Last week two phrases often uttered by MEP Alfred Sant came to mind, interrupting my afternoon kip. One of them was the overused and outworn “xamma ta’ korruzzjoni,” (the whiff of corruption) which Sant used in political debates, often levelling accusations he couldn’t prove even though most of us down here in the electorate sensed something was off. How Sant made it to my afternoon dreams is something for the shrink to assess: a sitdown with the expensive nosey lard-arse is overdue. Recently, I’m also having recurring dreams about being trapped in a huge tower in Sliema during a real estate convention hosted by Paul Vincenti.
It’s really impossible to pinpoint instances of corruption here in Malta. We’ve had a couple of cases reaching the headlines – say, the infamous oil commissions scandal, where kickbacks and gifts were used to sustain a whole system which resulted in higher prices for customers and businesses alike. Of course, before Nationalist apologists start tapping furiously onto their keyboards, there was the justified anger (from the honest hardworking people) about Panama Papers, which was the sort of corruption Sant often spoke out against – moral corruption, at least, because there is no proof to sustain theories about illegal wads of cash flying into Mizzi’s and Schembri’s (and Hillman’s, and Louis Farrugia’s, and Darmanin Demajo’s, and a lot of other merry men) Panama accounts. That sort of moral corruption usually brings down governments, or forces resignations, condemnations, intra-party revolts, huge protests in the streets, you get the picture.
Corruption is a bit like cat piss. You walk in from a day’s work and it catches your senses straight away. Strong, pungent, irritating, uncompromising. Yet, pretty much like all the proof related to kickbacks and what not, it’s hard to spot. So you have a tough time sniffing at carpets, clothes, bags even, while your cat stares at you smugly from her favourite window sill, with the expression of a fuel pump attendant on lunch break watching you haplessly change a punctured tyre in the heat of a Maltese summer. Eventually, you either settle for the cat piss, or throw everything out. Depending on how complacent you are, naturally.
I assume a couple of lawyers will be reading this praying for me to go on record, and say corruption is involved in the granting of the Sliema and Mriehel high rise permits. But I won’t, simply because there would be too many people to accuse of being, at the very least, morally corrupt. For one, before both permits were granted, I had “serious reservations” (is this acceptable, Dr. XYZ with your finger on the “libel” button?) about the whole process. The NGOs had a ton of legal arguments (I won’t go into legalese – it’s Monday), and the PA itself admitted that Mriehel was only added to the high rise areas on the government’s insistence – the kind of transparency stuff we’ve come to expect, more or less. And there again, a professional photographer confirmed that the shots of the artistic impression used for the submission of plans were taken with a wide-angle lens, not the 50mm lens as requested by the PA itself.
Talk of PA, everytime I look at Johann Buttigieg and his condescending facial expressions I think of a slightly less expensive car that still consumes a lot of fuel and runs even faster than its predecessor. It cuts corners and has an inconsistent mileage per gallon. The autopilot ignores the signage and regulations: there are no speed limits especially in residential areas. It’s the kind of car that morphs from a Ford Fiesta into an angry Lambo pulling off doughnuts right in front of your front garden (or, seeing none are left, your 50cm x 1m first floor balcony).
He does, despite the demerger of the agencies, provide that very reassuring sense of continuity. In this respect, the decisions taken by PA and MEPA under Buttigieg – together with a host of policies drafted ad personam by rather faceless people – are as shocking and gruesome as MEPA under Austin Walker, with a discounted salary to make us all feel better.
A friend of mine (one of a rapidly diminishing number) working close to the lofty offices of Red Castille once told me (after steadfastedly pointing out Buttigieg’s “reduced” salary) that MEPA was corrupt within and that “you can’t cure what is already dead.” After seeing the PA at work, I’m all out in favour of euthanasia.
The planning voting process is ultimately an expression of democracy. But wait, not so fast. There are individual PA board members appointed by – who? voting on behalf of – who? There is Dr Joe Sammut representing the PL, and, for reasons alien to me, I wonder why a political party should be represented in a decision on something civil such as urban planning and structures (not to mention quality of life that goes beyond the reduced utilities bill and civil liberties which don’t affect a sizeable chunk of us). There is Ryan Callus representing the PN – while the same arguments about party representation on the boards apply, as they do to anyone who holds a membership card in a political party, I’m never sure if he’s voting in line with his own arguments, or merely following somebody else’s line.
Painted in the blue corner (up to 2013 they were painted in the red one) one finds the shit-stirrers, the hippies, the misguided naive children of the trees, the NGOs, whose only real interest is to preserve what is left of our natural resources. Party media, blue first, now red, consider this to be some sort of heinous crime that, unlike pulling off stunts in the Lands Department, should earn you a stint in jail. Even though, as an aside, I’d recommend someone who can actually speak Maltese and talk to, not at the people of this country, to lead a conglomerate of NGOs in such campaigns, ideally without flirting with any of the two monoliths of muck.
And then, shockingly, the ERA’s Victor Axiaq came down with a rather contagious strand of the Black Plague, the Pilatetis, which had him miss both voting sessions. One would hope the “E” in “ERA” would have stirred him to vote against the developments, but, alas, he was on his deathbed without enough strength to speak – so much so that the ERA will not even be appealing the decisions taken by its more powerful, angrier, taller, richer bipolar brother.
Am I forgetting anybody? Of course. It’s the local council, ostensibly representing nobody other than the citizen residents of Sliema, whose vote is practically ignored every time. See – democracy – the PA, the ERA, their voting members, Joe Sammut, Ryan Callus won’t host you in their offices or living rooms to listen to your thoughts, grievances and ideas about the whole high-rise debacle. Somebody else, left or right, is already pulling their strings. The local council is the only elected body among the voters, and sometimes, certain councils have the rather undemocratic tendency to swing in the direction of the party majority instead of applying direct democracy at the interest of their own electors.
Which leads me to the other phrase, Sant’s infamous “Ħbieb tal-Ħbieb.”
Does anybody still harbour doubts these “ħbieb” exist?
I will quote from an unlikely source, that boring, dark, depressing corner on the timesofmalta.com’s blogosphere, none other than Fr Joe Borg, who in turn quotes a parliamentary speech from none other than Malta’s favourite day tripper, Evarist Bartolo:
“Bartolo said that on becoming a minister in 1966 (sic) he was invited by an eminent lawyer to a fenkata at a farm in the south of Malta. He gladly accepted though was not privy to the guest list. On arrival, he was surprised to find well-known lawyers, members of the judiciary and land speculators. All honourable men posturing as be pillars of the community. The prandial conversation was anything but light banter. On the contrary, Bartolo told us, that the conversation centred on land transfers and large projects.
‘I was worried,’ Bartolo told Parliament. And rightly so, say all of us. Such covert meetings, brook no good except for those who want to take unjust and probably corrupt advantage over the rest of us.
Bartolo shared his reflection on the meeting.
‘I said: there are political parties; we criticise and confront each other; we write electoral programmes and make speeches; there is Parliament and there are law courts where decisions are taken. I realised that behind the façade of democracy, important decisions are taken in in back rooms, in farms on Saturday afternoon and not during Parliamentary sittings. [Decisions are not taken only] in places where electoral programmes are compiled, or by us who do a lot of sacrifices to dedicate ourselves to politics.’
Bartolo said that he only went once to such a gathering. He was never invited again as the organisers realised that he was not ready to play their dirty game. He added that also invitations to go on yachts or to go to the gym dried up.”
It’s probably the first time that a member of the Church is publicly quoting someone often suspected of being a child-eating Marxist. In essence, however, both Borg and Bartolo lend weight to Sant’s theory, that of “friends of friends”.
You’ll surely forgive my insurmountable cynicism at the spate of events, but for all their good intentions and belief in the rule of law, the NGOs walked into the Somme armed with a teaspoonful of maple syrup. It seemed like David vs Goliath II: The Revenge, only that this time God was on a fishing trip and didn’t give a toss if the Philistines had their way.
Here’s an idea for the newspapers: let’s investigate who donated how much to the parties, and what permits, clean, shady or otherwise, they got from PA and MEPA.
When it comes to the running of this country, there’s the stench of corr – er, cat piss, everywhere. And what’s worse, is that nobody really cares. Have we gone full Sicily? Probably. Bartolo’s assertion about “well-known lawyers, members of the judiciary and land speculators” is particularly worrying.
Those with a memory that goes beyond 2013 or indeed yesterday’s brunch by the beach will remember how badly the business class treated Sant (who probably did the right amount of heel-digging to exacerbate the situation) and how things spiralled – to the point where the media pasted his cancer on the front page, and not in the “martyr” mode offered to other politicians.
Now of course, our rather uncreative business class (for it all invariably involves apartments, supermarkets, gyms, parking lots, and artificial landscaping to fool those NGOs) is having its day. Just like us common Joes they’ve had their utility bills slashed. Unlike most of us common Joes they earn more than €19,501 a year, so their income tax rate’s gone down too. Unlike us they don’t need to pay loans on their first property or rent, for they’re actually on the other side of the fence, so probably the fact that property prices are shooting up every few minutes plays into their hands. They, like most flag-waving Labourites, are pleased at the wealth being created – the “ġid” we all heard being bandied around when the Żonqor scandal was floated and approved.
And rightly so, for most of the wealth being created is remaining squarely in their zone of influence. So, if for a moment you consider the notion of supporting these hideous symbols of ostentation as a form of wealth, remember the highrises are not only pushing prices upwards for you, your children or immediate family, but also robbing you of the sight of a clean blue skyline, forever. The wealth being generated is nothing more than gluttony in the property market, and you can’t have a slice of it, unless you intend to part with your family and quality time to work in one of the cafeterias. Or, God forbid, become an estate ag- pardon, property negotiator.
Are you shocked at Panama? So am I. But there’s a bigger scandal. The current Maltese economic focus is only fuelling more poverty for those who, right now are just about making it to the end of the month. Muscat, in his traditional Sunday sermon right after walking on a stretch of water said that government is creating “a new middle class.” There’s no new middle class being created; it’s a newer breed of 1% that’s strengthening its position while government, as it’s wont to do, is using this particular truth to feed us plebs with more bread and more circuses. There is no such enthusiasm from government, opposition or “social partners” for an overdue increase in the minimum wage, for example. Here, we get a lot of tiptoeing around the issue, as if the establishment is afraid zombies with measly salaries and loud children might actually set foot north of Marsa.
To put things in context, I can’t really blame government for everything. This whole system is bigger than government. I do think that while Castille calls the shots, there is someone bigger than Castille right behind it, ready to fire its Howitzers. Just like the beautiful nineties and part of the noughties (counterbalanced by too many Oasis duds) good behaviour will earn the current Castille administration a new term in office. And so will good behaviour earn chairmen, CEOs, customer care officials, police officers etc the blessing of the establishment.
Imagine the scene where a drunken, obese Russian millionaire is dangling a wad of cash in front of a hungry, STI-battered prostitute, and will only pay her if she promises all sort of promiscuity imaginable, possibly involving the murder of her own mother. This, fellow citizens, is how politics work.
Which is why we have MEPA policies with loopholes the size of a water retentive Norwegian whale allowing ODZ country shacks to become villas, and spates of applications for “agricultural storage” sprouting all over the remaining countryside, coincidentally bearing the name of the same architect. It’s why planning decisions are taken without the fear of losing votes, or honest men lodging complaints to the PA find angry men threatening their families right outside their homes or businessmen calling their employers to complain.
Nobody cares if we all complain at the destruction not merely of the Opposition’s hallowed stomping ground in Sliema – where the destruction began with the Tigne projects under the previous administration – but also of town and village cores all over Malta, from the twisted humour of the Lija apartment blocks recently approved by the PA, to the retail store in Burmarrad which, as if we’re stupid, will be the likely cause for even further destruction of the surrounding agricultural land. This is why we have scandals that make it to the media and others that don’t (because the media isn’t immune to the colour of money). And of course, this is why people drafting an EIA have the cheek to tell residents to keep their windows shut for four years, because, hey, you’ve got the vote, but our money is bigger, so wait for another three or four years before venting your frustration in the ballot box.
Let’s set things straight – nobody has the right to claim moral high ground here. In fact I have to reserve a little space on this happy couch of grime for the Opposition, who like an irritating white poodle that’s been kicked hard by its master, has been sent flying across the corridor and has yet to find its testicles. Simon Busuttil refused to speak out against the high rises with any conviction whatsoever. Wary of the consequences of crossing two large business blocks who are temporarily out of the blue fold and drifting away into the deep red, he preferred to concentrate his efforts, rather ham-fistedly if you’ll excuse the pun, on the desecrated copy of the Qur’an. Yesterday, with his tight pressed white shirt like a man stuck in his eternal First Communion, he sent an admonishment to Our Joseph who “will have a lot to explain” about the high-rises. See, this kind of stuff makes for weak opposition, for you can’t land into Sliema in full electoral campaign, glare over the crater left by two potential party donors, berate government for its policies, and scoot off (or pedal furiously) leaving the residents, and core Nationalist voters, up to their necks in dust.
But the biggest blemish on the PN here is that, just as they can’t really speak about corruption and Panama, they can’t speak for the destruction of the environment, having been the ones who kicked off the biggest round of speculation and construction since Lorry Sant with the 2006 ODZ rationalisation. And they can’t (in fact they don’t) speak about the excessively cosy relationship between government and business – for the system wasn’t created by Labour. Labour might only be guilty of using it better, to our general detriment.
See, the stench of cat piss could be coming from everywhere. Maybe there is more than just one single patch. Or, maybe, just like the pillars of our country, the whole house is built on foundations the cat, and her many friends, used as a bathroom.