The loophole nation

In May 2017, during the election campaign in which Joseph Muscat and cronies were telling us that Malta was in their hearts and that we were on the way to becoming the best in Europe, judgement was passed by someone who had worked closely with Muscat and Konrad Mizzi.

Malta will never change,” wrote Catherine Halpin, communications director for Electrogas, in an email that followed the charade of the new power station’s official opening. The fake opening came at great cost.

The conman-in-chief, Joseph Muscat, even staged a congratulatory encounter with two children. It was meant to symbolise a great work done on behalf of future generations. Now, the power station looks like a financial burden that those children will have to carry as adults.

Halpin tossed her comment as an aside. The context was the chaos and hissy fits that preceded the opening ceremony, with the Office of the Prime Minister and Mizzi demanding new deadlines and elaborate smoke and mirrors.

Halpin was passing judgement on the empty bravado of the very people passing themselves off as visionaries and technocrats. She presented it as the informal shared wisdom — what anyone who had to work with the Malta government was bound to conclude.

For the rest of us, the comment stings. We can see that Halpin is treating us like some backwater. But Malta has indeed changed. Except for the worse.

It’s now evident that the core problem with our governance has been threefold. The takeover by a gang of crooks is only one aspect.

They were enabled by the two other dimensions. One is a Constitution with a central tension. It offers a parliamentary democracy but gives the Prime Minister, in practice, the powers of an executive President. It is only self-restraint, not formal guardrails, that keeps incumbents from accumulating too much power with too few checks.

The second dimension is the systemic erosion of the idea of the public interest. You can see the consequences in the testimony given to the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry by Alex Muscat — now the junior minister for citizenship (aka passport sales), but testifying about his period as deputy chief of staff at OPM, serving directly under Keith Schembri.

He said nothing new but he stated all that’s wrong at once. He lectured the judges on what’s proper while getting it all wrong. And the fact that he’s intelligent and articulate makes only sharper just the extent of the erosion of a proper public service ethos.

Alex Muscat was asked why, even as he served as deputy chief of staff, he was taking on private consultancy work for Nexia BT, including after Panamagate, as this website has revealed.

His reply: he was a person of trust, not a public official; he was an economist and they should be treated like lawyers, free to take on other clients; Nexia BT had done nothing illegal in Panamagate.

Not a single one of those elements is right.

The difference between a person of trust and a public official is in the manner of recruitment, not in the conditions of work. Once recruited, a person of trust is subject to the same work conditions as a public official if he or she had to fill that role.

At least that’s the way it was pre-2013. If it’s changed since, we should be told.

The comparison to lawyers is irrelevant. If lawyers are engaged on an advisory basis, then they may take on other clients. But the role of deputy chief of staff is full time. No one who fills it, lawyer, economist or dentist, can have any other work.

A person of trust is a public servant, not a partisan servant paid out of public funds — there to safeguard the public interest. No well-governed country permits its public servants to serve private interests simultaneously.

As for the disingenuous bit — Nexia BT had done nothing illegal: nothing illegal had been proven, but it was clear from the revealed emails that the firm had to know it was aiding improper behaviour. If it didn’t at first, it found out when so many banks refused to open accounts for their clients.

But we’re not done yet. From June 2017 to his promotion to junior minister, Alex Muscat was an MP as well as an OPM official. Those are two different kinds of public servants: one is part of the executive; the other is part of the executive’s watchdog.

Alex Muscat was paid out of public funds to keep a watchful eye on himself — like Glenn Bedingfield before him and Clyde Caruana now. But we’re being told that there’s nothing ridiculous about that.

Alex Muscat, the man who lectures Europe on our national sovereignty, has no idea of the guarantees of popular sovereignty — but he lectures us about them anyway.

It wasn’t always like this. Malta has changed — for the worse. It can change for the better.

For that to happen, though, our public servants need to read our Constitution as a charter of national emancipation. They need to stop reading it as a series of loopholes.

The loophole nation