‘It is not dishonest; rather a proof of cleverness and political independence’: thus goes Gustav Flaubert’s spoof of the upper-middle class attitudes of his day towards paying their dues at customs. Today week we celebrate the bicentenary of the French novelist’s birth, but his satire continues to sound familiar.
Except that, in Malta’s case, no one today exemplifies that attitude better than the people running the State. System-cheating is not the exception; it’s how they rule. When called out, they assert a sovereign right to do so.
Consider the dues that the State owes the individual. The record of the Maltese State, when challenged in the European Court of Human Rights, is abysmal and goes back decades. However, in practice, it’s getting even worse.
It used to be the case that the supremacy of principle was embraced, its meaning recognised but violated in practice. Now, the supremacy is challenged and the meaning is turned on its head.
It was under the current justice minister that a new law was proposed that would have put into doubt the supremacy of the European Convention of Human Rights in our legal system. Worse, it was proposed that political appointees would be granted the powers to impose fines that, according to the Constitution, may only be imposed by a court of law.
Equality before the law would have been replaced by equality as assessed by political operatives. The protection of the law would have been replaced by the protection of, effectively, politicians.
The proposed law was strenuously defended by the government as progressive. Off the record, the defence was shocking: the processes of prosecution — especially of financial operators suspected of misbehaviour needed to be speeded up — sceptical MPs were told, in order to avoid greylisting by the FATF.
Tampering with rights, for the purpose of reaching a political outcome, was a clever dodge to maintain the international status of our financial jurisdiction.
Citizens would pay the price, with their rights, for the politicians who, in their show of cleverness and sovereign independence, had allowed Malta to become a haven for international money-laundering operations.
It wasn’t just a passing idea. It is, unfortunately, this government’s instinct. The language of rights is embraced only to be used against the very people that rights are supposed to protect.
Freedom of expression? It’s there to protect individuals who want to criticise the State. Instead, it’s claimed by State and ruling Party operatives to single out individuals for disdain.
The right to privacy? It’s there to protect individuals from State intrusion. Instead, it’s used to protect cronies getting dodgy contracts from scrutiny. The perverse claim is used to undermine another civic right — to information.
The right to be forgotten? It’s there to protect individuals against claims made in the Wild West that is the internet. Instead, the government uses it to protect its chosen friends, should they have been so careless (despite all the protections cronies have against prosecution) as to have been found guilty by a court of law.
Since 2017, around 300 people have had their sentences removed from the public database — most had criminal sentences. The people who decide who gets to be ‘forgotten’? They depend on politicians.
We’re talking about rather more than favours on behalf of friends. It’s the executive arm of government making it more difficult for the decisions of the judicial branch to be known.
That’s more than one right being twisted. It’s the entire system of separation of powers. In every case, the right is given lip service but twisted to consolidate the rule of the powerful.
The right to private property? It’s embraced and then twisted almost to mean that the only kind of property that can exist is private. The idea of property that is commons is eroded to the extent that nothing is safe — no patch of the sea or the environment — from robber barons.
Speaking of the robber barons of his day, the Austrian journalist Karl Kraus said that everything that is not nailed down is theirs. Everything that is nailed down, but that they can prise away, is also theirs.
Kraus was describing early 20th-century Austria. A century later, it describes our predicament. We are governed by people who do not simply waste and steal public funds, use institutional control to cover up their tracks and punish anyone who criticises them for doing so.
They treat fundamental rights as pawns in a political game, not as a way of life, and their ability to manipulate those rights as political cleverness rather than betrayal.
In truth, it’s not clever at all. The systemic violation of rights destabilises a country and leads to loss of political control. We’re seeing it happen before our eyes as institutions deteriorate, abuses multiply, foreign investors leave and youth dreams of being elsewhere.