandal and the Egrant allegations which hounded the 2017 campaign) were just as indifferent to accusations of corruption as Labour supporters seem to be now. The turning point, of course, was in the final televised debate when Simon Busuttil failed to produce any real proof that Egrant belonged to Michelle Muscat, as had been alleged. In the fraught atmosphere and political tensions prevailing at the time, that sealed the decision for those who had to yet make up their minds about whom they should believe.

Even though, four years later, we still do not know who owns Egrant, the information that Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi owned shell companies was already an established fact in the 2017 elections. In fact, we had known about it for a year, yet no action was taken by the Police or by Muscat himself who stubbornly insisted on keeping them by his side (a decision which would ultimately prove to be his downfall). But the signal given by the electorate which swept Muscat’s Labour Party into power for a second term with a huge unprecedented majority (the largest in Maltese political history) was that shady dealings by those in the upper echelons of Government did not matter after all, “because they delivered.”

The inevitable question of course is, at what price, and at what cost to human life and the soul of our nation is it OK to keep closing an eye to corruption?

Over these last few years, the question of whom to believe in this whole political saga has been at the back of a lot of minds, but all of this came to a head last weekend when 11 people, were not only arraigned in Court but, much to everyone’s shock, were also denied bail (except for Vince Buhagiar, former Chairman of Progress Press, who was released on bail on compassionate grounds because of his age). Those currently in jail include Keith Schembri, his father Alfio, Brian Tonna and others who were involved in the complicated web of money-laundering, tax evasion and “bribery disguised as commissions”, as it has been described in Court.

The testimony we have been hearing all week is a result of the criminal charges brought against these 11 people following the conclusions of the inquiry requested by Simon Busuttil back in 2017. Carrying the now famous box files, he presented evidence that Keith Schembri had passed on kickbacks to Adrian Hillman, who was then Allied Newspapers managing director, for the purchase of a new printing press. The wheelings and dealings which started in 2008 to set up offshore structures so that those involved could pocket a piece of the juicy pie, add up to millions, and represent unheard of sums for the likes of ordinary mortals.

While the revelations have rocked The Times newspaper, they have rocked the country even more. Those who refused to understand why Keith Schembri should have been removed from his post as soon as his name cropped up in the Panama Papers, will hopefully now realise what the implications of having an offshore company mean.

In Court , Schembri claimed that he did not know what it meant to be a PEP, a politically exposed person, until becoming chief of staff at the OPM in 2013. But even if he had not become involved in politics, what is being described in Court which pre-dates that time, is still illegal.

To quote from the testimony of Inspector Joseph Xerri: “What should have been a relatively simple transaction became a convoluted series of transactions intended to hide commissions… coordinated by the same people who were involved in the deal. The police believe Keith Schembri paid out a total of $5.5 million in backhanders. The prices were inflated. The GWS machine was bought for €8 million from the US supplier and sold to Progress Press at a €5 million mark-up. Hillman and Buhagiar were working against the interests of the company. A complex web of inter-related transactions had been uncovered. They all received in their own names, a number of payments in offshore companies. The behaviour is consistent with layering for money laundering purposes.”

It is irrelevant when all this happened, and who was in Government at the time. The bottom line is that those so close to the seat of power, especially those in non-elected executive posts, need to be completely above reproach. This is the anthesis of the type of person who should have been the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff. Muscat’s grim legacy will be that he obstinately refused to admit this, until the situation in the country escalated and took a much darker turn, and it was much too late.

Self-praise is no recommendation

While PM Robert Abela has been learning how to be more circumspect when he speaks to the nation, he still tends to fall into the same old trap which many politicians cannot seem to avoid. Inevitably, his discourse will always take a wrong turn and ends up becoming a paen of self-praise, listing all the things his Government has done.

Now, I know he has had the unenviable bad timing of becoming Prime Minister just when a global pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt, while dealing with one political crisis after another. But in life, I feel it is always best to show humility and let others praise you instead. No matter how much it might hurt to be constantly criticised and have your mistakes flung back in your face, that, I’m afraid, comes with the job. I just find it completely tone deaf to the public mood to turn a press conference or an encounter with the press into a bragging session. My advice to the PM is to let those who support him sing his praises; I assure him there are plenty around who are quite ready to type “Prosit Prim!” as soon as they log on to FB.

Another thing he should not do is to turn a cry for help from a Cystic Fibrosis patient into a PR stunt. It is uncomfortable to see those who are suffering from any chronic condition having to resort to the media, begging to be given state assistance. It should never have to come to this, not in our country which prides itself on such excellent free healthcare. But for Abela to then set up a video call to tell this patient that she would be given the free medicine she desperately needs was unnecessary and cringeworthy. A press statement would have sufficed and in the end would have probably gained him more political mileage than the way he went about it.

Those advising him on how to handle the media need to learn the art of understatement because when it comes to sensitive issues such as addressing people’s health concerns, it requires a delicate touch – like fashion, when it comes to self-promotion, less is always more.

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