Georges Bernanos (1888-1948): ‘The first sign of corruption in a society that is still alive is that the end justifies the means.’
If the first sign is meant to sound the alarm, contemporary Malta doesn’t need one. We have plenty of other signs to signal the rot: collapsing houses, crooked deals, shady banks, nefarious cronies, unscrupulous treatment of critics, venal uses of public resources, contagion from organised crime networks, and a culture of impunity.
Many of these signs have been officially noted by one authority or another — as we find out when we’re allowed to see a report, or manage to get hold of it anyway; or, thanks to international pressure, have a public inquiry that demands answers on our behalf.
So, dear Georges, you say you’re concerned with a society that is still alive. We’re concerned with resurrection.
Except it’s not that simple. The argument of means and ends is dragged in by the very people trying to cover up the scandals.
Keith Schembri to the Caruana Galizia public inquiry: “Perhaps I took shortcuts but was I wrong? The country benefitted.”
Joseph Muscat, to the inquiry, on why he retained Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, despite everything: They were “doers”. The country benefits from doers.
Miriam Dalli, the brand new energy minister, interviewed after everything we heard in the inquiry about the stench of corruption surrounding the Electrogas power station: The power station has been beneficial to the country. It “brought down” energy bills and gives us cleaner energy.
All these answers are of course bogus. They’re false on their own terms. But just because they’re unconvincing doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to how they tried to convince us.
They told us the ends justify the means. And they expected us — or enough of us — to think that was an acceptable reason.
Why shouldn’t they? It’s a reason we’ve accepted several times in the recent past.
Take the forces of order and security. No western democracy has the army and police under the same minister. It’s a standard safeguard, to make sure that the forces remain a separate check on power, which should never be concentrated. That’s the way it also was in Malta up to 2013.
Then it changed. The reason given by Manuel Mallia, the first minister to have both police and army under him, was that it was better for coordination.
So much for the dispersal of power, the means by which democracy safeguards itself. There was a murmur in the press. Since then we’ve had three more ministers in charge of both forces. We no longer even murmur.
Yet the partisan “coordination” of the army and police is one of the major questions hovering over public concerns with grave corruption. Protecting their ethos begins with being clear about ends and means.
Take the ministerial code of ethics. It’s as thick as a brick, said Muscat, then the new prime minister; it needed to be pruned to be less complicated and easier to manage.
Prune it they did. They even stopped following the old code of ethics while it was still in force. There was a slightly louder murmur in the press. But no headlines screaming the outrage, no prolonged explanation of the alarm bells it rang.
Perhaps, realistically, we couldn’t have stopped it anyway. But, by accepting that ends justify the means, we made things easier.
The list could go on. Local council elections have been rationalised — a near-doubling of their term; all bunched together — in the name of greater efficacy. But it also means lower levels of civic participation and democratic practice, with the national government having fewer challenges at the polls between one general election and another.
Cooptions to parliament have been transformed from a solution to a parliamentary problem to a routine solution to the problems of political parties, the ends justifying the means. We now have two Cabinet ministers, one Leader of the Opposition, and a former Opposition leader, all in parliament at the same time, all elected by ‘strategic’ cooption. The current system is beginning to seem more like a series of loopholes, its basis of democratic representation more of a fiction.
Let’s not forget the noble end that justifies the means: granting a minority more rights by the subterfuge of having a secondary form of legislation override, in practice, the main law. Legal experts protest but few others follow. After all, who but a reactionary would contest more rights for the LGBTIQ community?
Except that this end justified bypassing proper accountability, one of the very problems that led us into the current morass. The precedent is set. Nothing precludes the stratagem from being used for ignoble ends.
Turns out old Bernanos made a point still relevant. The first sign of corruption isn’t a doorway the kleptocrats, autocrats and plutocrats use once. They keep passing through it. Until we slam the door shut.