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EDITORIAL | Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Less than zero tolerance

Labour’s promises of a “zero-tolerance” approach to corruption make a refreshing change in a political climate which has periodically witnessed often alarming extents of clientelism, and downright corruption in years gone by.
Admittedly Dr Alfred Sant has come a long way since the days when he was president of the Malta Labour Party in the early 1980s: a time when corruption was so institutionalized you could almost describe it as a daily way of life. But to his credit, Dr Sant has since transformed the party beyond recognition, eliminating the violent and thuggish elements and also embracing a . His stint as Prime Minister between 1996 and 1998 is often cited as a time of economic and political uncertainty, largely as a result of measures taken in preparation for a vision – partnership – which never got off the ground. Few of his detractors now remember than Dr Sant also took serious steps to curtail corruption, real or perceived, among his Cabinet members. Among the leading ministers to lose his job, after unwittingly allowing a convicted drug trafficker to benefit from an amnesty, was none other than today’s deputy leader Charles Mangion.
For this reason, it was almost to be expected that Dr Sant would seize precisely on corruption in his campaign against the present government. His promise of a ruthless campaign against corruption, made to tremendous applause at last Sunday’s address to the Labour Party conference in Hamrun, has clearly struck a chord with citizens on both sides of the political divide. It is easy to see why, too. Controlling corruption has not been among Lawrence Gonzi’s foremost successes as Prime Minister. In 2007 alone, we witnessed several cases which embarrassed the Nationalist government for its mishandling of corrupt elements in its bureaucracy.
Jesmond Mugliett’s handling of the ADT affair – in which the Roads Minister intervened to retain in employment two former employees who had been interdicted from public service on half-pay pending their presidential pardon appeal – was a case in point. Although liable to several legal interpretations, the presidential pardon in this case would only have commuted the permanent indictment to a temporary one; this in turn means that it would not have resulted in the reinstatement of the two disgraced employees, still less justify their retention on half-pay. The implications were also exacerbated by the fact that one of the officials concerned, Roderick Galea, was formerly his own canvasser.
Mugliett’s resignation offer, which the Prime Minister refused, would have been an opportunity for the Nationalist administration to inject new blood in its Cabinet – another factor which the Labour Opposition is confident enough to exploit with impunity.
In the same year we also saw the invalidity pensions scandal, involving the assistant private secretary of Health Minister Louis Deguara, as well as widespread corruption in the issuing of maritime licences by the Malta Maritime Authority. The latter case does not seem to have involved any high ranking government officials, but it remains the largest single corruption scandal this country has ever seen.
All things told, then, Labour certainly has a point in making the fight against corruption its highest priority ahead of the next election. But then again, if it wishes to take its crusade against corruption seriously, the Labour Party must itself take special care that its “zero-tolerance” stand is not tainted by the exploitation of a political turncoat – a favourite electoral ploy, used as nauseam by PN and MLP alike – who can only mar Labour’s own credibility on the entire issue.
Michael Woods, who last Sunday made a public display of himself at the Labour Party General Conference, is brother to Thomas Woods: the former private secretary to the Health Minister who was charged with having accepted bribes in return for invalidity pension benefits: another of the many corruption scandals to rock the Gonzi administration of late.
Woods was already deployed by Labour last year in an attempt to embarrass Lawrence Gonzi on One TV, where he claimed his brother was, reportedly, “penalized” for having not supported Gonzi’s leadership bid at the start of 2004. Woods’ story may well be true, but the fact remains that his brother was also being investigated for corruption – a fact which Labour now chooses to overlook.
It is clear that for a zero-tolerance policy to be credible, that policy must be perceived to be as such – and the presence of Michael Woods at Labour’s general conference last Sunday will surely not help reassure the general public that Labour will be as good as its word when it comes to fighting corruption. Clearly, Labour is not yet out of the Woods.

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