“Thirty years ago, there were politicians people looked up to. Nowadays, we struggle to look at them in that way,” the outgoing Chamber of Commerce president told Times of Malta. I doubt anyone (except perhaps Rosianne Cutajar) would disagree with her.
The statement should be put in some context. Let’s not go home with the idea that there exists a golden past, an age of innocence, from which we have fallen. There were dark times in our past and our country has before now been on the brink of collapsing into chaos. Joseph Muscat did not invent the science of corruption though he perfected the art.
This is Rosianne Cutajar’s week. Robert Abela is struggling to remove her from the parliamentary party. The struggle in and of itself shows how low standards are. There are people in the Labour Party who think Rosianne Cutajar is being treated unfairly. That she’s some sort of victim of invasion of privacy and of some patriarchal censorship of an up-and-coming woman.
This week people may be thinking of Rosianne Cutajar as an archetype of low standards in politics. But they should really be thinking of all the people in politics who supported her, used her, defended her, and stood by her. They should think about the MPs who spoke for her and voted against independent findings of her wrongdoing in the last legislature in the Committee for Standards in Public Life which had the opportunity to end her political career once and for all. They should think of Robert Abela who presented her as a candidate even after dodging proper sanction for documented wrongdoing.
Rosianne Cutajar, like others before her, will go at some point, sooner rather than later. She’ll go as Chris Cardona, Konrad Mizzi, Carmelo Abela, Edward Zammit Lewis, Manwel Mallia, Edward Scicluna, and Joseph Muscat have done, all dropped when defending their disgrace became more expensive for the Labour Party than foregoing the benefits of their inclusion.
One after the other, too often later rather than sooner, the exposed and rotten leave the scene, only to be replaced by a fresh batch of sharp suited thugs who appear unable to give reasons why they have entered politics.
I have often written here about how in a frenetic pursuit of purity the Nationalist Party decimated two political generations in self-inflicted autos-da-fé. First, they pushed out anyone who worked in the Gonzi government. Then Adrian Delia came with his mission to “take back our” party, a parallel universe Trumpian draining of the swamp. And the small crowd around Bernard Grech has been in rapid net decline since the general election a year ago.
A direct consequence of that generational gap is a gap in knowledge and experience which instead of naturally being passed on from mentor to mentee has been denounced and renounced like some discarded dogma in religious reformation.
Perhaps people struggle to “look up” to PN politicians because there are barely any to think of.
On Labour’s side, on the other hand, we have a gang of criminals who no longer bother to hide their motivations. They now behave like a sports team who is not bothered to hide the fact that they won the league by fixing matches.
Now let’s put things in perspective. Business leaders do not speak from a pulpit of purity. If politicians are bribed, they are bribed by business interests which I have not seen the Chamber of Commerce denouncing anywhere near as forcefully as they have politicians.
It is unnecessary to recall that not all politicians take bribes. As it is unnecessary to recall that not all people in business pay bribes.
But the politicians the Chamber of Commerce rightly criticise are not acting in isolation. You cannot have a bribee if you don’t have a briber.
There’s a glaring and painful cultural indifference to ethical conduct, a philosophy of fixing your way ahead whatever it takes and that is not limited to politicians. It just can’t be.
We can all wait for a time when some collective Damascene experience turns all our politicians and all our businesspeople into ethical and principled people who act fairly, honestly, and transparently.
Or we can tweak the rules a bit to try to push back on the evil intent of the corrupt.
The Chamber say they held back on proposals to increase the salaries of Parliamentarians because their behaviour is so poor, they don’t deserve a raise.
I think we should be more ambitious.
First, separate politics from business. You do that by regulating party and candidate funding in several ways.
You ban parties and politicians from handling directly campaign funding, forcing them to delegate to professionals (accountants, say, and audit firms) the administration of raised funds and their regulated disbursement. You include independent people (from the judiciary, the civil service, and civil society) in the electoral commission to enhance oversight and enforcement on fund raising.
You adopt state-funding of political parties, whether they are already in Parliament or not, allocating public according to objective criteria such as incumbency and membership.
You ban political parties from owning media, particularly TV.
Second, you professionalise politics.
You pay decently for people in politics and plan for a less painful transition out of politics for people who have not lost their political jobs because of scandal.
You provide professional resources to Parliamentarians, including trained staff.
I don’t see why there’s a fetish with shrinking the size of Parliament but if the Chamber feel they must please let it not be so small that a single MP represents more constituents than the gap between two political parties. A dozen more MPs than the ideal number is less expensive than the moral bankruptcy of a false governing majority.
You provide professional training in politics and public administration.
You strengthen the civil service, increase its autonomy and independence, and empower senior staff to expect to survive across election periods.
Thirdly, you drive a change in the interactions of government with people outside it. That will have to include regularising the privileged access enjoyed by business leaders and business lobbies to ministers, adopting rules of transparency, and opening the doors of consultation to people who are not necessarily motivated by the profit of their interests but also by the common good, by the interests of future generations, and the interests of the environment and wildlife.
For it isn’t only politicians that need to change their ways but the business people whose ambition is not to have politicians to look up to but politicians to carry in their pockets with all those nickels and dimes.
Fourthly, you change the way we teach democracy to children in the hope that future generations might sit in a ballot box and think why voting Rosianne Cutajar to Parliament is a terrible idea.