It’s easy when it’s someone else’s money

How government ministers diverted public funds to their own electoral districts

 

It should come as no surprise that, despite the string of scandals which continue to plague Robert Abela’s administration, the latest polls suggest the Labour Party enjoys a comfortable majority in the upcoming election.

After all, with an unprecedented increase in public sector employment and a complete subversion of the public procurement process, the governing party has already done plenty to curry favour at the polls.

Just in case that wasn’t enough, many government ministers took advantage of the months of uncertainty while Abela fuelled speculation about the date of the upcoming general election to fund big and small projects that just happened to fall within their own electoral districts.

The Shift revealed how Economy Minister Silvio Schembri directed tens of thousands of euros in public funds to several organisations in his own constituency. While that may not seem like much, the funds Schembri is distributing are administered by the Responsible Gaming Foundation (RGF) and are earmarked for creating awareness about the problems associated with gambling.

He apparently ruffled the feathers of fellow Labour candidates in the same district, but Schembri is hardly an exception.

According to information presented in parliament, €3 million from National Development and Social Fund (NSDF), an entity financed by the controversial sale of passports, was spent last year on big public projects in the electoral district of Alex Muscat, the parliamentary secretary responsible for the fund.

The projects included €1 million to turn an abandoned field in Mosta into a playing field; €850,000 to install panoramic lighting on the Mosta church, located in the heart of Muscat’s constituency; and, according to NSDF statistics, some €2.5 million to be shared between two “greening” projects in Hamrun and Qormi.

Another analysis by The Shift revealed that most of the money allocated through the Social Causes Fund, which is tasked with distributing money from gaming taxes and unclaimed lottery prizes, was diverted to organisations in the electoral district where Finance Minister Clyde Caruana hopes to win a parliamentary seat. Many of the funds went to organisations like band clubs and religious societies, which are considered essential for a budding politician to gain popularity.

This may explain why a national arts fund administrated by the Arts Council, and set up to help NGOs involved in the organisation of traditional village feasts across the island, allocated two-thirds of its cash to groups from minister Jose Herrera’s own electoral district. An investigation by The Shift revealed that of the €230,000 dispensed by the Arts Council, some 65% – or €150,000 – was given to 19 organisations within the first electoral district, while most applications from other parts of Malta were rejected.

Thanks to government officials’ self-promotion on social media, The Shift was able to calculate how seven other government MPs spent over €20 million in public funds on projects located exclusively within their own electoral districts. These included government whip Glenn Bedingfield, Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri, and Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia.

Glenn Bedingfield is the chairman of the Cottonera Foundation, a State-funded entity with a budget of €7.6 million, that was set up last year specifically for embellishment projects in the electoral district the MP will be contesting.

Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri spent €3 million on a single refurbishment project in Marsalforn, while Aaron Farrugia spent €3.05 million on projects in his own constituency that included the upgrading of two gardens in Floriana and Marsa, refurbishment works on a youth centre in Valletta, and a “greening project” in a car park in Ħamrun. All of these were promoted on Farrugia’s Facebook page within the space of a few months.

In spite of these short-sighted spending sprees, both the Labour and Nationalist parties are busy making grand electoral pledges that — quite predictably — include reducing taxes while increasing spending. No one talks about where the money is supposed to come from.

According to the latest figures published by the National Statistics Office, The Shift calculated that by January 2021 Malta’s debt had ballooned to a record €8.1 billion, and that during his first 24 months as prime minister, Abela’s government increased the national debt by a staggering €2.7 billion — the equivalent of borrowing €3.7 million a day.

                           
                               
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