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How to institutionalise mediocrity

Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi partying in the wake of a damning EU report calling for his removal, with the Mayor of Sannat, Gozo (right) and Joseph Portelli (left).

“I voted for you. Now you have to do something for me.”

Clientelism is so deeply ingrained in Malta it feels like part of the DNA.

A recent paper by Wouter Veenendaal, ‘How Smallness Fosters Clientelism: A Case Study of Malta’, provides a clear analysis of how the country’s size has helped create a situation where this form of corruption thrives. 

The issues are clear from Veenendaal’s analysis. But I’ve also seen how this smallness is used as an excuse for inaction. ‘Everyone knows everyone here,’ I’m told. ‘Of course, there are conflicts of interest.’

Being well known isn’t a conflict. Abusing one’s power and position is.

I’ve gone through a lot of elections in Canada, and a major referendum on my country’s future, but I’d never seen anything like the national elections I witnessed in Malta.

I watched as the incumbent Labour party openly dished out non-jobs and government contracts by direct order in the frantic lead up to the 2017 snap election: over 1,000 secure public sector jobs were given to Labour supporters, including 220 in the electoral district being contested by “Panama Papers Minister” Konrad Mizzi.

One-third of the army received promotions, and police officers who had retired or been dismissed for having criminal records were reinstated. Close to 600 building illegalities were regularised by the Planning Authority, 405 of them in the final two weeks of the electoral campaign.

These actions were scandalous, but what shocked me most as an outsider was seeing members of parliament handing out hampers of cheap food: bottles of wine labelled with the face of “Il-Ministru Konrad Mizzi”; bags of bread with printed inserts for Silvio Schembri; a sack of oranges with the face and contact details of Chris Fearne.

Even worse, employees in the offices of cabinet Ministers were calling random constituents with the same scripted approach, such as: “Hello, madam, good afternoon. I’m calling from Owen Bonnici’s Ministry to see whether you need anything.

I thought I’d fallen into an episode of The Twilight Zone.

When the Venice Commission raised concerns about the large number of ‘persons of trust’ on the public payroll in Malta, the head of the civil service, Principal Permanent Secretary Mario Cutajar, dismissed it as a cultural matter. “Persons employed as drivers or gardeners have been among the persons of trust for a long time,” he said, “and this is not a development that happened during these last years”.

Those 700 ‘persons of trust’ being paid by taxpayers right now couldn’t possibly be hired by an open, impartial call. And why do you need a gardener as a ‘person of trust’ anyway?

How else can politicians in Malta buy votes if they can’t dish out jobs as a reward? Not everyone can afford to raffle a Fiat Panda at election time or give their supporters a chance to win a stay in a five star Dubai hotel.

And let’s not forget rewards for close relatives. The ironically-titled Equality Minister Helena Dalli provides the perfect example for the truth of George Orwell’s statement that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

Dalli’s son Luke was appointed legal officer at the Malta Arts Council. His former girlfriend, Rachel Debono, was given a job as a ‘person of trust’ in her boyfriend’s mother’s Ministerial secretariat. And Dalli’s other son Jean-Marc Dalli was hired as Logistics Coordinator for Malta’s Council of Europe Presidency in 2017. It’s as though the public payroll were the family business. Even her husband is busy harassing the media and cashing in on the government’s appreciation of his ‘artistic vision’.

But I’m not just talking about the usual non-jobs dished out to Party supporters or family members. I’m also talking about the heads of Ministries, and crucial jobs abroad.

Take the Diplomatic Corps, for example. Earlier this year, Joseph Muscat appointed his friend Karl Izzo ambassador to Montenegro. Izzo coached Malta’s water polo team and co-owns a retail fashion business that flourished under the Labour Party. His business even held fashion shows with the Prime Minister’s wife in what is State property. When asked what qualifies him to be the Ambassador, apart from being a close personal friend of the Prime Minister, Izzo referred to his many trips to Montenegro.

“What’s wrong with being the friend of the Prime Minister?”, he said. “He is my friend. I don’t need any favours from anyone. I built my business from the ground up, everyone knows the type of person I am… I am an honest man.” But that is a topic for another story.

I travel to Japan every year, and I speak the language. Does that mean I’m qualified to serve as ambassador to the Land of the Rising Sun?

The ubiquity of this sort of clientelism was shocking — almost as shocking as seeing “Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister” Konrad Mizzi’s face on a bottle of wine at election time.

But do you know what the biggest problem is with clientelism? It results in profound mediocrity.

You end up with a bloated government bureaucracy that consumes resources rather than creating them, and a stagnant private sector without enough real competition to drive innovation because patronage networks and political corruption protect supporters instead of maintaining a level playing field that forces them to thrive.

When untrained people are appointed for jobs they’re totally unqualified to do simply because they’re owed a favour, the result is disaster at worst and stagnation at best.

But clientelism also weakens the long term prospects for a country by driving away innovation.  When the thoroughly mediocre soak up the best opportunities simply due to their political connections, the talented people go elsewhere.

I met so many people with ambition and drive in Malta who left their country to follow their dreams in a place where hard work is rewarded, a place with larger horizons where they can get ahead based on their own merit, and not on which Minister they ingratiate themselves with.

When mediocrity is institutionalised, what you’re left with are the hangers-on, who latch on to the public payroll like ticks on a deer, sucking resources until they grow so bloated they swell up and fall off.

Such people are incapable of building a prosperous independent nation because the only prosperity they’re concerned with is their own.

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