The Malta Independent 17 July 2024, Wednesday
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Political soundbites and ‘Canterbury Tales’

George M Mangion Sunday, 16 June 2024, 08:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

Readers may ask why I am making an analogy to Canterbury Tales. 

The answer is because some of the moral lessons garnered from this masterpiece, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1392, can be compared and contrasted to events happening in 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 since Independence, there has been endless events from both sides of the political divide, which when recounted, can add up to tales of greed, corrupt practices, nepotism, money heists, vices 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 the 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 scandals where in Malta we meet financial regulators, the Police Commissioner and Attorney General - all have occasionally slowed down their prosecution fervour, stymying prosecutions and allegedly aiding transgressors to continue in his/her ways running unscathed.

Last month, we witnessed the resignation of Dr Fearne, deputy prime minister, amid the start of the court trial for alleged corruption at the health ministry attributed to the Vitals consortium: ergo a 30-year deal. The list of tales in modern days can include the Enemalta oil procurement scandal, which made the headlines prior to the 2013 elections, followed recently by the fraudulent Vitals privatisation deal, which siphoned a cool €400m in a classical heist, followed by the energy monopoly Electrogas consortium. Can we forget a scandal of fake medical certificates for epilepsy cash grants and the issue of driving licenses to unqualified motorists aided and abetted in the transport ministry? Another case involves the ITS property deal, which was struck with Projects Malta on favourable terms, which on paper awarded the sole bidder millions. A classic case involves an ex-Cabinet member (now resigned but serving as an independent in Parliament). She expressed, in published personal chats with a confidant (now in police custody allegedly accused of being the mastermind of Daphne's murder), her belief that all members of ruling political clan are "pigging".

Back to the Canterbury Tales and let us visit another popular story - one told by a miller. This is a typical story associated with greedy people. The author highlights that the miller is dishonest with a golden thumb, as he steals grains and charges buyers three times higher than the original price. Hence, he is a wealthy man whose utmost concern is to increase his profit.

Moving on, the next pilgrim's tale features the Pardoner. He is a symbol of evil, who 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 and avarice. Out of greed, he robs many innocent people in the name of faith. Ironically, he is not ashamed of his wrongdoings and corruption. In my opinion, this mimics the lax attitude by regulators when licensing sleazy banks, shoddy private pension schemes and alleged money laundering activities. This ultimately resulted in the FAFT designating us as a Grey Listed domicile. Tales of unproven kickbacks float in the air intoxicating the virtuous. All this is camouflaged under a feel-good factor of regular Central Bank prognosis about Malta being the best performer in the EU, championing full employment and hailing regular distribution of free cash to voters.

The impression is that Castille toils to create sustainable job opportunities, tame the galloping cost of living, recruit thousands of low-paid TCNs and try selling Golden passports. Recently it is airing tantalising state-financed glitzy TV shows like Love Island. Therefore, the state is spinning a tale - it was surreptitiously converting vice into virtue. Social progress during L-Aqwa Zmien resulted from the passions and vices of rulers, and their devious schemes which were compensated by self interest, allowing them to allegedly accumulate wealth in Panama companies or in secret Dubai trusts.

This month there are rumours that a number of party diehards will be basking in a luxury holiday in Barbados; paid by an anonymous benefactor. Scandals linked to the brutal assassination of a journalist are often white-washed by hypocrisy or pride and one observes that, in our complex society, vice is camouflaged with virtue. This parody reminds us of the reasons why we were greylisted by FAFT as the only EU country, although this designation has now been lifted. Surely, one of the fundamental lessons from Chaucer's masterpiece is that when one finds themselves in a deep hole, it's best to stop digging. Perhaps, our antidote as a society involves a difficult transformation of personal interests culminating in a virtuous life hailed as a function of collective well-being, care for the environment, fiscal probity, meritocracy and good governance.


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

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