Malta plummeted to a “new all-time low” in this year’s Corruption Perception Index — a fall of seven points since 2015.
What accounts for this shocking year-by-year decline?
Transparency International places the blame squarely on the country’s leadership, citing “the weak rule of law and the commodification of corrupt practices as a cornerstone of the economy”.
But rather than do anything to fix the problem, the government seems bent on making it worse.
According to the global anti-corruption watchdog, the recent legal reforms — a set of half-baked laws riddled with deliberate loopholes — failed to address “the State’s lack of will to step away from dubious and often corruptible activities from which its officials may potentially benefit”.
Ask yourself this.
How much of the country’s GDP comes from agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, the maritime industry and technology?
And how much comes from the sale of EU passports, providing dodgy financial services to tax avoiders, gambling, money laundering, and a construction industry that’s so out of control it swallows public land and kills both migrant workers and citizens with total impunity?
This mercenary attitude isn’t just hurting Maltese citizens, it’s undermining other Member States.
“Malta has cloaked itself as the night manager of the EU’s back door,” they write, “who if you drop them some hundreds of thousands of euros, will let you sneak in with little scrutiny”.
“The path it chooses will determine whether corruption continues to flourish unchecked to the detriment of its own people and its European neighbours.”
The damning report says Malta is suffering from an identity crisis, and they’re right to point out that the root cause is cultural.
The anthropological term for it is amoral familism: the belief that any action undertaken to benefit one’s family or oneself is justifiable, regardless of whether it is legal or ethical.
It’s why citizens in Malta keep voting for the sort of politicians ‘they can deal with’, and why officials happily enable corruption as long as they’re getting their share of it.
Unfortunately, I think amoral familism permeates the culture too deeply to be eradicated. But it is possible to stop it from cascading out of control.
You could start by taking a stand on two fundamental issues.
The first is accountability.
No one is made to take responsibility for their own actions in Malta, no matter how sleazy, underhanded, illegal or utterly shameless they are. When caught in an inescapable corner, whataboutism is considered an acceptable excuse.
Strangely enough, ‘What about him, he did it too!’ does nothing to stop unacceptable behaviour. It’s just an attempt to turn transgressor into victim by saying, ‘We’re all corrupt, it’s unfair to hold me accountable’.
This line of unreasoning is so deeply engrained in Maltese culture that the most shameful behaviour isn’t just tolerated, it’s shrugged off as though it were normal anywhere outside an elementary school playground.
Government officials are often the most blatant transgressors.
When the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life ruled that Silvio Schembri made inappropriate use of public resources by filling a DOI press release with partisan cheap shots, the response was not to hold the Minister accountable.
No, he closed the case because Schembri said his press release “might have been considered overly partisan” and he’d try not to do it again.
While such schoolboy antics might seem like a small thing, the garden variety minor abuse you see every day, those small things matter.
If the authorities won’t — or can’t — act on repeated minor transgressions, what will they do when faced with much larger ones?
Recent developments give some indication.
When MFSA chairman John Mamo admitted his CEO Joseph Cushieri secretly helped himself to over €23,000 in extra pay for a job he was already supposed to be doing — and both Mamo and Joseph Muscat approved it — the public appointments committee didn’t hold the chairman accountable. No, they re-appointed him.
When the Standards Commissioner ruled that Joseph Muscat abused his power when he handed Konrad Mizzi a consulting job worth €90,000 per year, the former prime minister didn’t face the consequences. No, they decided he couldn’t be held accountable because he’s no longer an MP.
The list is longer than Pinocchio’s nose, and just as prone to steady growth.
The refusal of the Standards Commissioner to enforce any standards is a sign of the rot at the heart of Malta’s governance.
That’s one root enabler of the utter corruption the country has embraced so gleefully in a desperate frenzy to grasp short term gain.
The other has to do with our perception of reality.
We used to disagree about the interpretation of facts — that’s a sign of a healthy polity — but today we can’t even agree on what we saw.
Take Ian Borg, for example. The crass language he uttered on television wasn’t crass language at all. If you heard it wrong, it’s just because the recording was ‘tampered with for partisan reasons’.
That gaping hole in the Marsa flyover wasn’t a gaping hole, either. The reporter standing right next to the Minister seemed to think so, and it sure looked like one on video. But that’s because everyone else’s eyes were deceiving them. Everyone but Ian’s.
Not even judges are as perceptive as your Minister for the Eradication of Trees. They claimed he swindled a mentally ill man out of land, but Borg insists the carefully orchestrated plot of peer pressure, free drinks and a notary on standby reported by a broad range of witnesses was just an attempt to tarnish his impeccable reputation.
He’ll be telling you the sun is the moon next, and insist you admit it.
Want to improve next year’s Transparency International ranking?
You could start by making facts matter again.
Stop distorting obvious verifiable truth through partisan prisms. Resist the urge to lie yourself out of a corner. Don’t resort to whataboutism. And don’t accept any of this behaviour from others.
Demand accountability and resignations instead, and enforce the rules that already exist on paper.
Yes, it’s a monumental task. Malta’s parliament and key institutions are piled higher than the Augean stables. But the shit won’t get shovelled by standing around complaining about it.
Don’t expect your elected officials to fix the problem.
The country slid down the index since 2015 thanks to a wholesale takeover by what looks more and more like a criminal network. And when you needed a strong Opposition more desperately than ever, they floundered behind a totally unfit outsider who dragged along his own dodgy past.
It was up to civil society to say, “Enough” — and you did. That, in itself, is cause for hope.