Monday, March 28, 2016

More equal than others

When a ruling elite is in trouble it can resort to various tactics to save face. Some tactics, such as taking responsibility for one’s actions, are honourable, while others, such as resorting to counter-attack, can say a lot about the real interests of the elite. Joseph Muscat’s government is increasingly opting for the latter.
Indeed, these past weeks, the Labour media machine did its utmost to divert attention from Panamagate in different ways. These included ignoring the issue, vilifying adversaries, and highlighting non-related achievements of the current Labour administration. In certain instances, Labour spokespersons also tried to normalise the Panamagate dealings by arguing that they were nothing out of the ordinary.
I am not so sure that the increasingly reflexive general public is impressed by Labour’s media machine.
And this also includes internal critics and some Labour exponents who are currently conspicuous by their relative absence from the political debate.
In a strange tactical twist, Labour’s media machine has now developed a sudden fixation with villas and swimming pools, particularly if they belong to persons who do not form part of the oligarchy.
Indeed, over the past days the machine went ballistic in ‘exposing’ the villa of the Nationalist Party’s deputy leader, the size of its swimming pool, and so forth. I bet that the first reaction of many people was that even if there was anything irregular in Beppe Fenech Adami’s villa, this cannot be compared to Panamagate, which has potentially serious ramifications on Malta’s governance, handling of public contracts and democracy.
These cynical tactics are not worthy of progressive politics
Really and truly, if Fenech Adami has anything irregular in his property, it is Mepa which should look into it and take action if necessary. The obvious question therefore is: have enforcement officers visited the site? If yes, did they report anything irregular? If not, why did it have to be Labour’s media machine to highlight the issue? Doesn’t the Prime Minister have confidence in public officers employed by Mepa?
And if Labour is so interested in people’s dwellings, why not publish photos and other information on all properties of all ministers and members of Parliament? And taking the argument to its logical conclusion, how about publishing all information regarding financial dealings of ministers and members of Parliament? Oh, but we can never know anything about financial investments in secretive tax havens such as Panama.
The oligarchy’s reaction to Panamagate follows a clear logic. It is trying to normalise scandalous behaviour by trying to show that there is a surplus of this in Malta, that everyone does it, that we needn’t be surprised by ministers involved in shady deals.
The more the scandals, the merrier, and the level of surprise would be annihilated in the process. Consequently, the logic goes, people would just move on with their everyday lives, possibly wanting to have a part of the corrupt cake themselves. And critics would be labelled as being jealous of the ‘winners’.
These cynical tactics are not worthy of progressive politics. Instead of opting for a road of transparency and accountability, the guardians of the realm try to silence and buy people through co-option, vilification or participation in corruption. The elite want corruption to transform itself from an exception to a culture. Best in Europe, my foot.
Yet, society is not simply made up of passive dupes who devour everything they are fed. The ruling elite has an uphill struggle to maintain its legitimacy. And I don’t think that Labour is investing in its future by rewarding those involved in Panamagate.
The plain truth is that no spin will rub away the obvious: Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri should go.
The size of swimming pools and villas, whether they belong to Beppe Fenech Adami, Joseph Muscat or Joe Public will not prejudice the seriousness of Panamagate. And the most serious aspect of all this is that what is transpiring to be the greatest political scandal in Maltese history is being defended by the Prime Minister. Maybe he doesn’t hold so much power after all.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Politics of Decency

According to public perception, the biggest political issue in Malta right now is corruption. Recent scandals such as Panamagate, the Gaffarena controversy, Sadeen’s institution, Australia Hall, Café Premier, as well as government’s non-publication of public contracts and lack of meritocratic governance, have become the order of the day.
One interpretation of this phenomenon is that people have the ‘luxury’ to give importance to such issues given that Malta’s economic base is relatively stable. Others, however, would say that the economy cannot be detached from other issues and factors such as governance, environment and democratisation.
Thus, Labour’s lack of good governance can have negative economic, social and environmental impacts.
For example, if government keeps showing that certain business interests are preferred over others, this could bring about resentment among businesses who would like to bid for public contracts in a fair way. And if public perception on corruption extends beyond Malta’s shores, certain businesses may be dissuaded from investing in Malta.
The social impacts of bad governance could likewise be varied. For example, if decision makers do not practise what they preach and resort to shady deals and dubious decisions, this malaise could be socially contagious. Alternatively, it could result in increased resentment, skepticism and disillusionment from people who expect good governance.
Environmental impacts of bad governance could mean that short-sighted interests in areas such as development of land and usage of scarce resources be given priority over the common good, sustainability and longer-term concerns.
In such a context, it is important to point out basic factors of good governance which are supposed to be universally applicable in liberal democracies.
Labour’s lack of good governance can have negative economic, social and environmental impacts
Political responsibility is one such factor. One would expect that those in power have the decency to take responsibility for their decisions and choices. This also includes the honourable decision to resign when this is due. In the past, ministers and politicians such as Charles Mangion and Chris Said decided accordingly, and history eventually proved them right.
In the present, however, Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri remain steadfastly attached to their positions and show no signs of humility in this regard. To make matters worse, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is giving them his support.

Good governance should also mean that one respects one’s political adversaries and refuses to treat the public as if they are brainless individuals. Official communication should be based on clear information and not on distortion or misinformation.
Another basic precondition of good governance is character. Government should not be seen as a faceless machine, devoid of principle. An ‘anything-goes’ government can be an invitation to corruption.
I am not suggesting that government should be run by fundamentalist mullahs who assume that they hold a monopoly on truth.
What I am suggesting is that basic values and norms of democracy should be respected by all governments, irrespective of their ideological and party make-up. Such values include rule of law, meritocracy, transparency and accountability. It is sad indeed that some of these basic values are being eroded in Malta today.
Amid this negative situation, there are positive signs for hope. For example, the public domain Bill and the good governance proposals which have been proposed by the Nationalist Opposition are in themselves tools for good governance. Of course, they have to be approved and implemented to be effective.
Similarly, the current Labour administration, notwithstanding its governance deficit, did approve important legislation related to governance – for example on whistleblowing – though the implementation of this seems to be another matter altogether.
The Green Party as well as different voices from civil society have been putting forward valuable proposals for the past years, along the lines of normal governance in liberal democracies.
In Malta’s current political crisis, forces and persons who are pro-EU, non-xenophobic and pro-good governance should share a common discourse for decent politics. The common good should be prioritised before the corroding effects of corruption extend further.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Three Years of Labour

Picture by Steve Bonello
One way to analyse Labour’s first three years in government is by judging the performance of different Cabinet ministers. Some, including Evarist Bartolo, Helena Dalli and Edward Zammit Lewis, are generally having a positive impact in their respective fields, namely education, civil liberties and tourism. Some others, such as Michael Farrugia, are more of a mixed bag through ‘third way’ social policy measures, while others, like Joe Mizzi, are conspicuous by their failures or their absence.
Leo Brincat, despite being a knowledgeable and decent minister, is a disappointment in matters such as ODZ and Mepa’s demerger.
Owen Bonnici is now as disappointing as he was promising in the initial months of the legislation.
Then there is Konrad Mizzi. In a normal democracy, he would have resigned as soon as the word Panama was announced.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is looking increasingly weak in the face of the controversies around.
One can also analyse Labour through policy impacts. For example, economic growth is high and unemployment rates are low in a relatively stable economy, the latter being inherited from the legacy of previous administrations.
Yet, this is coming at a price. Much economic growth – for example, in the construction sector – is not being reflected in a better quality of life for residents. And the fruits of economic growth do not seem be distributed in an equitable manner. Low-paying and precarious jobs are very present in certain sectors and some big business interests seem to be more equal than common citizens.
The government itself seems to have become a business
What makes matters worse is the widespread feeling that there seems to be no difference between certain big business interests and the interests of the ruling clique. The government itself seems to have become a business. Otherwise, how can one explain the government’s €10 million gift to the Labour Party in the Australia Hall controversy? How can one explain the Gaffarena issue? How can one explain Panamagate?
I will not repeat what I wrote about in my article last week in the Times of Malta. But I do insist that, in a normal democracy, it would simply be unacceptable to have a super minister and deputy leader and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff being involved in financial investments in Panama, a money-laundering haven.
Other big scandals under this administration and the one before it are pale in comparison to Panamagate. There are simply too many aspects of Panamagate that cannot be ignored.
Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri have not explained why they chose Panama, of all countries in the world, for their financial investments. And, to be frank, I cannot see anything to justify such a decision.
In such a context, the negotiations of Joseph Muscat, Mizzi and Schembri with the government of Azerbaijan, erstwhile known for corruption and authoritarian rule, were extremely suspicious, especially when one keeps in mind that these were hidden from the Maltese public and no public officer accompanied the govern-ment’s ruling clique.
Within the bigger picture of Malta’s non-transparent energy agreements, things become even more suspicious.
In such a context, why is Mizzi given so much preferential treatment by Muscat? Why was he promoted to party deputy leader? And why isn’t the commissioner of police investigating Panamagate?
The Labour business government has also been steadfast in its lack of transparency in other sectors, as was the case with the Sadeen institute.
Then there are other related issues which, to me, reflect the general malaise of the current Labour government. These range from non-enforcement in so many areas such as occupational health and safety, transport and environment, three deaths of persons under police custody, and the staunch refusal to allow a terminally-ill prisoner to spend the last days of his life with his family.
A party which is supposed to be somewhere on the left of the political spectrum should know much better on such issues. Which gives rise to the question: is Labour left at all?
The big picture of Labour’s three years is therefore negative. There are too many recurrent examples of bad governance and looting the common good. It is a pity that some positive initiatives in certain sectors are completely clouded by Labour’s stormy weather.

Friday, March 11, 2016

#‎Panamagate‬ ‪#‎Malta‬ - Appeal for dismissal, call for publication of contracts

Civil society activists insist on the immediate dismissal of Energy and Health Minister Konrad Mizzi and PM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri in view of their financial investments in blacklisted country Panama, as this raises very serious doubts on government public contracts. Any suggestion that an investigation by the Maltese tax commissioner is the solution is a complete smokescreen given that Malta and Panama have no agreements regulating the matter.

We are now calling for the immediate publication of all contracts signed with Electrogas and other similar players since Muscat's government took office.

Michael Briguglio, Monique Agius, Erica Schembri, James Debono, Andre' Callus, Antoine Cassar, Joe Pace, Andrei Vella Laurenti, Charlot Cassar, Albert Gatt, Patrick Galea, Martin Caruana, Paul Portelli, Ramon Mizzi, Jennifer Agius, Andre Schembri, Jon Mallia, Martin Abela, Edward Mallia, Salvu Mallia, Shaun Grech, Mark Anthony Sammut, Annalisa Schembri, Elton Borg, Joe Azzopardi, Angele Deguara, Alfred Mangion, Anthony T Mamo, Daniel Desira, Jurgen Balzan, Alan Portelli, Valerie Visanich, Joseph Muscat, Alex Vella, Mark Busuttil, Joseph P. Bonello, Joseph Pace Axiak; Joseph Gauci, Reuben Zammit, Paul Radmilli, Martin Galea De Giovanni, Adrian Mizzi, Robert Louis Fenech, Daniel Grech, Luke Scicluna

NOTE: The list is frequently updated with new signatories. 
If you want to be a signatory please send an email to with 'Signature' in subject and your name in text

See also: 

#‎Panamagate‬ ‪#‎Malta‬ - Appeal by Civil Society activists regarding financial investments of Maltese MPs

Monday, March 07, 2016

Other side of #Panamagate

The Times of Malta 7/3/16

The parliamentary sessions that followed the eruption of Malta’s Panamagate scandal looked surreal to say the least. In the midst of the credibility mess surrounding the Labour government, the Opposition’s important public domain proposals gained support from both sides of the House. Yet, all Malta was practically focusing on Panamagate. The country had similar example in previous administrations when Dom Mintoff, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, Franco Debono and others had all eyes focused on them.
This time it was Konrad Mizzi’s turn, though unlike Mintoff and co., he probably tried to avoid being the centre of attention.
Mizzi’s stature went down like a ton of bricks in view of his financial investments in Panama, erstwhile known for attracting suspicious and dirty funds from the global black economy.
When it emerged that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s chief of staff Keith Schembri was involved in similar investments, and when Muscat stood by the duo’s shady deals, this was the cherry on the cake.
Labour’s talk of good governance, transparency and the being best in Europe felt like hot air as never before. In the process, some positive initiatives performed by some ministries have been immensely overshadowed by government’s general malaise. And this includes not only the Panama scandal, but also other examples such as the transport fiasco, the Sadeen non-American non-university and the magisterial mess.
Indeed, Panamagate is much bigger than the obvious demand for the immediate resignation of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri. This scandal gives more credence to previous accusations of oligarchic tendencies in Muscat’s governing style.
When you have a whole range of circumstantial evidence regarding government, party and business networks, non-transparent privatisation processes, super ministries, Ceaucescan deputy leader non-contests, and close links with corrupt states, it become simply impossible to think otherwise: the Labour government is becoming increasingly illegitimate.
Mizzi’s stature went down like a ton of bricks in view of his financial investments in Panama
Similar to Orwellian set-ups, the government is led by the same team which made a clear commitment to transparency and accountability before the 2013 general election. In a normal democracy, Mizzi and Schembri would have resigned as soon as the news of their Panama investments went public. If not, they would have been removed from their posts immediately.
Yet, Panamagate has also another side. The scandal has confirmed what other recent scandals - under different administrations – have been showing all along: that civil society and the independent media are here to stay, and politicians are no longer the untouchable ‘super saints’ – as Jeremy Boissevain once put it - of the past.
The independent media – in different forms and styles – has been vital in casting light on this scandal. Civil society – which is becoming increasingly characterised by both physical and digital activism - stood up to be counted in different ways. A non-partisan declaration signed by persons coming from different political and non-political backgrounds, including myself, was produced. We called for the resignation of Mizzi and Schembri and appealed to all members of Parliament to declare any financial investments they may have made abroad in tax havens or other similar jurisdictions immediately.
On the party-political front, the Nationalist Party rallied its troops against the government, Labour was attempting to divert attention elsewhere and Alternattiva Demokratika noted that the governance issue runs deeper than the Panama scandal.
In such a context, the million dollar question is: where from now?
Will all members of Parliament – red and blue – come clean on their financial investments? Will Labour have an internal revolt against its takeover?
All political parties should take note that ignoring the independent media and civil society is no longer an option. Top-down political processes, elitist views towards activists, and dismissal of emerging discourses can practically result in situations where parties are superseded by events and historic moments.
The paradox of Panamagate is therefore characterised by oligarchic tendencies in an increasingly reflexive society. It is as if something needs to be born, but the date is a mystery. Yet, in human societies, history is not inevitable but is made by actors and forces within specific contexts.
Really and truly, there is never a dull day in Maltese politics.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

‪#‎Panamagate‬ ‪#‎Malta‬ - What next?

Many opinions are being put forward on the ‪#‎Panamagate‬ ‪issue. 

Apart from the cynical opinions of assorted apologists of the Oligarchy, other opinions include cleaning up the Labour Party from the inside, doing one's utmost to remove Labour from power, having a strong third party, carrying out binding electoral reform, approving legislation on politicians' standards, and strengthening an extraparliamentary civil society. 

One opinion does not necessarily exclude the other. All opinions have their supporters and their opponents, who, in turn reflect in relation to their own situational backgrounds and beliefs. I prefer looking at such situations through a pluralistic perspective rather than through a reductionist binary, holier-than-thou narcisssim, or destructive ultra-partisanship.  

In such contexts, correct answers are not ready-made through some magic formula. Proper questions have to be asked. And when one asks questions, one should be ready to take risks and avoid dogmatic stalemates. 

Yes, as a starting point on the ‪#‎Panamagate‬ crisis, I believe that all persons of goodwill should support binding legislation on good governance. All political parties should walk the talk. And Mizzi and Schembri must go.

p.s. My appeal to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat: Prime Minister, it's better late than never, though much damage has already been done. Be a man, take your political responsibilities. Mizzi and Schembri must go.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Civil Society Activists and the Malta Panamagate Scandal

The Panamagate scandal poses a serious threat to Maltese governance and democracy which, at the very least, requires the immediate resignation of Minister Konrad Mizzi and OPM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri.

Civil society stood up to be counted by means of a non-partisan declaration signed by persons coming from different political and non-political backgrounds. We called for the resignation of Mizzi and Schembri, and we are making it clear that all Members of Parliament (PL and PN) must declare any financial investments they may have made abroad in tax havens or other similar jurisdictions immediately.

We have also expressed our support for the independent media in its endeavour to cast light on this scandal and have deplored the attempts by other sections of the media to downplay or deflect attention from the facts which have emerged in the past week.

Last Saturday Simon Busuttil gave Joseph Muscat an ultimatum regarding the Panamagate issue and the PN has invited the public to join it in a protest. People are free to join this protest. I myself am a Green Local Councillor and will therefore not attend.

Other signatories are free to attend or not as they deem fit. It is, after all, a 'free world'.

All civil society activists who want to stand up to be counted against this political mess are meanwhile invited to sign our civil society appeal via this link: