It’s one thing to face distrust. It’s another to be greeted with incredulity. Last week’s news show how too many of our national institutions have moved from the realm of distrust to beggaring belief.
Distrust is about doubt in the individuals holding office. People aren’t sure about their fitness for purpose in an institution whose own credibility is not in doubt.
Incredulity is about disbelief at behaviour that’s outrageous in its sheer incompetence or corruption. It’s behaviour that makes you wonder if the State actually exists. The problem engulfs the system, which seems so damaged that its checks and balances, its brakes and guardrails, seem to have stopped functioning.
Distrust can be caused by a clique of rogue agents. Disbelief at institutional weakness is caused by something more extensive, a rogue network, with the collusion of many others, not necessarily rogues themselves, but who for some reason failed in their duty to check abuse of power.
Friday’s testimony by Peter Grech, the former Attorney General, at the Caruana Galizia inquiry, added to the general disbelief. Any single one of his answers could be counted as reasonable, but the totality drew the disbelief of the Judges. Not laymen, mind you, but people who understand the delicate judgements required by Grech’s former office.
That incredulity is to be added to other gasps. We’ve learned that the State prosecutors missed 16 sittings in one alleged corruption case, provoking the presiding Judge to dismiss it. Another is former Judge Giovanni Bonello’s indictment of the State’s prosecutors — offering Maltese citizens a pittance in compensation when the case is in the national courts, and suddenly offering much more generous compensation when the case goes to Strasbourg.
All that is the context for the strongest votes of disbelief. There were no applicants for the role of State Advocate in the first call. The Chamber of Advocates has wondered aloud if the new Attorney General is qualified for the office, given her lack of experience in criminal law.
Then we have the news of Joseph Cuschieri, the CEO of the Malta Financial Services Authority, going to Las Vegas as the guest of Yorgen Fenech, ostensibly to offer advice in the field of gaming — an industry of which Cuschieri was the regulator only a few weeks previously.
Cuschieri claims there was no conflict of interest since he was no longer at the Malta Gaming Authority. This suggests he knows there would have been an unanswerable conflict of interest had he still been with the MGA. So what did he make of Edwina Licari’s company in Las Vegas?
According to the news reports, she still was with the MGA at the time of the Las Vegas visit. She would have been involved in a straightforward conflict of interest by Cuschieri’s own standards. Yet he thought well enough of her to recruit her to the MFSA a short while later.
All this is apart from the fact that Cuschieri should not have been moonlighting as a gaming consultant. He accepted gifts incompatible with the European Central Bank’s code of ethics. And the fraternising in Las Vegas raises questions about a multi-million euro decision later taken by Cuschieri to the benefit of Fenech.
Is this a case of one or two dodgy apples? Not if you look at the guardrails. The case impacts on three regulatory authorities: the MFSA, the MGA, and the FIAU, the financial intelligence agency, on which Licari served as a board member until this week.
If you add the shenanigans at the Malta Tourism Authority (the cronyism and the industry-damaging summer decision to attract coronavirus super-spreader events) you will see that the regulatory authorities governing three of our top industries — finance, gaming and tourism — are now behaving in a way as though they have no credible checks and balances within.
They are to be added to the list of other institutions whose recent behaviour has been met with incredulity, like the police and the Office of the Prime Minister. Any surprise that the weak guardrails are weighing on foreign investors?
In the face of this mess, Robert Abela responds by asking us to trust his judgement and his conscience. He misses the scale of the problem.
Even if we do trust Abela’s judgement, it would be beside the point. Malta’s problem is long past distrust in individuals. We’re now facing the problem of distrust in our institutions, which appear to be mere figments barely disguising the arbitrariness of power.
You do not dispel suspicions of over-personalisation of power by demanding more personal trust. You solve the problem by showing that the guardrails exist and that they hold.