If Malta’s daily news doesn’t make you feel deeply queasy it certainly should. It presents Maltese politics and society as some sort of never-ending in-joke. Everybody gets it, everybody knows what’s going on. 

While the truth continues to hide in ever more plain sight, many – far too many – share the joke and insist that’s the way things are done here. Foreigners wouldn’t understand, they are told.

As locals, many of us know the joke. We have learned to live with it, to even enjoy it but more importantly to navigate in and around it and even benefit from it. We take the joke for granted. 

It has in effect become one of the defining characteristics of our ‘culture’.

In public, we insist the emperor has a fine selection of suits and the court a dazzling array of courtiers. The cheque or the permission is in the post, so all is self-evidently well. 

Anything else is, at best a misunderstanding or a devious lie. Any talk of nakedness is born of stupidity, jealousy, spite and is ultimately traitorous. 

The joke asserts that Malta is about serious politics and serious business conducted by serious men and women. The suits, the sunglasses and the serious cars are proof.

The joke flourishes in much of the public story. But the reality is much darker and increasingly sinister. Beneath the glittering façade of Malta’s recent success story, a festering rot exists. It has been encouraged and incubated over decades through commission and omission by both ‘sides’.

The joke is on full public display in practices around policing, planning, environment, tendering, infrastructure, public appointments and communications.

The joke knows that the rules are never to be taken seriously. They are a necessary part of the façade, for official optics and for those bureaucrats in Brussels. Even our leaders don’t take the rules seriously, so why should we? Or should that be vice-versa? I’m never quite sure. 

Despite the nudges, the winks and the sneers, the individual and collective acts of corruption (small, medium, large and mega) are utterly appalling. The routine abuse of public funds and taxpayers’ monies is disgusting and hugely costly despite the expensive spin and the pathetic excuses. 

But what is really insidious is the undermining of public life. 

Not only is the edifice of government and the state being actively and consciously weakened but more importantly also that of society itself. The very glue that holds society together is deemed past its sell by date.

Many Maltese know and abhor what is going on and how things operate in these tiny islands

The joke is ultimately a part of a very slippery slope; one where Malta increasingly displays too many of the core characteristics of becoming a failed state. This is a recognised condition where the basic functions, responsibilities and legitimacy of government no longer functions in any meaningful way. Governance is questioned or not recognised by a significant cohort of citizens or other states. 

It is recognised in the collapse of any pretence of the separation of powers and the independence of vital state institutions and procedures.

Most recently, it has been evidenced in the centralisation of all decision-making, power and even public communication in the hands of one strong and utterly dominant leader.

Already we have government by dictat, cliché and distraction. One after another, in rapid succession, corrupt acts and scandals eclipse each other promoting public exhaustion in the effort to keep up. 

Once embarked upon, the slippery slope is hard to exit or reverse. It has a significant lifespan. Ultimately and sadly, the Maltese in-joke will command a high price – it already has – and it will be our children and grandchildren who suffer the punchline. 

Of course, there is another Malta. It is evident in recent public protests as well as political and legal challenges. It is also routinely evident in moments of private discussion and reflection devoid of inherited tribal affiliations. Many Maltese know and abhor what is going on and how things, even the minutiae, operate in these tiny islands. 

Each person has a tale ortwo, or 10, to tell and is aware of their consequences. 

This other, better, Malta is struggling to assert itself. For this alternative Malta, the joke is insulting and demeaning as well as self-defeating and destructive. For this other Malta, the joke is a sick one that needs to be challenged in both public and private. 

The voice of this better Malta is crucial if we are to avoid becoming a failed state and society.

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