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The games businessmen play

It was always pertinent to ask what should be the relationship between political parties and business people. The question became more relevant as political parties absorbed modern technology at the heart of their very existence and especially to finance their political campaigns, which nowadays seem never ending.

Part of the support which has drifted away from GonziPN in recent years has been from the business community
- Lino Spiteri

As a matter of principle and because of such developments it became increasingly important for political donations to be regulated. Public opinion said that.

The political parties had to agree and set about discussing how best regulation could be brought about. How best meant for them how far they would be able to get away with the arrangements they have worked out over the years.

That these official attempts led to nothing did not surprise anyone. Those most stringent about regulation least want it to apply to them. So here we are with another election on the doorstep and no serious regulation of donations. Instead we have in place risible limits on how much political candidates can spend to finance their campaign. At the end of the campaign they swear on the Cross till they’re blue in the face that they did not spend more than a trifling.

This time round, the issue has come to the forefront. It did so because Labour’s former deputy leader Anġlu Farrugia, understandably hurt at the way he had been cast out of his role, has followed up with allegations that some businessmen have become too close to Labour.

With the Nationalist campaign slowly sinking, that was the sort of raft to which Lawrence Gonzi could gratefully link his boat.

He demanded to know what it all meant, what role businessmen were playing in financing the Labour campaign, whether proposals were being styled to suit their needs, and so on. He makes these demands with a holier than thou expression that cannot be beaten for effect in any cloister.

Labour’s reply was simple. The Labour Party, said its leader, is a movement and yes, disgruntled businesspeople had flocked to it.

I am sure there was nothing honestly surprising to Gonzi in Muscat’s reply. Gonzi is painfully aware of a clear state of affairs. He leads a party which is well-known for its proximity to business. It has always been the case but, if the memory needs to be jogged, he might recall which business people bankrolled Nationalist MPs who boycotted Parliament for a time in the early 1980s and did not go back to doing any paid work though they had no independent income of their own.

More significantly, Gonzi knows that part of the support which has drifted away from GonziPN in recent years has been precisely from within the business community.

One of Simon Busuttil’s main tasks, as the PM’s hand-picked envoy, was to remedy that, to try to get back the vote of the business sector, bring the bacon home, so to say.

At a time when everybody is calling for transparency, it would be interesting if Busuttil were to give a list of businessmen for whom he had made appointments with members of the Cabinet to try to smooth ruffled feathers.

The issue of business links and consequently political donations needs to be followed up, even at this late stage. While the parties now boast an enviable array of technological talent, much of it voluntary, the expenses being incurred cannot be small.

They are being financed out of the existing war chests. With a balance brought over from 2008 and additions made since then.

Is that all there is to it, or are there big names again ready to dip their hands in their deep pockets out of a mixture of political conviction and starching of backs to come?

If we had a Donations Act in place, as Franco Debono insisted and as some of us have also done since years ago, the answers might be more easily solvable.

But we do not. So all we can go by is a mixture of hypocritical alarm by Gonzi, and an easy factual reply by Muscat.

That is not what the country needs. Openness should be the name of the game. All cards of the table, not allegations and false stances. These will get democracy nowhere. They will only make an already cynical electorate more cynical still.

At this late stage, are the political parties prepared to accept political oversight on their spending?

There is an easy solution I can suggest – a Labour team could carry out an ongoing audit on Nationalist spending, and ditto by a Nationalist team on Labour spending.

Would they consider that? Don’t hold your breath. The real audit will have to be carried out by those sectors of the electorate who respect themselves and refuse to be treated as ballot-stuffing dummies.

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