The Malta Independent 29 May 2024, Wednesday
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Serf and Lord

Kevin Cassar Sunday, 4 June 2023, 08:17 Last update: about 13 months ago

Minister Roderick Galdes personally phoned vulnerable citizens to inform them that they were chosen to get a house. In the run-up to a general election the Minister phoned constituents on the waiting list for social housing, to give them the news.

No letters were sent to those applicants.  Instead Galdes phoned them himself, making sure he got the credit for their new accommodation.


This is shameless exploitation of some of the most vulnerable in our society.  This is the definition of political clientelism, where material goods are distributed by the Minister himself on a non-meritocratic basis in return for electoral support.  And the criteria for distribution are simple.  Are you or your family in my district? Did you or will you vote for me?

In a surreal reply to the Shift, the Housing Authority admitted that those selected to be allocated social housing “were informed by telephone call as per our normal procedure, no letters have been issued to inform clients of allocations”. This is Malta, not the Central African Republic. Yet Minister Galdes commented “I think I have every right to do this as an MP and Minister, especially among my constituents”.

This is the type of patronage that dominates in failed states. It constitutes wholesale purchase of votes with state assets. And this is “our normal procedure”.

Galdes admitted that phoning constituents to tell them they’d been allocated housing was his “way of maintaining a close relationship with my constituents”. Galdes is determined to convince voters that personal relationships with him are vital for getting what is essentially their right. Once established, that political connection works as a strong incentive for voters to preserve the political status quo and keep the incumbent in office.  If Galdes provides help when needed, why vote for anybody else? That personal phone call ensures the link between the favour and Galdes is all too explicit.  It is immediate and clear.

The recurrent use of “discretion” in the everyday undertakings of the public sector provides Galdes with the perfect cover to allocate social housing to those he chooses.  “Social housing units are allocated at the discretion of the responsible Allocation Board,” the Housing Authority stated.  But nobody knows who the members of that Board are.  What is sure is that they’re all appointed by Galdes.  What is also certain is that the Housing Authority’s new CEO is the son of the minister’s cousin.  Matthew Zerafa who served as Galdes’ chief of staff and who managed Galdes’ private secretariat runs the Housing Authority.

This is typical of countries with weak institutions where the minister and his family have unfettered discretion on who benefits from their favours.  The long queues of constituents waiting to speak to the minister to solve “a personal problem” attests to the success of Labour’s strategy to transform the country into a nation of beggars.  It’s also a strategy to glorify Labour’s ministers as the beneficent saviours of the country.

The lower socioeconomic classes, amongst which Labour enjoys the strongest support, are the most vulnerable to the minister’s arbitrariness. His arbitrary allocation of state assets to constituents depends on having loyal supporters in key administrative positions. Appointing his cousin’s son as CEO of the Housing Authority erodes the impartiality of the civil service enabling the political capture of public entities for the minister’s benefit.

Labour has perfected the culture of patronage to an art form. It has created customer care offices which are nothing more than centres of clientelism. Those customer care officers, recruited from the minister’s hardcore supporters, are simply brokers in the manipulation of public resources for the minister’s political mileage. 

Labour’s Malta is engulfed by clientelism and patronage that is controlled by an entrenched political elite whose abuse of power is unrestrained by hollowed out institutions. Labour has overseen an intricate capitalisation of the deficiency of checks and balances, aggravated by a leadership that actively promotes the culture of dependency.  Robert Abela’s political language is crafted towards honing that culture - “we help families”, “we provide a shoulder to lean on”, “we give you cheques”, “we subsidise your energy bills”.

Labour shamelessly exploits the most vulnerable. Favours are exchanged for personal loyalty.  By phoning those citizens, desperate for housing, Galdes ensures he not only gains their vote but also their efforts to secure for him the votes of others. The moral norm of reciprocity makes two demands of the recipients of Galdes’ largesse.  Firstly, they are obliged to help the man who helped them.  Secondly they should never hurt the man who helped them. Galdes’ abusive and exploitative phone calls create a sense of obligation. Behold the precious gift I bestow on you - but remember, that gift must be reciprocated.  Galdes abuses those feelings of gratitude to harvest votes.

The strongest proof of how completely Labour normalised the culture of patronage is the reaction to Galdes’ admission that he made those phone calls. There was no reaction, no outrage, no shock at his strident abuse. Galdes wasn’t ashamed. Quite the contrary. He exploited the publicity to broadcast his willingness “to maintain a close relationship with my constituents”. The message is clear - Galdes will take care of you, Galdes will help you. You don’t need anybody else, you’ve got Galdes. Keep him in power and he’ll use it for your benefit.

Robert Abela didn’t take him to task.  He didn’t condemn Galdes’ flagrant exploitation of the most vulnerable. He didn’t demand a transparent fair system of allocation of social housing. He didn’t enquire about why so many of those beneficiaries resided in Galdes’ districts. We’re still waiting for investigations into alleged kickbacks for housing units to be concluded. Abela hasn’t looked into Galdes’ unexplained wealth.

If most scholars are right, political clientelism slows economic development, vitiates democracy and allows dictators to hold on to power longer than they otherwise would. Holding on to power is Labour’s obsession. That’s why Labour’s turning our democracy into a feudal system of corrupt clientelism where citizens are rendered serfs and Ministers lords.


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