The good in the bad and the ugly

A memo to readers who, upon reading of Keith Schembri’s fake newspaper, began to exclaim in tongues: It’s not Pentecost, yet. Today is Easter Sunday, our subject is the good news, and this week has been full of them.

Occasional self-doubt is a mark of sanity, and any sane person who has been a critic of government corruption will have sometimes wondered whether they might not be exaggerating the faults they’re denouncing. To such people this week has been comforting.

Take the news about Schembri. It should clear the mind of anyone who’s ever had gnawing doubts, even the merest of tickling nibbles, about giving him more time to explain himself. Whatever the reasons for this attempt to launder his reputation – and they might be subtle as well as crude – the attempt itself should dispel any lingering doubts.

Take another story broken by this website. Enemalta awarded a €6,000 direct order to review the Auditor General’s damning report on the Electrogas deal – to a company involved in that very deal.

To adapt the immortal words of Judge Lawrence Mintoff (on being told by the then Police Commissioner that leak accusations levelled at Inspector Keith Arnaud were being investigated by a team that included Arnaud): Is The Shift saying that Beat Ltd (BEAT) has been commissioned to evaluate a process in which BEAT’s boss played a key part? Um, yes.

The news, of course, has a dispiriting aspect. It will continue to complicate our exit strategy from the political crisis that began in November. Although news of the direct order was published at the end of last month, it was issued on 10 December, in the last days of Joseph Muscat’s government.

Robert Abela should be asked what he thinks of this contract, and whether it will help his stated aim to resolve Malta’s reputational issues. Make no mistake, it will be raised by the international monitors. The contract is as significant as that awarded by the Malta Tourism Authority to Konrad Mizzi, on 9 December – a day before the Enemalta direct order.

Even if the contract is not cancelled, however, there is good news here. There is no room left for troubling doubt concerning the Electrogas deal.

If Enemalta itself seriously doubted the judgement of the National Audit Office (NAO) report, it would have made strenuous attempts to award the review contract to a firm that had no skin in the game. Instead, the contract went to a firm with a vested interest in glossing over any criticism. That suggests that the decision makers at Enemalta are none too confident that an independent review would find anything seriously wrong with the NAO report.

There’s more. If the contract isn’t cancelled, BEAT will have to come up with the best possible case against the NAO. If BEAT can’t point to anything fundamentally wrong with the NAO report, who can? If the best that BEAT can come up with is flimsy, or avoids the central questions, then we will have confirmation of just how rotten the Electrogas process was.

Finally, it is true that the metaphor of war, to capture our experience of the current health crisis, is getting out of hand. Instead of capturing our experience, it is beginning to control it. Even here, however, there is good news.

The ugly news first. The analogy with war – in Malta and elsewhere – was originally made to capture the sense of collective effort and sacrifice, not least by the frontline health workers. It also helped persuade many of us to exercise self-discipline and to recognise the legitimacy of the emergency powers granted to the Superintendant of Public Health.

However, the rhetoric of national solidarity has also morphed into a rhetoric of right wing nationalism, prepared to suspend human rights obligations. Self-isolation in the face of the virus is being transformed into a virulent suspension of humane behaviour towards immigrants and people fleeing Libya.

The good news is that public morality and civic virtue are once again back on the agenda. After years of any talk of public ethics being dismissed as not being ‘progressive’, as being irrelevant to the one thing that mattered – profit – we are now debating civic virtues as though they’re necessary.

We’re rusty, of course, and some of what is being passed off as civic virtue is actually bigotry. But at least the subject is getting our collective attention. We are recognising that ethical standards are relevant and essential to the wellbeing of our society and economy. No one would have bet on that six months ago.


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