The corruption of a free society is a multi-phase event, and the hippopotamus phase enters late.
In evaluating the significance of the exchange in Parliament this week between Claudette Buttigieg (PN) and Social Policy Minister Michael Falzon, it pays to know something about the distinctiveness of the hippopotamus phase.
In the early phases of the corruption of a free society, corruption is only occasional. Disgrace is attached to those who are caught. Corruption is an anomaly. The system is robust. It has different authorities checking up on each other.
The law and the rules are impartial. They enjoin strict lines of separation between holders of public office and the realms of partisan politics and commerce. Without those lines, the claim of impartiality is tarnished. Anyone breaking the rules — no matter who they are — is punished. The principle of equality under the law is sacred.
In a system which isn’t functioning properly, corruption becomes pervasive, but it is still denounced by everyone. The rules may be broken more easily by some, but the principle of impartiality is still considered sacred.
Hypocrisy is rife because people in power don’t practise what they preach. But, at least, they do preach it. Hypocrisy — as La Rochefoucauld put it — is the compliment that vice pays to virtue.
Something is lost when the air of hypocrisy gives way to an ethos of cleverness. At this stage, vice no longer publicly recognises the legitimacy of virtue. On the contrary, corruption itself begins to seem clever, and virtue, foolish.
The rules stop being the framework of the game. They become one of the counters of the game. The rule of law has given way to the law manipulated by rulers. It’s still dangerous to be caught, but the attitude is one of “Catch me if you can!” Whereas previously the system was designed to minimise corruption, now it’s designed to minimise transparency.
We’re still not in the hippopotamus phase. Before that happens, the widespread corruption of the intellect of the honest must take place. Corruption corrodes everything — even the yardstick of those who oppose corruption.
There’s a point where the personalisation of power has become so normalised, that even some anti-corruption activists begin to accept its assumptions. When Ian Borg was moved from the ministry of transport to foreign affairs, many commentators remarked matter-of-factly that this was a demotion. It’s an assessment that would astonish virtually every other Western European commentator.
The foreign affairs post enjoys the highest prestige elsewhere. The normal trajectory of a successful career is to move towards it. Of course, the prestige is based on the assumption that the crowning value is selfless public service.
If, however, the crowning value is the ability to personalise power, then the command of a massive budget — where a minister can exercise huge discretionary influence on direct orders — is the most important sign of prestige.
The critics of Ian Borg, in taking for granted that one’s prestige as a minister depends on his or her ability to personalise his power, ended up making the system seem ‘natural’. And the more such a system (called patrimonialism) seems natural, the more difficult it is to imagine alternatives to the swamp.
It is now that we come to the hippopotamus phase. The swamp no longer seems alien and repellent. It’s a home environment, like the mangrove swamp for the hippopotamus. It’s not something to be avoided. It’s a natural habitat to swim in and enjoy.
Democrats take to rule of law like a duck to water; a society based on the law of rulers takes to corruption like a hippopotamus to a swamp.
Corruption isn’t just normalised. It’s naturalised. It doesn’t just govern calculations. It shapes our feelings.
When corruption enters the hippopotamus phase, it doesn’t even seem like corruption anymore. On the contrary, denouncing it seems an affront to proper values. It’s those who denounce corruption who are condemned for their immorality in attacking honest people. They are accused of anger driven by malice, not injustice.
And now, we’re in a position to consider the skirmish between Falzon and Buttigieg.
She asked Falzon if he was aware that a director in the public service, who fell under his ministry, took leave to participate in a certain minister’s re-election campaign, including in home visits. What did Falzon make of this?
Buttigieg did not publicly name either the minister or the director. Her point was not personal. It was about the conflict of interest in a public servant, bound to be impartial, acting in a partisan capacity.
In his reply, Falzon first rejected any impropriety because, he said, the director had always conducted her work well. Then he mentioned something Buttigieg had not — that the director was the live-in partner of the minister she had campaigned for.
Finally, he denounced the question. It insisted on a high public ethical standard — on observance of the rules governing senior civil servants — but Falzon called the question a personal attack, that is, immoral and vicious.
In fact, Buttigieg had pulled her punches. The director in question hadn’t just embarked on home visits. She had spoken at a public campaign event on behalf of the minister. She endorsed him in a film clip that he, himself, openly uploaded on Facebook. She took selfies with him at Labour mass meetings, which he also openly uploaded, for all the world as though there was nothing wrong with it.
So Falzon’s answer wasn’t a personal slip-up. It reflects a collective idea of government. In fact, that answer was written for him — by, presumably, another public servant. The other minister himself didn’t see anything wrong in uploading the photos, which he presented as signalling the virtues of companionship and fellow feeling. It was all out in the open.
You could interpret all these attitudes as symptoms of cynical cleverness: a way to avoid answering an uncomfortable question, a “catch me if you can!” attitude, a smearing of opponents.
But another interpretation is possible — that we are witnessing the hippopotamus phase at first hand, where to question the personalisation of power is to be vicious. Where to criticise this use of power is, therefore, to launch a personal attack.
If we are squarely within the hippopotamus phase of the degradation of our political system into a patrimonial one, then liberal democrats face a deeper problem than the one of cynicism. They need to persuade an electoral majority that a well-functioning liberal democracy is legitimate.