The corruption tumble - Ranier Fsadni
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The corruption tumble - Ranier Fsadni

A lot of attention has been paid to Malta’s tumble down the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) published two days ago by Transparency International. Malta has fallen by six points over the last three years. Together with Hungary, Malta has registered the sharpest decline. Even so, those two observations don’t give the full underlying story.

Malta’s current global standing in the CPI is the lowest it’s ever been. This despite the fact that we have been sliding down the scale since 2004. After that, the worst dips were in 2009 and 2013, one under Lawrence Gonzi’s Nationalist government and the other, presumably, affected by that legacy.

At the time, Gonzi protested that the CPI measure perceptions, not actuality. (True. The CPI is based on surveys and expert input. It obviously can’t measure proven corruption without gross distortions: corrupt countries are generally those in which corruption is unpunished and unproven in a court of law; it’s the less corrupt countries that see that corruption is proven.)

Gonzi blamed unwarranted Labour smears but Joseph Muscat, then Opposition leader, would have none of it.

Now, the CPI has us dipping even further down than we were in 2009. The CPI global report highlights Malta as one of five ‘decliners’ in the world.

It’s even worse than it looks. The other four decliners include Australia (which is still 13th in terms of clean governance) and Chile (which at 27th place leaves us trailing in 51st place). We’re left preening ourselves alongside Turkey and Mexico. The Bahamas and Rwanda score better than we do, along with another 48 countries, including 20 fellow EU states.

The wincing shouldn’t stop there. The report attributes Malta’s tumble largely to the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, and the Panama Papers, Pilatus Bank and passport sales. CPI may not realise it but it’s actually pulling its punches.

For in discussing those two other problematic EU states, Poland and Hungary, it discusses problems that are not a million miles away from home: populist rhetoric used to discredit public critics, calling activists ‘enemies of the nation’; and ministerial power used to appoint judges who will then hear cases concerning corruption and public protests.

None of that is alien to the Maltese context, even though it’s not mentioned in connection with Malta. Likewise, the CPI general recommendations sound as though they were written with Malta in mind: enforcement of rule of law; protection of whistleblowers; improvement of access to information concerning government actions; and safe spaces for civil society activists, so they can express themselves without fear of retaliation.

Even taking all of that in, however, leaves out important strands of the story behind the index. The CPI makes no mention that the governments of Hungary, Poland and Malta enjoy record levels of domestic popularity. (In the Polish case, that popularity has sometimes dipped dramatically but the ruling party is still on course to win the general elections this year.)

In Malta’s case, we can put the matter in starker terms. For we can compare the CPI for last year with a Misco survey conducted around two weeks after Caruana Galizia’s assassination. That survey looked at ‘concerns’.

By not being concerned enough, we are wagering that the decline of our public life will not poison our personal lives

The murder was a concern of 7.7 per cent, and ran second to traffic. Corruption ran third, at 6.7 per cent.

The totality of rule of law issues (which included the murder, corruption, crime, lack of transparency, etc.) added up to 25 per cent. Only a (large) minority was concerned for Malta’s future (45 per cent) even while only 53.3 per cent were satisfied about equal treatment by government, and only 38.4 per cent were satisfied that the rule of law is respected.

For the full story behind the CPI report, therefore, we need to distinguish between, on the one hand, a widespread perception of corruption, and, on the other, a concern about it.

Transparency International underlines that corruption is most prevalent where institutions are weak, and that in turn democracy is weakened by corruption. But though in Malta we perceive corruption, we are not, so far, as concerned as you’d expect.

How come? Part of the reason has to do with economic growth. The general moral of the CPI index is that clean government and economic health generally go together. In the top places we find, for example, Scandinavia. The most corrupt – Syria, Somalia and Sudan – are also economic basket cases. There isn’t an exact correlation with the Global Competitiveness Index but there are strong links.

At first glance, Malta appears to be an exception. Its global competitiveness has held steady, in the mid-30s, even while it tumbles down the CPI. But a close look explains what’s going on.

Our competitiveness has held stable because the deterioration of institutions as recorded by the same competitiveness index (in, say, judicial independence, freedom of the press, auditing and reporting standards, and reliability of police services) has been compensated by improvements in the other pillars of competitiveness.

The latter are hiding the institutional deterioration and could give the impression that there are no major consequences to corruption. Well, not in the short term.

But when Muscat says that the country needs to progress to the next level of economic development (his justification of the Corinthia land bonanza), the question arises naturally: which economically advanced country has sustained repeated deterioration of institutional strength according to every respected index?

For that is, in outline, the story behind Malta’s score on the CPI. Our entry into the EU has been accompanied by two things. First, a rise in what we expect by right in terms of affluence and personal freedoms. Second, a decline in what we expect by right in terms of the freedoms of the public sphere.

Already, the decline in the public standards prevents us from joining the ranks of the most developed economies. But, by not being concerned enough, we are also wagering that the decline of  our public life will not poison our personal lives.

ranierfsadni@europe.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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