The Malta Independent 30 September 2022, Friday
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A tutorial from The Canterbury Tales

George M Mangion Monday, 19 September 2022, 14:32 Last update: about 10 days ago

Readers may ask why I am making an analogy to The Canterbury Tales. The answer is because some of the moral lessons garnered from this masterpiece written by Geoffrey Chaucer can be compared and contrasted to events happening in the modern age.

Briefly, the story relates about a group of pilgrims travelling to Canterbury Cathedral - they all compete in a storytelling contest. This overarching plot provides a reason for the pilgrims to tell their stories, which reflect concerns sparked by the social upheavals of late medieval England.

Likewise, in Malta these past nine years, there has been endless events from both sides of the political divide which, when recounted, can add up to tales of greed, corrupt practices, vices, lust and an occasional homicide. Poetically set in a tavern, Chaucer wrote his legendary tale which over the centuries has stood the test of times. Literary scholars compare its grandeur to that of the contemporary Italian maestro Boccaccio.

For lovers of Chaucer, in my opinion, the three most interesting stories are that of the Friar, the Miller and the Pardoner (remittance of sins). The web of intrigue and corruption even in medieval England makes them no different from home-grown scandals we read nowadays in modern times. To delve more deeply in the famous tales, may I start with the one conjured by a Friar.

This tells a story about a corrupt friar who, seeking to cheat parishioners of their money is himself cheated. Their tales introduce the theme of corrupt Church officials abusing their positions for financial gain while also illustrating the rivalries among different religious professions.

The story runs parallel with today's local scandals where financial regulators, the Police and the Attorney General have occasionally slowed down their stymieing prosecutions aiding transgressors to continue in his/her ways unscathed. In less than four years, we witnessed resignations of a prime minister, a chief of staff, an energy minister, a finance minister and a minister of economic affairs. This is quite a carousel.

There were two resignations at the top echelons of the MFSA and the MGA and the appointment of a new finance minister, Attorney General and Police Commissioner - these contributed to the prognosis that a root and branch reform was overdue. The list of tales in modern days can include the Enemalta oil procurement scandal which made the headlines prior to the 2013 elections where the main protagonist was granted a state pardon to reveal bona-fide details. Surprisingly, so far, nobody has been arraigned. A more recent case involves the ITS property deal which was struck with Projects Malta on favourable terms, allegedly earning the sole bidder millions. Back to Canterbury Tales and another popular story is the one told by a Miller. This is a typical story representative of greedy people.

The author highlights that the miller is dishonest with a golden thumb, as he steals grains and charges three times more than the original price. Hence, he is a wealthy man whose utmost concern is to increase his profit. Here, one may make an analogy to a number of public land grabs by cronies sanctioned by Castille under the pretext of promoting job creation and fostering tourism.

These persons, aided by architects, financial consultants and top lawyers combine their acumen to acquire vast stretches of public land at fire sale prices later converting them into upmarket tourist or luxury residential complexes.  

Moving on the next pilgrim's tale this features the Pardoner. He is a symbol of evil, which comes from Rome along with his bag of false holy relics to deceive innocent people. He believes that the extortion of money is possible only by preaching against the greediness of money. That is why he walks around with holy relics and preaches the evils of money. Out of greed, he robs many innocent persons in the name of religion. Ironically, he is not ashamed of his wrongdoings and corruption. In my opinion this mimics the lax attitude by regulators for licensing of sleazy banks, shoddy private pension schemes, alleged money laundering activities, illegal trading of Libyan oil over the high seas and scandalous sale of three state hospitals irregularly conceded to a nondescript bidder following an investigation by NAO. Tales of unproven kickbacks float in the air intoxicating the virtuous.

All this is camouflaged under a feel-good factor of annual national surpluses championing full employment. An analogy to the Canterbury Tales continues with the presumption that as the state propaganda machine hails the benign state having saved 100,000 jobs during the pandemic. It adorns the actors at Castille with superlative qualities. The impression is that they toil to create sustainable job opportunities, reduce the galloping cost of living primarily by subsidising Enemalta to freeze electricity tariffs. Therefore, the state was spinning a tale - it was converting vice into virtue. Social progress during L-Aqwa Zmien resulted from the passions and vices of rulers and their devious schemes were compensated by self interest, allowing them to accumulate wealth in Panama companies or in secret Dubai trusts. Scandals braced to the brutal assassination of a journalist are often aroused by selfishness, hypocrisy or pride and one observes that, in every complex society, vice mixes with virtue, which is never a nexus for social unity.

This reminds us of the factors that led to our greylisting as the only EU country by the FATF (recently lifted). Regrettably, these forces result in a pincer effect. Surely, one of the basic lessons learned from Chaucer's masterpiece is that when one finds himself in a deep hole, he had better stop digging.

An effective remedy was the task force headed by Alfred Camilleri, which succeeded, in under a year, to seriously clean our slate from allegations of tax evasion, poor reporting of UBO registers in a holistic drive to lift the greylisting stigma. Perhaps, our redemption involves a difficult transformation of personal interests culminating in a virtuous life hailed as a function of collective wellbeing.

 

George M. Mangion is a partner in PKFMalta, an audit and business advisory firm


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