Yours insincerely

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Yesterday evening’s cabinet reshuffle came out looking like some kind of blitz. Timing is crucial in the business of politics and rest assured that the “when” of this announcement is just as important to Muscat as the “how” of the reshuffle itself. After months of prevarication on a decision that should be part of the elementary package of any politician Muscat finally seemed to be deciding. There was, by the way, no sign of the infamous “audit” that was uselessly conjured up by Muscat as the ultimate delay tactic – as it were the audit turned out to be ‘not fit for purpose’ as the cliche goes.

I was reminded of the adage that “justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done”. In this case we should switch the ‘seen’ to a ‘seem’ and drop the doing completely. There is no doubt in the mind of anyone who is not an out and out labour sympathiser that the exercise was one of political prestidigitation – and a clumsy, almost ignorant, one at that.

Mizzi – the reason behind all the change – still sits in Cabinet and therefore still enjoys the full trust (excuse the pun) of the Prime Minister. Whatever portfolio he is or is not given is irrelevant. This is not a censure, this is not an admission of mistakes, this is quite simply an escamotage (read: piece of trickery) ad maiorem publicis perturbationem. Worse still the level of accountability (if ever there was any) of Konrad Mizzi has just dropped a couple of notches. What with having no defined task it will already be much harder than it already is for the opposition or fourth estate to get him to answer for whether he is delivering and whether he is delivering rightly.

Then there is the return of Manwel “Ok Siehbi” Mallia. This continues to reinforce the tradition of Muscat’s soldiers of steel politics – no matter how bad you slip, no matter how unfit for purpose you prove that you can be we will keep you close to the fold and find you a job among the “boys” (and gals). After Mallia’s impassioned defence of old style politics it was only a matter of time before he would return to the fray.

The key here is that Muscat’s set of cards is in short supply – there are no trumps, no more magic “supercandidates” who are relatively unknown that can be foisted on a fawning electorate. Whether it is because they are close lieutenants or because Muscat cannot afford to lose them, the same entourage is “doomed” to be rotated in the corridors of power as this government shifts from scandal to scandal.

“We can’t just drop everything, sir!”
“Mister Lipwig. Is there something in the word ‘tyrant’ you do not understand?”
― Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam

We could go on and examine how Brincat is the latest of recipient of the “kicked upstairs” mentality that has plagued Malta’s governmental policy towards the EU since the Dalli nomination. (Interestingly in that respect a recent Politico “power matrix” has shown our weak link in Europe to be Muscat the decision maker and our grace is only saved by Ambassador Marlene Bonnici’s perceived efficiency in Brussels. See the matrix here).  We could also wonder out loud as to why Muscat holds the energy portfolio closer to his chest than ever before.

Politico Power Matrix in EU
Politico Power Matrix in EU

We could do all of that and more but there is an underlying issue that is now blatantly obvious and that deserves our attention. At a time when the track record of Labour in government is wrought with scandals we continue to see attempts by political pundits to analyse the political aspect of this government. One recent article that caught my attention was James Debono’s “A template for social democracy, but at whose expense?”

What I find intriguing is this continuing willingness to engage Labour on political terms when I feel that the mask has long fallen. It is a bit like discussing the magical capabilities of the Wizard of Oz right after Toto’s curiosity finally unveiled him as a hypocritical charlatan who only managed to create the illusion of power through a mixture of chance and circumstance.

You know how it goes. Most analysis will start off by listing the litany of “achievements” of the Labour government (I also find it intriguing that top of that list is always inevitably Free Childcare) and we get to run through the whole gamut of “social rights” before we end up quoting the massive achievements in economic terms and employment. Marlene Farrugia has already done much to dispel this idea that economic success is something that happened only under Labour’s watch but mine here is not an exercise in partisan comparison.

What I constantly fail to see from day 1 of Muscat’s reign of manipulation is one basic currency in terms of the political market: Sincerity. Try as I may I am hard put to find a real “roadmap” as he likes to call it let alone a genuine will to change the face of the Maltese social and political landscape for the better. We may battle in a quest for the truth but underlying the truth or untruth in most matters is usually a question of sincere intentions. Sincerity is what I associate with a politician like Barak Obama or Guy Verhofstadt.

Sincerity is accompanied by passion, humility and a strong will to improve. I am not speaking of the utopic world of perfect politicians representing the will of the people (and sometimes recognising that the will of the people could actually be harmful for them) but i am talking about a genuine dedication to a set of values that are implemented in a holistic policy.

Muscat’s politics could not be further from the politics of sincerity. They are built on the dangerous precepts of populistic opportunism, built on divisiveness disguised as togetherness, built on a quest of power for the few disguised as some sort of class revolution and built on an economy with the truth that belies belief. There is no sincerity in the “social gains” under this government – only blatant opportunism to appease vociferous lobbies who would be the first to tell you that they do not care why the government supports them so long as they get what they want.

Managing the needs of different lobbies was easy in the first three years of Muscat. By opening the legislative and monetary tap he could seem to be magnanimous and caring. The lack of sincerity was of no consequence to the beneficiaries of what was very evidently from day one a free for all run for the money and a lax approach to legal consistency. The few principles touted during an election campaign were lost on the wayside on the carcade to Castille in 2013. Meritocracy? Sure, yours sincerely, Joseph (Inhobbkom).

It may sound like a cliche’ but the other adage “you may fool some of the people some of the time but you will not fool all of the people all of the time” is becoming more and more of a basic truth as time goes by. Especially though, after the denouement of Muscat’s insincerity yesterday evening at his press conference in Castille.

 


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Lessons in the Preservation of a Failed System

preservation_akkuza

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Muscat is still holding the fort on Panamagate. In an earlier post I had suggested that his strategy would be that of buying time and if that is still the case then we have entered the fatigue stage where, after having weathered the bulk of the storm, Muscat will be counting on the inability of the general public to keep up with the momentum of the scandal. He will, in fact, be hoping that the general sense of weariness and helplessness that our citizens have when confronted with politics will have a saving effect on himself and his government.

The latest polls do not suggest as much and the slide in trust ratings together with the fact that corruption leapt to the top of public concerns mean that the effects of Panamagate are here to stay for a while yet. The crucial bit here is that the snowball effect of Panamagate has meant that your average citizen’s distrust in politics and politicians was spread wider than the protagonists of that particular saga and that Malta finally caught up with the rest of the world when it started to question the operations of a whole class of politicians.

In fact one of the positive outcomes of Panamagate is the “coming out” of public disapproval of our political class and of the system that that very same class has created in order to survive and grow. While the party in opposition attempted to form a national rally inspired by and for the purposes of Panamagate it has become increasingly the case that the focus has shifted onto the wider issue of the rotten state of our political establishment and that includes the party in opposition itself.

Part of the reason for the aforementioned shift lies in the defensive tactics of a government under siege. The strategy of spin by Muscat required a dose of counter-accusations of supposed or alleged corruption in the rank and file of the Nationalist MPs. It was very evidently a deviation tactic aimed at distracting all and sundry from the very obvious fact that Mizzi’s and Schembri’s position were untenable without the need of further proof. What ensued was an open barrage  of exchanges with no holds barred. Truth, morality, public interest, the state of the nation – they all became expendable pawns in the partisan dialogue of insults and accusations.

The No Confidence Motion

In the middle of all this the nationalist party moved a motion of no confidence in the government. We all know of the infamous 13 hour debate and what has been very aptly described as the vote that resulted in 38 likes. In the middle of this debate we had one very interesting talk delivered by former Minister Mallia. Much of what Mallia said or did not say merits analysis.

In the first place it was evident that rather than use his time to defend the government’s achievements or to defend Konrad Mizzi’s position, Mallia was intent to unleash his remaining anger leftover from Malliagate – the infamous shooting incident involving his driver that cost Mallia his cabinet position. His speech targeted those who in his words attack an honest politican who is intent on serving the country and who ends up losing his chance to serve thanks to these “attacks”.

Secondly Mallia was quick to ride his reputation of an experienced lawyer by referring to his faith in the “rule of law”. This not too subtle shifting of goalposts would have been missed by the man in the streets but was a clear attempt to alter the standards that were under scrutiny. Political responsibility is not the same as criminal or legal liability. Mallia was in a way pandering to Muscat’s idea that “proof” of illegal funds was needed in order to have to get rid of Mizzi (and Schembri) – the kind of proof one would expect in a trial in a court of law. Mallia is either naive or ignorant in that respect: it is evident to any constitutional lawyer that the very rule of law he claims to love would have Mizzi and Schembri out on their arses the moment the very set up of a company in Panama is discovered.

Finally, and most importantly, watching Mallia speak brought back memories of politicians from what is by now a very different era of politics. Back in 1992 a huge earthquake struck Italian politics: we all remember it as Tangentopoli (“Kick Back Gate” if you like). What began as a magisterial investigation in illegal funding of parties ended up being an expurgation of a whole political class (Operation Clean Hands).

Mallia’s speech focused very much on attacks on the truth and on the suffering of the “honest politician” who is not in politics money but to serve. In his words, “attacks” by journalists were damaging the opportunities of politicians to serve. This sounded very much like a muffled appeal to both sides of the house to moderate their terms because in the long run it is the very politicians on both sides who risk  “suffering” the ignominy of an extirpation.

Back in 1992 Bettino Craxi, one of the gigantic figures of Italian politics, had stood up in the Italian Parliament shortly after the first scandals erupted and commented thus:

Su quanto sta accadendo la classe politica ha di che riflettere. (…) C’è un problema di moralizzazione della vita pubblica che deve essere affrontato con serietà e con rigore, senza infingimenti, ipocrisie, ingiustizie, processi sommari e grida spagnolesche. E’ tornato alla ribalta, in modo devastante, il problema del finanziamento dei Partiti, meglio del finanziamento del sistema politico nel suo complesso, delle sue degenerazioni, degli abusi che si compiono in suo nome, delle illegalita’ che si verificano da tempo, forse da tempo immemorabile. Bisogna innanzitutto dire la verita’ delle cose e non nascondersi dietro nobili e altisonanti parole di circostanza che molto spesso e in certi casi hanno tutto il sapore della menzogna.

Si è diffusa nel paese, nella vita delle istituzioni e della pubblica amministrazione, una rete di corruttele grandi e piccole che segnalano uno stato di crescente degrado della vita pubblica, uno stato di cose che suscita la piu’ viva indignazione, leggittimando un vero e proprio allarme sociale, ponendo l’urgenza di una rete di contrasto che riesca ad operare con rapidita’ e con efficacia.I casi sono della piu’ diversa natura, spesso confinano con il racket malavitoso, e talvolta si presentano con caratteri particolarmente odiosi di immoralita’ e di asocialita’.

E cosi’ all’ombra di un finanziamento irregolare ai Partiti e, ripeto, al sistema politico, fioriscono e si intrecciano casi di corruzione e di concussione, che come tali vanno definiti trattati provati e giudicati. E tuttavia, d’altra parte, cio’ che bisogna dire, e che tutti sanno del resto, e’ che buona parte del finanziamento politico e’ irregolare od illegale. I Partiti specie quelli che contano su apparati grandi, medi o piccoli, giornali, attivita’ propagandistiche, promozionali e associative, e con essi molte e varie strutture politiche e operative, hanno ricorso e ricorrono all’uso di risorse aggiuntive in forma irregolare od illegale.

Se gran parte di questa materia deve essere considerata materia puramente criminale allora gran parte del sistema sarebbe un sistema criminale. Non credo che ci sia nessuno in quest’aula, responsabile politico di organizzazioni importanti che possa alzarsi pronunciare un giuramento in senso contrario a quanto affermo: presto o tardi i fatti si incaricherebbero di dichiararlo spergiuro. (Bettino Craxi, June 1992).

That was at the outbreak of the scandal. The kickbacks that were investigated involved first and foremost the major political parties that had enjoyed a system of “democratic alternation” but that had developed a network of corrupt practices that later would be found to have overspilled in the business community. Political party kickbacks were parallel to grafts taken by individual politicians and the links spread straight into the arms of criminal activity. In his early defence in 1992, Craxi stressed that (I paraphrase) “the illegal funding of the political system (no matter how many negative judgements and reactions it may have generated) cannot be and cannot be used as an explosive to blow up a whole system, to delegitimize a political class, to create a climate where neither corrections nor an effective cleansing action can arise but only disintegration and adventure. For this situation we need a remedy, actually more than one remedy.”

I cannot help but noticing that Mallia’s impassioned apology for the workings of politicians in spite of what he perceives as “attacks” on their operation has inspirations that are rooted in the interventions of Craxi and politicians of his ilk back in 1992. 10 months later, in April 1993, Bettino Craxi was faced with a number of requests by the magistratura for authorisation to proceed (against him in court) and he had to make one last impassioned defence before the Camera dei Deputati. Almost 23 years ago to the day he stood up to make one of the longest speeches in defence of a failed system.

Si e’ invece fatto strada con la forza di una valanga un processo di criminalizzazione dei partiti e della classe politica. Un processo spesso generalizzato ed indiscriminato che ha investito in particolare la classe politica ed i partiti di governo anche se, per la parte che ha cominciato ad emergere, non ha risparmiato altri come era e come sara’ prima o poi inevitabile. (…) Ma di tutte l’erbe s’e’ fatto alla fine un fascio.

Tutto si è ridotto ad una unica accusa generalizzata. Le campagne propagandistiche hanno ruotato sovente solo attorno a slogans ed a brutali semplificazioni. Di questo si è incaricata infatti parte almeno della stampa e dell’informazione, andando ben al di là dei diritti e dei doveri propri dell’informazione, deformando spesso oltre misura, esaltando le ragioni dell’accusa e mettendo di canto quelle della difesa, travolgendo senza alcun rispetto diritti costituzionalmente garantiti con difese divenute praticamente impossibili, creando sovente un clima infame che ha distrutto persone, famiglie e generato tragedie.

La criminalizzazione della classe politica, giunta ormai al suo apice, si spinge verso le accuse piu’ estreme, formula accuse per i crimini piu’ gravi, piu’ infamanti e piu’ socialmente pericolosi. Un processo che quasi non sembra riguardare piu’ le singole persone, ma insieme ad esse tutto un tratto di storia, marchiato nel suo insieme. Un vero e proprio processo storico e politico ai Partiti che per lungo tempo hanno governato il Paese. (29th April 1993)

The echoes in Mallia’s speech 23 years later are incredible. It does not stop with Mallia mind you, even though Mallia’s speech was the most transparent in this respect. Politicians under attack for their unethical performances will ask you to be positive and focus on “all the good we have done” that cannot and should not be overshadowed by what they claim to be “slips of human error”. This spin is current today and it is no surprise that it was just as current in Craxi’s day.

Tutti i cicli, come è naturale passano, entrano in contraddizione, si esauriscono, degenerano. Sono cosi’ subentrati gli anni delle difficolta’ e della crisi, che stiamo ancora attraversando. Ma gli effetti e le conseguente di un periodo critico sarebbero stati ben diversi e ben piu’ onerosi se non avessimo avuto alle spalle il solido sviluppo realizzato nel corso degli anni ottanta ed un retroterra conquistato con un balzo in avanti poderoso.

It did not come without an admission though. Craxi’s line of reasoning was that parties have always been funded in a questionable manner and that this should not preclude an acknowledgement that they have functioned for the good of the state.

Cosi’ come nella vita della societa’ italiana non e’ nata negli anni ottanta la corruzione nella pubblica amministrazione e nella vita pubblica.

La vicenda dei finanziamenti alla politica, dei loro aspetti illegali, dei finanziamenti provenienti attraverso le vie piu’ disparate dell’estero, della ricerca di risorse aggiuntive rispetto poi ad una legge sul finanziamento pubblico ipocrita e ipocritamente accettata e generalmente non rispettata, accompagna la storia della societa’ politica italiana, dei suoi aspri conflitti, delle sue contraddizioni e delle sue ombre, dal dopoguerra sino ad oggi.

Non c’e’ dubbio che un troppo prolungato esercizio del potere da parte delle piu’ o meno medesime coalizioni di Partiti ha finito con il creare per loro un terreno piu’ facilmente praticabile per abusi e distorsioni che si sono verificate. Ma onestà e verità vorrebbero che in luogo di un processo falsato, forzato, ed esasperato, condotto prevalentemente in una direzione, si desse il via ad una ricostruzione per quanto possibile obiettiva ed appropriata di tutto l’insieme di cio’ che è accaduto.

Si tratta di una realta’ che non si puo’ dividere in due come una mela, tra buoni e cattivi, gli uni appena sfiorati dal sospetto, gli altri responsabili di ogni sorta di errori e nefandezze.

The appeal to morality and honesty in such times becomes almost an automatic reflex. I have already mentioned how jarring the appeal to “honest Maltese” was prior to the first rally in Valletta. This tendency to transform a political discussion into a dichotomy between “good and evil” is dangerous – dangerous both for the interlocutors who have suddenly arrogated unto themselves the questionable position of absolute purity as well as for the confused electors who are unable to detach themselves from the call of partisan loyalty when assessing such circumstances.

In this I will refer once again to Craxi’s swan song. In the heat of the affair, prior to his exposure to the courts and his subsequent self-imposed exile in Hammamet (Tunisia) he made one final appeal to a good sensed reform devoid of revolutionary lynch mobs. It sounds eerily relevant to today’s world:

Non credo del resto che la moralizzazione della vita pubblica possa esaurirsi con la denuncia ed il superamento dei sistemi di finanziamento illegale dei Partiti e delle attività politiche e con la condanna di tutte le forme degenerative che ne sono derivate. Non credo che solo in questo consista la questione della corruzione della vita pubblica. Non credo che il procedere in modo violento con l’inevitabile inasprimento dei traumi e dei conflitti che ne scaturira’ potra’ aprire un periodo ordinato e rigoglioso nella vita democratica. Non credo che per queste vie li Paese si incamminerà verso un periodo di rinascita economica,di riequilibrio sociale,di un rinnovamento politico ed istituzionale all’insegna di un grande decentramento dei poteri, nel consolidamento dell’unita’ della Nazione,e insieme di riconquista di un prestigio internazionale tanto piu’ necessario quanto piu’ aspre si vanno facendo la competizione e la conquista di aree di influenza nel mondo. C’e’ un problema democratico di rinnovamento e di ricambio della classe politica dirigente, c’è un problema di alternanza di forze nelle responsabilità di guida e di governo.

E’ un problema che deve essere risolto democraticamente, nel modo piu’ trasparente e diretto, senza provocare il soffocamento del pluralismo politico e senza fare ricorso alla barbarie della giustizia politica. Una politica che fosse intrisa di demagogia e di ipocrisia, non sarebbe destinata a fare lunga strada. Cosi’ come non e’ destinato a farla chi ancora oggi continua a non usare il linguaggio della verità, per non parlare di chi si presenta di fronte al paese con l’aria smemorata, con i tratti di chi non sapeva anche cio’ che avrebbe dovuto inevitabilmente sapere, di chi ha vissuto sino a ieri in preda a superficiali distrazioni, di chi denuncia nomenklature, ignorando la propria di cui continua a portare tutti i caratteri, e dimenticando il proprio ruolo, la propria responsabilità, di chi addirittura giudica dall’alto delle sue frequentazioni malavitose.

These quotes may be lengthy but they are necessary in order to have a look at the lessons that history provides us. It is very probable that by the time Craxi gave this speech he knew he would have little time left within the political sphere. His April 1993 speech would actually win him time as he would win that vote and stay out of the courts until December of that year when his prosecution was finally authorised. By May 1994 he was fleeing to Tunis to escape jail and where he would live till his death in 2000 under the protection  of Tunisia’s leader Ben Ali (himself ousted in 2011 and charged with money laundering and drug trafficking sentenced to 35 years).

Lessons

Craxi’s story serves to remind us of how a political class will struggle and fight tooth and nail to survive. The defences it will put forward will rarely be different through the ages. In a system such as ours that has also been molded to allow for alternation between different networks of power we run the risk of seeing much of the same.

Unfortunately Malta does not have a strong judiciary or watchdogs. Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri have still not gotten so much as a slap on the wrist from anyone. Our tax authorities are proceeding at a slow pace but that is not even the point because tax authorities are not about political responsibility. Our Prime Minister hides behind a tax audit spirited out of one of his fantastical speeches full of management words but no political consequences. Our political parties – both of them – still inhabit a world where massive financing is taken as a basic requirement for their operation. No one questions whether paring down their size would be a good thing in itself.

We will continue to hear stories and accusations and counter-accusations of graft, politicla favours, political networks. In the meantime Malta lacks the momentum that existed in Italy under the system of aggressive togas or in Iceland with an aggregation of popular sentiment that could result in a proper change.

I will conclude by referring you once again to Mallia’s speech and his defence of the privacy of the honest politician. One of the “victims” of tangentopoli was a socialist member of the camera deputati. His name was Sergio Moroni and when faced with more avvisi di garanzia he decided to take his life, not before leaving an impassioned appeal addressed to the President of the Chamber (ex-President Giorgio Napolitano). At the risk of infuriating the readers with the length of this post I am reproducing his letter below.

Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga lo stesso, bisogna che tutto cambi.

« Egregio Signor Presidente,
ho deciso di indirizzare a Lei alcune brevi considerazioni prima di lasciare il mio seggio in Parlamento compiendo l’atto conclusivo di porre fine alla mia vita. È indubbio che stiamo vivendo mesi che segneranno un cambiamento radicale sul modo di essere nel nostro paese, della sua democrazia, delle istituzioni che ne sono l’espressione.

Al centro sta la crisi dei partiti (di tutti i partiti) che devono modificare sostanza e natura del loro ruolo. Eppure non è giusto che ciò avvenga attraverso un processo sommario e violento, per cui la ruota della fortuna assegna a singoli il compito delle “decimazioni” in uso presso alcuni eserciti, e per alcuni versi mi pare di ritrovarvi dei collegamenti. Né mi è estranea la convinzione che forze oscure coltivano disegni che nulla hanno a che fare con il rinnovamento e la “pulizia”. Un grande velo di ipocrisia (condivisa da tutti) ha coperto per lunghi anni i modi di vita dei partiti e i loro sistemi di finanziamento. C’è una cultura tutta italiana nel definire regole e leggi che si sa non potranno essere rispettate, muovendo dalla tacita intesa che insieme si definiranno solidarietà nel costruire le procedure e i comportamenti che violano queste regole.

Mi rendo conto che spesso non è facile la distinzione tra quanti hanno accettato di adeguarsi a procedure legalmente scorrette in una logica di partito e quanti invece ne hanno fatto strumento di interessi personali. Rimane comunque la necessità di distinguere, ancora prima sul piano morale che su quello legale. Né mi pare giusto che una vicenda tanto importante e delicata si consumi quotidianamente sulla base di cronache giornalistiche e televisive, a cui è consentito di distruggere immagine e dignità personale di uomini solo riportando dichiarazioni e affermazioni di altri. Mi rendo conto che esiste un diritto d’informazione, ma esistono anche i diritti delle persone e delle loro famiglie. A ciò si aggiunge la propensione allo sciacallaggio di soggetti politici che, ricercando un utile meschino, dimenticano di essere stati per molti versi protagonisti di un sistema rispetto al quale oggi si ergono a censori.

Non credo che questo nostro Paese costruirà il futuro che si merita coltivando un clima da “pogrom” nei confronti della classe politica, i cui limiti sono noti, ma che pure ha fatto dell’Italia uno dei Paesi più liberi dove i cittadini hanno potuto non solo esprimere le proprie idee, ma operare per realizzare positivamente le proprie capacità e competenze. Io ho iniziato giovanissimo, a solo 17 anni, la mia militanza politica nel Psi. Ricordo ancora con passione tante battaglie politiche e ideali, ma ho commesso un errore accettando il “sistema”, ritenendo che ricevere contributi e sostegni per il partito si giustificasse in un contesto dove questo era prassi comune, ne mi è mai accaduto di chiedere e tanto meno pretendere.

Mai e poi mai ho pattuito tangenti, né ho operato direttamente o indirettamente perché procedure amministrative seguissero percorsi impropri e scorretti, che risultassero in contraddizione con l’interesse collettivo.

Eppure oggi vengo coinvolto nel cosiddetto scandalo “tangenti”, accomunato nella definizione di “ladro” oggi così diffusa. Non lo accetto, nella serena coscienza di non aver mai personalmente approfittato di una lira. Ma quando la parola è flebile, non resta che il gesto.

Mi auguro solo che questo possa contribuire a una riflessione più seria e più giusta, a scelte e decisioni di una democrazia matura che deve tutelarsi. Mi auguro soprattutto che possa servire a evitare che altri nelle mie stesse condizioni abbiano a patire le sofferenze morali che ho vissuto in queste settimane, a evitare processi sommari (in piazza o in televisione) che trasformano un’informazione di garanzia in una preventiva sentenza di condanna. Con stima.
Sergio Moroni »


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A Study in Outcomes

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The public verdict on the thirteen hour debate on the confidence motion in government was already out before the debate actually started. To many this had been a complete waste of time. To many more this was once again a descent into partisan pique, mudslinging and tomfoolery – a sentiment that would turn out to be fodder to the Labour side that claimed to be over and above the divisiveness that was still being sown by what in its words was a “negative” Opposition. That much time was dedicated to explain why and how a no-confidence motion had been moved is understandable. As is the marathon efforts of the Labour side of the house to turn this into a game of deviation.

In many ways Labour succeeded into getting everyone to believe that this was a motion of no-confidence in all its work and not in a very particular set of circumstances that threaten to damage any such good that has been done. We’ll have more time to delve into the lessons to be learnt from the marathon debate – lessons, I hasten to add, for all sides. What I would like to start with is the end: more specifically the tone of triumphalism set by Labour who claim to have “won the vote of confidence” and seem to believe to have weathered the storm. Politically it is true that the government survived the confidence motion and managed to turn it into a confirmation of what the countermotion deemed to be sterling work.

There’s another interesting angle to this chess game though. Admittedly it is an angle that can only be seen once you wear the dumbed down spectacles of partisan illusion but it is an angle that is worth exploring just the same.

At 9 am on Monday morning we knew already the numbers of the vote. The Nationalist side had 29 votes that would go to the no confidence side. Add to them the two independent MPs – that’s 31. Labour had it’s record majority of 38 MPs ready to shoot down any proposal that would shed a bad light on government. As partisan things go the numbers ran 38 against 31. So basically in order for the PN to claim even a slight form of victory one would expect that the number on the side of the No confidence motion would be anything above 31. Even if in the end it would lose the vote, any number of shifts from the preordained position would surely have been a victory of sorts to work upon.

Now the same goes for Labour though. It is useless to gloat on getting ones own votes that are after all only a reflection of the public state of mind in 2013. For Labour to “win” anything out of the vote you’d expect them to win over at least one vote from the other side. Anything less would not be a vote of confidence but merely a retrenchment of a party hanging on to power.

As it turns out there were no surprises. Indeed, no victors were to be registered in the House. The numbers at 9am remained the same numbers at 10pm. This may all sound like crazy reasoning but it is not all that fanciful as your average partisan voter may hope. There is truth also in these numbers. There is truth in the inflexibility of a popularly mandated majority that prefers to stick to power rather than take action on the rot that has begun to set. There is also truth in another not insignificant detail. The numbers do not really reflect the numbers at the start of this parliament in 2013. Seen from that perspective there is already one Labour MP who has shifted her allegiance to the side that has no confidence in this government.

In many ways she reflects the voice of the shifting mood outside of the house where seats are no longer so certain. This has to be the first lesson from the 13 hour marathon on Monday. Nobody won the vote that day – the only victor was a general retrenching. There was one ray of hope though, one MP sitting on the independent benches was doing her homework and had an ear and her heart outside the house. She was listening to the real numbers that underlie the house of representatives. And they were not smiling.


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Sobering thoughts at a rally

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The Panama Papers affair is bigger than Malta. Much much bigger. The data leaked from the offices of Mossack Fonseca covers decades of information and has an effect on people worldwide. Rich people worldwide. The social and political effects are only just beginning to snowball and the high profile case of the Icelandic Prime Minister will surely not be the last by far. There is much that is surreal about this business including the fact that many seem to be surprised about the goings on in a tax haven state like Panama (and not just Panama). The informed citizen of today still has the capability of striking you as being somewhat naive about the truths of the world. It’s OK to watch your James Bond and Mission Impossible movies or read international espionage novels were money is ‘wired’ away at the touch of a button into secret impregnable accounts on the other side of the world but then it is suddenly surprising to find out that fiction has been mirroring reality all along and that foremost among the crooks are a band of money-crazy politicians.

The world wakes up once again (for the nth time) to the reality that the real conmen are those who are creaming off the luxurious part of our collective earnings while the normal citizen is being right royally rogered. It would seem that the banking and property bubbles were not enough and that just as we were beginning to understand the nuances of Hollywood’s The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short we were supplied with enough new stories to merit a marathon of docu-flicks. It’s a world-wide issue – from Brasil to New Zealand to Panama to Malta questions are being asked of a political class that has been caught short one time too many. Which brings me to Sunday’s national(ist) protest. I’d like to share some notes and thoughts that were inspired by the rally – before, during and after it happened. Here goes:

  • Panamagate has brought Malta to yet another important cross-roads of its political history. These litmus tests have been scattered over our relatively short life-span as a sovereign nature. to Once the consequences of certain decisions are calculated, once the effects are factored in and once a new beginning has been undertaken, history will show that there was a “right” and “wrong” side to the current events (with all the concessions that we can make to the subjective nature of such interpretations). There was an appeal to that feeling mostly by Marlene Farrugia with her battle cry (or shriek) of “Hawn jien” (Here I am) – emphasising that this moment is one of those times that people stand up and be counted. (Also emphasising rather ironically the obsession with “Fejn kont?” (Where were you?) that afflicts political debates that put much value into unswerving loyalty to beliefs – also known as the tal-Barrani Syndrome). Citizens have begun to understand the consequences of a lax polity that has no sense of merit, no intention of accountability and no respect for the common good. Those citizens are being called in action to halt the slide to mediocrity of politics. If for nothing else, Panamagate is serving as a huge eye opener.
  • Maltin Onesti. Maltin li jhallsu t-taxxi. The rally was inevitably tinged with a partisan flavour. The call of the party is difficult to suppress and Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici’s words flow through the veins of many who were eager to rekindle an enthusiasm that had for so long been dormant if not absent. Ejjew nazzjonalisti, ejjew bil-bnadar taghkom, ejjew bl-eluf minn taghkom, f’dis-siegha tat-taqbid. To be fair the effort to de-party the event was all there. The only flags to be seen were the red and white of Malta and the only hymn to be heard other than that posion for the ears that goes “We the people” was the national anthem right before the Leader of the Opposition spoke. So far so good. What jarred ever so slightly were those calls for honest tax-paying Maltese that seemed to be an appeal to create a dichotomy between good and evil that is ever so present in our political discourse. The greatest risk was that this self-arrogation of purity and righteousness would distract from the real message. After all there was no need to set such a high standard for the crowd – it is not the moral and righteous standard of individual citizens that is being questioned here but the dealings of a minister of government, the PM’s chief of staff and the PM himself by vicarious responsibility (until now). It is not the case of “he who is pure throw the first stone” – that is the wrong lesson to impart to the crowd. This is all about accountability in a normal liberal democracy where the people, taxpayers and all, have the right to call for the dismissal of a Minister caught in circumstances such as Mizzi’s.
  • That is really the point of it all isn’t it? There is a sense of inevitability about the fact that Mizzi and Schembri will eventually resign. That sense of inevitability is inspired by the simple reason that their position became untenable from the moment that they chose to set up a financial structure as has been discovered. There is no need to find money or treasures, no need for tax audits, no need for declarations, no need for any of all this. The mere fact that they thought of using a structure that can only exist to keep something hidden (whether in the past or in the future) is enough to make them unfit for any purpose that requires public trust. Our Prime Minister knows that his position only gets worse every day that he does not take action on the matter – and when I say worse I do not only mean among those who attended the national protest but also, as is becoming increasingly obvious, among his own supporters.
  • There is a reflection that is hard for the nationalist party to swallow. It must be made. We did not get to the national protest on April 10th thanks to anything that the nationalist party has done. The huge mass of people calling for the ousting of Mizzi and Schembri (and Muscat) were there because of a much bigger series of events that began when somebody signing off as John Doe offered to pass on a huge amount of sensitive information to a journalist working for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The Panama Papers have exposed the inadequacy of key members of our government and to this day threaten the very existence of the government itself. What about the PN? The PN was already on the road to recovery – its proposals on Good Governance in less suspicious times were a good start. It could not but try to take the lead on this matter and as a responsible opposition it is pressing for immediate action. In doing so it must be wary of sensationalism and of the trap of falling into the old political game. The people are fed up with politicians trying to take them for a ride. In 2013 the people handed Muscat an incredible majority exactly because they felt they could no longer take the arrogance of the nationalist government of the time. Questioning their choice today becomes a futile exercise if what is offered as an alternative to the current mess is more of the same.
  • The main lesson to be drawn here is that the nationalist party must brush up its act if it is preparing to lead with New Politics. New Politics means not being drawn into the partisan mud-slinging game by Labour’s diversion tactics. It also means building up on ideas and strengthening the values it represents by showing that it is a party with a national interest at heart and not a self-serving machine of the kind that is now anathema to most voters. To prepare for this it must already think beyond Panamagate because if the events ahead are truly inevitable and foreseeable then the PN must be prepared with a project of its own and also be prepared to listen to those who for too long have been sent to the margins of politics and who have ideas of real reform that could revolutionise the landscape. Yes, the PN might have to be prepared to become a smaller but stronger part of a renewed political landscape.
  • As for Labour. Labour was not present at the national protest. We were regaled with a national conference brimming with Soviet Style optimism and standing ovations. Konrad Mizzi was one step short from being awarded the Soldier of Steel Medal (but that is usually awarded AFTER you lose your place) and his failure to bear responsibility angered quite a few of the Labour delegates and MPs. This turmoil is just the beginning for the labour party. The Taghna Lkoll philosophy has failed and not just because of Panamagate. Panamagate served as an eye opener to uncover the many things that Labour has been allowed to get away with until now. Ahead lie battles for the soul of the party and do not expect the current power circle to let go lightly – there are too many interests involved. There will be blood – of the political kind as Chris Cardona would say.
  • One last word on the media. The nationalist party committed a horrible faux pas by conflating the Jason Azzopardi libel case. The crowd outside the law courts was a throwback to the medieval era, that same medieval era where Chris Cardona’s rhetoric belongs. Doorstepping irritating journalists aside there is something extremely worrying about the state TV’s reluctance to properly report the daily changes in Panamagate. Also worrying where the calls from the Labour corner of the crowd to somehow stifle any international coverage or reporting of the situation. It would seem that there are still exponents who rue the absence of a law on foreign interference – even Chris Scicluna was targeted for sending a factual report to Reuters about the national protest.

I’ll stop here for now. We’ve got weeks ahead of more exchanges and more information to discover. We are definitely living in interesting times.


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Here come the doorsteppers (I)

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Politics has reached a shallow point in Malta. We’ve all heard that phrase by now. Trust in politicians on the island has gravitated towards the same low point as has been shared for a long time and for different reasons on the rest of the continent. We’re slightly delayed – it has only just begun to dawn on a large part of the population that “the Game” has nothing to do with power and that the alternating race to mediocrity is only destined to produce more of the same, but different. At the same time as this great realisation is happening – within the confines of cliche’ ridden appraisals that your average citizen is capable of – there is still a strong pull towards the partisan DNA that is, much to the chagrin of Andrew Borg Cardona and Charles Mangion, programmed into the vast majority of the voting population.

It’s not just Konrad Mizzi who is afflicted by the mysterious “internal conflict”, it’s all bona fide “partitarji” on both sides of the political chasm. Labourites cannot believe that their government is coming so close to repeating the short stunt under Sant… one mega-crisis and it’s all over. Deep down they all see the horrible error in Mizzi’s ways, even they understand that the Energy Minister’s position is untenable but they are loath to admit it. The pull of the party is too huge and trumps all. The Nationalist party card bearers also have a dilemma of their own. They’d love to see the back of this government but they are still not 100% convinced that their own party is good enough to lead and many have still not understood the modus operandi of Simon’s politics.

The time would have been ripe for reasoned debate centred around reform and improvement. Politics, particularly party politics, is in the doldrums. Anyone with a brain between their ears could tell that the sell-by date of mediocre politics is long past. Reasoned debate and rational argument are what the doctor ordered – it’s the right medicine for both parties internally as well as for our institutional set-up. Rational and reasoned debate requires information and an exchange of ideas and programmes with the best for the country being the ultimate goal.

What we have got instead is the return of the non-political exchange. Politics with a big P has been thrown out of the window and the machines of spin are out all over again because as soon as a moment of crisis brings the faint glimmer of a possible election round the corner our parties do what they do best – entrench and send out the soldiers: in this case one important element are the “doorsteppers”.

It’s not a new breed of political animal. The latest morph on both sides are Mario Frendo and Nicole Buttigieg. They are sent to the enemy lines in search of the soundbite that can be processed and fed into the propaganda machine. They form part of a wider circle and game played by the politicians themselves who hide behind feeble excuses, half-truths and word games to destroy any possibility of debate. We’ve seen them before. Joseph Muscat was one of them himself. Ministers and shadow ministers on both sides of parliament began their career as doorstepping journalists of sorts, as did some of our MEPs. I remember one of the earlier morphs of these doorsteppers in the form of Simone Cini who shadowed Eddie Fenech Adami all the way to PN mass meetings provoking the worst out of the worst.

It’s weird. Even the language of the two parties switches away from real meaningful essence and we now hear of accusations of “fascism”, “return to the eighties”, “stifling of speech” and more. The nationalist party brouhaha about the use of criminal libel was surreal for example for it really begged the question “What did you think of criminal libel in the 25 years that you were in government?”. Someone from the Independent did bother asking Marthese Portelli only to get some long-winded non-reply based on “just look at the good things we have done in those years so please just ignore the way we looked away from any possible reform”.

“Concentrating on the good we did” seems to be the new karma. Konrad Mizzi is magically oblivious to his textbook case of “things not to do unless you want to lose your position as minister”. He still thinks that it’s a conspiracy by the PN to remove what he believes is the best performing Labour cabinet member and nothing more. Aside from the fact that his own admission of naivety should suffice to make him lose any possibility of sitting in ANY position of public responsibility, his excuse seems to have gone down as sufficiently plausible with the rest of the PL crowd. Now he’s probably on his way to being anointed as a soldier of steel.

So we are down to looking at the doorsteppers. Planted in the middle of crowds who have the collective political nous of a football hooligan they will “interview” and provoke for the sake of getting a snapshot of the worst of the worst of the opposite party’s supporters – oblivious all the while to the fact that they could very well have sampled someone from their own inner circles with very much the same results.

… to be continued


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The Price of Time

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Take a step back. Try to disentangle your brain from the bombshell of Panamagate as it unfolded in Malta. Now take a look at Prime Minister Muscat and his reaction to the whole business over the last seven weeks. In Malta Panamagate came early, probably prematurely. Konrad Mizzi got an early warning of the dangers to come when Caruana Galizia dropped some hints about the information that had come to her possession. “The lamb for Easter would come from New Zealand” was the coded message that set alarm bells ringing in Mizzi’s head. Mizzi had been handed an unexpected advantage – unlike the bigger heads that were to be shaken on the night of Sunday 3rd April he had been handed a lifeline from the quarters he’d least expect. Mizzi and Muscat had been gifted a precious amount of time to work on a defence.

Time. That’s the point here. Timing was crucial and every minute gained to work on the alibi was worth a mountain of gold. Nexia BT, Brian Tonna, Keith Schembri, Kasco, Panama, New Zealand, Adrian Hillman, more Konrad Mizzi. The news trickled out slowly as Caruana Galizi’s blog turned gatekeeper of the leaked information for a period of time – at least until the international bomb would explode thanks to Süddeutsche Zeitung and ICIJ.

This gift was a godsend for Muscat and Mizzi. We were regaled with the “declaration of assets”, the “family planning” and the “full collaboration” stories. Muscat could sit and watch and do what he does best: gauge public opinion. Better still he could shift the goalposts of assessment. It would no longer be about the existence of a structure using jurisdictions that have a notorious and shady reputation. It would become a case of whether money would be found in Panama or New Zealand. Muscat would skilfully manipulate the discussion until the question of Mizzi’s suitability as minister (and Schembri’s as Chief Advisor) would hinge only on whether any corruption could be proven.

It’s not the point really. Put simply both the Minister and the Chief of Staff should have resigned the moment it is was clear that they set up companies in dubious and shady jurisdictions. Whether there is any money to be found (and so much time lapsed till the international machine would actually be set in motion that it is doubtful whether any money would have stayed put so long) is irrelevant. The Panama Papers have shown that. Once the news was out, politicians the world over were slammed with big question marks on their head. The responsible politicians among them have already borne the consequences. And Konrad and Keith?

Konrad and Keith had the benefit of time on their side. The parameters of the discussion had already been shifted with the artful use of propaganda and party machinery. The question had already become whether or not any money would be found. Muscat had managed to shift it all to the far-fetched finding of a smoking gun. One wonders whether Konrad and Keith would have survived the onslaught had their names figured for the first time along with the rest of the ICIJ releases and not a good seven weeks before.

Which is not to say that both Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri are out of trouble. In any decent democracy they would already have been long gone. A decent Prime Minister would have distanced himself from members of his entourage who opt to create such structures in dubious jurisdiction for whatever reason and with whatever intent. He’d do it for his sake and for the sake of his party in government.

Muscat still needs to buy time. The rumblings within his own party must not be comforting. The Süddeutsche Zeitung journalists claim to have “several weeks” of news to release so the Panama Papers are not going to vanish overnight. The more politicians abroad fall thanks to these Papers the more pressure there is on Muscat and Mizzi’s “alibi” regarding the mythological hidden millions that are supposed to be hidden or absent.

Muscat needs to continue to buy time as he has done in previous scandals – notably the Manuel Mallia issue – the bonus time that he was graced with thanks to the early release of the information in Malta has run out. Now that the Panama Papers scandal is an international hot potato Muscat might find that buying time will become more costly. Distraction tactics, mud slinging on the opposition and fact twisting all have an expiration date.

He probably knows that when that time runs out he might find that the writing has been on the wall all along… that Mizzi and Schembri’s position is untenable and delaying the inevitable is disrespectful to the electorate that put Muscat into power, including those who tried their luck for the first time.

Next time they might not be too audacious.


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