Correction uploaded at 10:57 of 05/06/2019.
Jean Pierre Debono published a redacted scan of a deposit that appears to be his monthly salary into what he says is his bank account. I don’t blame him. Stories have been making the rounds that he’s somehow raking it in and that he’s clinging onto some pot of gold.
There are many reasons for which Jean Pierre Debono’s position in untenable but those reasons have to do with his performance, his record of dodgy practices including manipulation of voting processes and the blatant conflict of interest he has been in for a long time campaigning for the party as its employee and for himself or his wife or both as candidates.
Some ‘experts’ are suggesting that no one working in party politics should earn a stipend for that work but should instead have enough earnings from other business to be able to do politics for free. That is just the sort of populist, retrograde glorification of amateurism that is elitist and reserves politics to lawyers with too much time on their hands.
I realise there’s a contradiction in the aspirations I’m putting forward. The suggestion that people in politics should only be the people who can afford to do it for free is intended to resolve the problem of people who cling to public affairs because they have nowhere else to go. In politics, lifetimes can be very short and often they ought to be. Amateurs can be kicked out guilt free because they can still earn their keep by going back to their old professions. At least, that’s the idea.
To begin with it’s a false idea. Mixing politics with business in the first third of your career almost necessarily means you’re doing one of them, or both, half as well as you could. Serious, professional politics — researching, understanding polls, developing policies, communicating and debating ideas, above all government — are not a part-time hobby if they are to be done properly. And if too much time is invested in them you’ll be less of a professional — architect, engineer, doctor, whatever — than you would be if you didn’t have all the distraction from politics.
If you’ve made it in politics and you join the mile high club as a Minister you’re expected to at least do that on a full-time basis. You may be Minister for 5, 10, maybe 15 years during which time your profession has run you by. Things have changed and you haven’t been watching. Partnerships have locked you out, professional standards have evolved, technologies have flipped right over.
When you’re kicked out of politics, you think you’re going back to your profession at age 50, not having done a day’s work in that business since you’ve been 35. Your peers have outgrown you. You have nothing to offer them, least of all clients. And you have more no-go areas because of potential conflicts of interests with a job you’re no longer in than your partners could ever have patience for.
Also time is running out to set yourself up for retirement. You have no partnership to hand-over and you’ve eaten what you’ve earned for the time you’ve been in public service, at least those bits you didn’t have to give away in gifts for weddings of people you never knew.
So the idea that politics should attract people who can afford to work for free is a pipe dream and anyone who’s done it will tell you there’s no such thing as a materially inconsequential political career.
On top of that, as Edward Scicluna explained to us well into his seventies, you pay peanuts you get monkeys. You pay nothing, I would add, you get zombies.
We expect researched political thinking that meets and exceeds international policy standards and provides mature debate and eventually effective government. But we don’t want to pay for it.
The idea that you can develop policies for a mainstream opposition party after you’re done with your clinic or with court is frankly laughable. People who think they can do this have no idea what doing the job properly entails which is why when they do, do it they make such a mess of things.
Does it surprise us then that what we’re left with — with the exception of the truly self-sacrificing, self-loathing heroes that do give their all for practically nothing — is a choice between the corrupt who cash in on the shady opportunities that are brought about by politics, or buffoons who are in politics because anyone who could be better at the job is doing something else?
It should not surprise us. Jean Pierre Debono’s reasons for leaving his job are not that he’s over-payed or under-employed. He’s neither.
But how can we expect to have “a serious Opposition”, “an alternative Government” and all the stuff we rightly expect our main political party in Opposition to be, if the “chief political coordinator is paid” — how do I put this, nicely? — unattractively little.
That post should be occupied by a PhD in political science, law, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, statistics, economy. Even physics or astronomy or history of art for that matter. Someone who is intellectually and culturally prepared. Someone who can read numbers. Someone who can leaf through policy journals before breakfast and write brilliant memos developing policy initiatives by lunch.
And someone for whom this is something they invest every single ounce of energy they can muster into. Which means that it is just as laughable that someone who is going to do this job properly is also going to have time to meet their district constituents to get a seat as an MP as it is laughable that they spend their mornings disputing their clients’ property disputes or unwarranted arrests in court.
A position of “chief political coordinator” of the main opposition party is not only important for the party itself. It’s crucial for the entire country. That brain there should be ticking on what Malta ought to be like in 5, 10, 20 years’ time.
Instead we pay a salary that is barely appropriate for the guy in the office that organises Christmas drinks.
And what’s more, as Jean Pierre Debono explains, he (and his wife) have to go out and raise money for that meagre salary to be paid. As “chief political coordinator” there is no immediate value added that they generate that they could sell. The local veggie shop keepers are economically better placed to monetise their work.
So are we surprised Jean Pierre Debono’s wife has meetings with Yorgen Fenech whom we now all know has several spare hundreds of thousands which, it would seem, he is willing to commit to fund the lifestyle of politicians?
It’s easy to kick Jean Pierre Debono and Kristy Debono and god knows they’ve put themselves in positions where the anger of everyone else is justified.
But once they’re out we still have a problem to solve and if we think that relying on people willing to work for free is better than what we have, we have another thing coming. I’d be especially suspicious of someone willing to work for free.
The real solution is not in the hands of the Nationalist Party. The real solution is, like in the rest of the democratic world, to appreciate that political parties are an important part of democracy and for democracy to function they need to be funded as an organ of the State through taxation. That the interest of our nation depends on professionalised political parties that can afford to employ trained and qualified people for as long as they can produce and to be able to let them go — as any other private enterprise does — when they are no longer producing innovative solutions.
But it’s not popular to propose political parties should be properly funded by the State. The Labour Party is clearly appropriately funded as it is: partly because it attracts donations that are perceived by donors large and small as a secure investment in a party that will be in government for some time yet; partly from illicit funding from corrupt sources; partly from corrupt misdirected public funds granted by a Labour government to the Labour Party under some pretext or other.
It will not let go of this advantage over the PN.
But these intractable, structural problems of democracy are not new to Malta. Most other countries faced them in their own moments of democratic crisis during the 19th and 20th centuries. And the right changes happened because people demanded them. They did not demand that their politicians work for free. On the contrary they demanded they stopped working for free and get a proper salary so that we can have a proper meritocracy where governors and policy-makers are chosen not from among the well-off, the stupid or the corrupt, but the most qualified, the most honest and the best prepared.
We make our own democracy.
Note: An earlier version of this post erroneously said that Jean Pierre Debono published a copy of his monthly pay slip.