The Malta Independent 5 December 2020, Saturday

Voldemort and Noddy

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 25 October 2020, 10:28 Last update: about 2 months ago

With Joseph Muscat’s departure from Parliament and ostensibly the circles of power, many expected closure and a return to peace and prosperity. Instead, war rages on. Robert Abela’s desperate to redeploy the troops as quickly as possible in the face of mounting challenges posed by Bernard Grech’s sorties and other attacks.

Prime Minister Abela needs new, loyal and reliable talent but also to clear the debris, particularly in view of investors’ increasing edginess at the country’s governance and reputation, both of which were repeatedly bombarded by Muscat’s administration. The country needs to rebuild its good name and to cut loose all ties with the “war criminals” who enabled Muscat.

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But enough with war metaphors. Let’s look at two characters whose continued presence is damaging the country’s reputation no end: Pawlu “Voldemort” Lia and Owen “Noddy” Bonnici. The former is highly competent and deadly; the latter, highly incompetent and equally deadly.

Voldemort

It seems to me insane that the former Prime Minister’s personal lawyer should sit at the same table with the President of the Republic, the Chief Justice, and the other members of the Commission for the Administration of Justice, with power of “life and death” over the very members of the judiciary before whom he pleads his clients’ cases.

Pawlu Lia should have never been appointed to the Commission in the first place. For the foreign observer, on whose investments the country’s economic development depends, the logic behind this aberration speaks volumes about the concealed wheeling and dealing running the country, and, what’s worse, the elaborated mechanisms of guarantee Muscat strategically constructed for himself that are now seemingly condoned by his successor. Not only did Muscat pull strings in Balzunetta, but through Voldemort he could also use black magic on other sectors of the justice apparatus. Serious investors read between the lines and are certainly not positively impressed.

Pawlu Lia sitting on the Commission for the Administration of Justice is the epitome of institutional corruption. That it’s not illegal for a Prime Minister to appoint his own personal lawyer to the judiciary’s watchdog does not make the appointment acceptable. The written law cannot foresee all possible scenarios – human ingenuity is too vast for it to foretell itself. Human behaviour has to be regulated by both written and unwritten laws, with the latter referring to higher – sometimes ethical – principles that are dictated by practical reasonableness. Muscat managed to undermine the Commission’s effectiveness by diverting it from, and weakening its ability to achieve, its purpose – the textbook definition of institutional corruption.

Some parts of the electorate – any electorate not just Malta’s – might not be sophisticated enough to understand the significance of Pawlu Lia’s appointment in the grand scheme of things. Others might understand, but cynically look elsewhere. Investors, on the other hand, understand and take note, because, all said and done, it boils down to money, their money. And where money’s concerned, transparency and guarantees make or break the deal. It’s foolish of us, and of Prime Minister Abela more than anyone else, to think that a charade such as that involving his predecessor’s personal lawyer wouldn’t have a ripple effect.

Noddy

Owen Bonnici was probably Joseph Muscat’s most ardent not-so-secret admirer; he probably was the Honorary President For Life of the Joseph Muscat Fan Club. Daphne Caruana Galizia had linked Dr Bonnici to “Noddy”; no doubt she had Enid Blyton’s character that enchanted children (yours truly included, aged seven) in mind – as a matter of fact, she always used the term with a capital N. But there’s also no doubt that Dr Bonnici did come across as somebody who always nodded to whatever Muscat dictated. He even had the temerity to claim that great leaders like Muscat appear only once every 25 years. All in all, he was one of Muscat’s staunchest enablers.

Let’s translate that. It’s becoming increasingly clear – even to die-hard Labourites – that Muscat was a wheeler-dealer. It must have been clear to people close to him: perhaps not from the beginning but as time went by, even those wearing rose-tinted glasses must have realised. Even I – who was not so close to him – became morally convinced by 2016 (that’s to say, three years into his premiership) that he was up to no good. If I saw it from a relative distance, those working close to him must have been fully aware of his real nature, unless they were literally noddies. That some of these people, including Noddy Owen, are still there under his successor means that something’s drastically wrong. Those who enabled Muscat’s mess are still there, and investors have no choice but to work out the implications.

But Noddy Owen isn’t only a relic of the political class that enabled Muscat. He’s also an extraordinarily incompetent Minister for Education. Just consider how amateurishly he (mis)managed the COVID-19 situation. Three weeks – three weeks – before the beginning of the new scholastic year, administrative protocols regulating educational activities were still being drafted. The untold stress for teachers and parents alike can’t be justified. The schools then opened late, because everything had started late. And then, the Minister managed to antagonise the teachers’ unions. One Union even remarked that, “From the end of the ministry, all that was offered to the [Union] was more vague responses rather than a show of true concern for the educational sector”.

Looking for a scapegoat, he then accused the Opposition of not helping – whereas, in reality, the Opposition was helping! It had been opening his eyes to his Ministry’s shortcomings for weeks on end. The Opposition’s job is to criticise not to decide. Ultimately, it’s up to the Minister to prove his mettle and find creative ways of dealing with potentially catastrophic situations. That’s why ministers are granted such extensive powers: to find ways and means of solving problems, even when they are unprecedented.

Noddy was only good at nodding and smiling at what he saw as Muscat’s youthful impishness. He’s now hopeless at guaranteeing schooling and education for Malta’s deserving youth.

The Prime Minister’s Boobs

In the meantime, Parliamentary Secretary for Equality Rosianne Cutajar has been defending the right of the Finnish Prime Minister to take photos that draw attention to her boobs. Apparently, while the country is collectively drowning in shame over the citizenship-for-sale mess, the schools mess, the reputation mess, the messes uncovered by the ongoing inquiries, Ms Cutajar thinks that a foreign Prime Minister’s mammary glands merit attention. It obviously makes perfect sense when you consider that the government is contemplating a veritable revolution in matters concerning prostitution, despite the deafening warnings from experts and women’s rights activists.

The fact is that – and we have to embrace the truth willy-nilly – it takes long for the electorate to extrapolate and grasp the consequences of ongoing political developments. Many people are, quite rightly, distracted by their personal affairs; they don’t have enough time to ponder on public matters. This time lag can have deleterious effects on the well-being of the country. But this is a dangerous argument, so I’ll stop here.

Maltese Quirks (7)

Some people use renta to mean “rent”, “lease”. This is incorrect. Renta means “annuity”: a yearly payment in money or in goods, that may be stipulated by the assignment of a movable or an immovable thing or by the payment of a sum of money of which the payer binds himself not to claim the return.

“Rent”/“lease” is kera, or, if you’re a lawyer, lokazzjoni. The landlord is sid il-kera or lokatur and the tenant is kerrej or lokatarju. (Hint: since there is no rentier, renta cannot be “lease”.)

The tenant (or “lessee”) can also be konduttur but then, the legal special-purpose term konduttur can be mixed up with the general-purpose term for “bus conductor”, the official who used to check (I believe it should be in the past tense) that bus passengers paid their fare and carried their ticket on them.

Clearly, one interesting Maltese quirk is the presumption that a word in English can be magically given an “Italianate” form and suddenly it transmogrifies into Maltese. Direttorju, obitwarju, evalwazzjoni, infurzar are other examples of this quirky phenomenon – a more logical approach would have yielded, elenku/annwarju telefoniku, nekroloġju, valutazzjoni, eżekuzzjoni (truth be told, the older provisions of our laws do use eżekuzzjoni as the equivalent of “enforcement”).

But linguistic logic doesn’t follow ideal logic for there is a barrier between languages which, upon being crossed, involves a linguistic duty (dazju) that adds or removes something from the term being imported.

Lokazzjoni obviously creates problems because it sounds like “location”. “Location” in Maltese should be a verbal phrase, jinsab…, or else a loan from Italian, ubikazzjoni.

My Personal Video Library (4)

For this feature, I focus on American and Italian movies that have enjoyed huge box-office success without being stupid, and ignore cinéma d’art et d’essai. In one of the early Simpsons episodes, Homer Simpson defines such movies as “snooty... directed by some Swedish meatball”. The Italian version was not entirely faithful to the original: “film scrauso diretto da qualche polpettista svedese”, but the French version went overboard, hitting the nail on the head as it exquisitely explained the man-in-the-street’s attitude toward ‘arty-farty’ cinema: “un film à dormir debout fait par un suédois exilé en Belgique” – “a sleep-away film made by a Swedish exile in Belgium”. Such movies I ignore because they usually represent only a personal journey without any reflection on society.

Then there are movies that are in-between, such as The Lover (1992). Its photography is warm, intimate, and extraordinarily beautiful; its main actress, Jane March, is eighteen, lush, and extraordinarily beautiful. But what is there more to say about it apart from its sensuality? It’s just a tantalising semi-autobiography of its author, an erotic story to be narrated to a psychoanalyst, with next to nothing to say about society.

But the movies that were hits at the box office and contain a modicum of intelligence – those attract my attention. As I’ve already written before, I’m inspired by the psychoanalyst-musicologist Hans Keller who, in his 1967 Pink Floyd interview, famously said that “people who have an audience ought to be heard.”

In 2016, Sorrisi e Canzoni TV published a definitive list of the hugest box-office hits in Italian cinema from 1950 till then, featuring Sergio Leone movies, others starring Bud Spencer and Checco Zalone, and others still that are intellectual yet popular.

One example from the last category is Il giorno del signore (1969), a movie that seems to reflect on the naivety of the 1968 revolution and of the reactionaries, and on the astuteness of those who hold power. Since Malta is going through an equivalent of the 1968 revolution only now (thanks to PS Rosianne Cutajar, say), the movie seems topical. But these are pleasures yet to come.

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