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Assets and liabilities

There is mounting evidence that the annual declaration of assets is not taken seriously by the ministers themselves, and more pointedly by the public at large… with ominous implications for the state of Malta’s democratic health.

30 June 2015, 9:07am
Cabinet riches: the full declaration of ministerial assets is now available in MaltaToday's digital edition at http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/maltatodaydigitaledition
Cabinet riches: the full declaration of ministerial assets is now available in MaltaToday's digital edition at http://www.maltatoday.com.mt/maltatodaydigitaledition
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat published the annual declaration of his ministers’ assets: the first such declaration, following recent changes to the ministerial code of ethics which substantially watered down the requirements involved.

Admittedly, the new regulations have not yet come into force, and in fact were ignored by certain ministers (but by no means all) in this year’s declarations. But it is easy to see that the direction currently being taken is one that will further weaken a crucial democratic exercise that is already widely regarded with casual nonchalance by most government ministers here.

This is unwise for a number of very valid reasons. All too often in the past, there was a tendency to treat this exercise as a perfunctory but ultimately meaningless token gesture to satisfy the democratic criteria of openness and transparency. Individual ministers often failed to submit their declarations altogether, or were afterwards discovered to have made significant omissions.

Even without this consideration, there is mounting evidence that the annual declaration of assets is not taken seriously by the ministers themselves, and more pointedly by the public at large… with ominous implications for the state of Malta’s democratic health.

A survey conducted in this newspaper in 2013 revealed that a staggering 64% do not believe the declarations of assets submitted by Cabinet members. A total of 3,616 respondents took part in the poll, which saw 2,313 respondents voting they did not believe the declarations. According to these readers, there was no way of knowing whether some declarations were an accurate reflection of the actual assets held.

Indeed there is no mechanism in place to verify such declarations. Admittedly, these are submitted to parliament, and as a result, false declarations are subject to the same criminal provisos applicable to perjury. But this is a retroactive, punitive mechanism. It cannot be described as a system of checks and balances to stifle possible abuse at source.

This represents a major stumbling block in the fight against corruption. If, in practice, it proves impossible to quantify a minister’s assets, it will prove equally impossible to determine whether that same minister is in receipt of illicit, undeclared income.

This is why failure to declare a healthy foreign bank account, or to misrepresent an entire portfolio of properties, is automatically suspect in all counties which take corruption seriously. And there is good reason for the public to be suspicious: recent history shows that corruption has been a major problem undermining all past administrations of government. There are also independent polls confirming that the perception of corruption – founded or unfounded – is higher in Malta than in any other EU state.

This is an unhealthy state of affairs, as such perceptions invariably weaken the fabric of democracy itself, engendering dangerous levels of popular disillusionment. It is therefore in the government’s own interest to increase transparency in this issue. When the public loses faith in the system, it is the system itself that suffers: any weakening of such seminal institutions as the law courts and parliament can only be construed as a loss for the country as a whole.

It is against this backdrop that this year’s declarations of assets must be viewed. Given the existence of widespread scepticism regarding the ministerial declaration of assets, one would expect any revision to the relevant rules and regulations to make this exercise more credible, not less. Yet a government which came into power on the battlecry (among others) of ‘transparency’ has unaccountably chosen the opposite direction instead. This does not bode well for the credibility of Maltese democracy as a whole.

Malta therefore should be taking firm efforts to imbue this all-important democratic exercise with the credibility it so desperately needs. The entire exercise should be revised to maximise transparency at all levels. The current practice of submitting such declarations in hand-written (and often illegible) form is one area that needs to be dealt with. Another concerns the definition of an ‘asset’ in itself: all too often, ministers limit themselves to financial declarations, property and business interests – omitting other assets that would be regarded as compulsory in most European countries, including possessions valued over a certain amount.

There are additional grey areas concerning shareholdings which may not be fully quantified, or split revenue sources which may not be fully declared. And while ministers tend to declare extant bank loans, it is not incumbent on them to specify what such loans were for. 

Valuation is another problem: the current system permits ministers to supply their own valuation of properties, in the absence of any independent valuation. Surely such properties should be valued by an independent authority, as they would be for tax purposes.

Lastly, such declarations must also be verified by an independent body. The National Audit Office is most eminently qualified for this task, but another analogous entity could be created for the purpose. The alternative is to simply take the ministers’ own word on trust: something which an overwhelming majority in this country – understandably enough – is evidently reluctant to do.

Clearly, the time has come to revisit the ministers’ annual declaration of assets, so that it no longer represents a liability for the country’s democratic stature.

DealToday
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