Invisibility cloak

Invisibility cloak

The passport scheme is a pet hate for me: for reasons of principle, because I cannot conceive how citizenship can have a price tag; for reasons of reputation, because our European friends and allies are rightly annoyed about the implications on them of our little bargain sale; for reasons of social justice, because property prices are inflated and homelessness is exacerbated; for reasons of economic planning, because the addiction to easy money is the best way to numb us into a false sense of security that crashes when the going gets tough, as it will.

But ever so often the government finds me new reasons for my renewed annoyance.

The agency that runs the passport scheme has turned down a request from Malta Today to provide information on which agencies made commissions on the sale of our citizenship mostly to Russian, Chinese, Saudi and Nigerian zio paperone. (I couldn’t resist using the Italian name for Scrooge McDuck which in the Italian psyche is the personification of the greedy gazillionaire who the Corriere di Malta pictured gobbling up sweet Maltese passports).

It is incredible that the government continues to argue the need for secrecy of these commissions when a magisterial inquiry is underway investigating evidence that some of those commissions went straight into the pockets of Keith Schembri.

Transparency in public administration is not just required to give column inches to newspaper men. It is necessary to make it harder for corruption to hide under unjustified cloaking. The principle should be that all public sector activity must be conducted openly. Then exceptions can be considered.

I can understand that the police cannot be required to place on their website their stake-out plans when investigating drug-lords. Secrecy is self-evidently necessary there. It outweighs the unfortunate risk that there are rotten policemen who exploit the need for secrecy to collude with criminals and profit from crime while in uniform. There have to be other ways of dealing with that.

But beyond these banal security and policing considerations, it becomes hard to think why governments should have secrets at all.

The expenditure of public moneys ought to be done completely transparently. Salaries paid to public officials should be public. Contracts paid to suppliers should be public. Fees paid to people acting as agents of the state should be public.

If the government faces situations where one of its schemes is not likely to succeed unless its details are kept under wraps than one should really be thinking if the government should be doing it all.

It started with the long process between 1989 and 2013 when the government gradually but steadily withdrew from practically all commercial activities were it competed in their delivery with private commercial interests. For as long as governments sell sugar in competition with other sugar sellers, its internal costs and margin allocations have to be kept secret in order for the government to compete. But the government should not compete and after decades of ideological controversy, we now all agree with this simple fact.

Having taken that out-of-the-way, can any seriously accept that there are “commercial reasons” why the government should not say that it paid Brian Tonna so many hundreds of thousands of euro for the re-selling of its passport?

That, just in case of any ambiguity, is a rhetorical question.

As the reasons cannot be commercial, we cannot help suspecting the government is comfortably sheltered under a cloak away from the hot inquisitive eyes of those whose personal takings from the passport scheme is the doubling of their rent in the space of the last two years.