Sunday, 24 February 2013

The government we deserve

This article was published in The Malta Independent on Sunday 24 02 2013

This is my last column before we vote, as my next one will be on the morning after
It is to be regretted that, after a promising start, the second half of this overlong campaign has degenerated into distasteful mud-slinging from the PN side. As the polling numbers remain obstinately in Labour’s favour, the PN strategists must have concluded that only mud-slinging offered some hope of a change in fortunes.
The PN has conducted a confused campaign. It was slow at the starting line, to the extent that, in the third week, it admitted being in no hurry to kick-start its campaign. Then it rolled out all the 125 pledges in its manifesto in one go, while maintaining a billboard campaign based on clichés and a TV campaign based on clichéd fear-mongering. To underline the lack of proper integration of the various channels of the PN’s campaign communication strategy, it kept three different tag lines: “Futur fis-Sod”; “Xoghol Edukazzjoni Sahha” and “Qabza ohra ta’ kwalita”) compared to the unifying focus of Labour’s slogan: “Malta taghna lkoll”.
As we entered the last stretch of the campaign the PN ditched all its tag-lines and logo, and reverted to the promotion of its pledges which it strangely failed to do as it rolled out its manifesto, and shifted the focus of its entire campaign to a character assassination attempt on the PL’s leadership.
The bottom of the barrel is being scraped when the PN accuses the PL leader of lying merely because he relates that a guy fired from the Party on suspicion of drug dealing tried to argue that the white stuff was ice, not drugs. Joseph Muscat and Toni Abela have no way of knowing what the white stuff was, but they took the honourable course by firing the guy on mere suspicion and refusing to take him back, even when he started to make what seem like puerile excuses. They had no proof to back up their suspicions but they took no chances and unhesitatingly fired the person concerned and refused to take him back, in spite of his plea of innocence.
They behaved honourably. It is the PN that is not behaving honourably, when it shields and rewards a person whom it claims was dealing drugs inside a PL Club, rather than hand him over to the police if they have any proof of such criminal activities.
But even if one were to hypothetically accept that Dr Muscat and Dr Abela should have called in the police and not just fired the person concerned, at most they could be accused of a one-off bad judgement. This is no comparison to the continual bad judgement that the PN in government has been exercising as the most serious case of white collar fraud and corruption was happening under its very nose.
One must be careful not to imply criminal responsibility on the part of anyone in the outgoing PN administration. Such a claim can only be levelled by the law enforcement authorities, particularly by the police, who have access to documentary proof and other tools to provide the necessary evidence to press charges in a court of law. We are here determining political responsibility, which is what the electorate will have to judge when it votes on 9 March.
It is inconceivable that, considering the scale and extent of fraud and corruption carried out over a long period of time, there is not one politician that considers it his duty to accept political responsibility and resign – even if this would be merely symbolic, given the closeness of the elections.
I have probably read all books related to white collar fraud and financial crisis. Through my experience of over four decades as a financial services practitioner, I have developed a keen smell for risk management through risk identification, mitigation measures and early signs of something going wrong.
So it offends my intelligence when someone expects me to believe that such a scale of fraud and corruption could have been carried out without the involvement of a network of people, including people in high places. It offends my intelligence when someone expects me to believe that the Minister responsible for Enemalta regularly meets a representative of major oil trading companies that participate in bids to supply oil to Enemalta, but never discusses such contracts. It offends my intelligence when I am expected to believe that the Minister responsible for both the Inland Revenue and Enemalta receives through a unique event a box full of documents from the Secret Security service and, rather than being alerted to the unacceptable practice of a third party receiving commissions on Enemalta oil purchases, acts simply as a postman and sends these documents to the Tax Compliance Unit to investigate whether such commission revenue was being properly declared for taxation purposes.
Let’s be realistic: if Enemalta procures its oil in a transparent and clean manner, why should any supplier require an agent in Malta to whom they have to pay commission for every deal? If the process is clean and transparent, the last thing an oil supplier needs is the increased cost of commissions to be loaded on to the procurement cost. The very fact that it now emerges that one such regular bidder – a subsidiary of French oil giant Total SA – insisted with their local agent that unless the person who had regular access to the Minister stayed within their group, they would terminate the agency agreement, is a very strong indication that Total SA were only paying because they were reaping benefits from the close access this person had with the Minister. Nobody pays something for nothing, least of oil a major oil company.
This whole matter stinks, especially if such agent gets asked by his principals on a chat-line if the dragon liked the diamond.
It is a pity that this issue had to explode in an election campaign. I have no idea why whoever was privy to such information waited so long to leak it. I cannot blame Malta Today or The Times for the timing of such revelations as they both declare that they broke the story within a short time of gaining access to it.
But the electorate has been cheated. Corruption is the worst form of hidden taxation. At least with normal taxation, the funds flow from the individual to the collective, democratically represented by the government, which then spends it back in the economy for the benefit of the population at large (capital expenditure) or deserving individuals (social payments). However, in the case of corruption, the money flows from many individuals for the benefit of the hidden few who spend or save the illegally acquired funds strictly for their own benefit.
If there is anyone left who has not yet made up their mind about how to vote, they should ask themselves only one question: if such corruption has happened without anyone taking political responsibility for it, what would happen if those who – in the best hypothesis – were sleeping at the wheel are rewarded with another term?
People get the government they deserve. We certainly deserve better than the Gonzi PN of 2008-2013.

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