The real threat to democracy

The undisguised nepotism that has dogged Joseph Muscat’s first term has severely eroded public trust in vital national institutions

14 February 2017, 8:10am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
It has been a bizarre fortnight for local politics, to say the least. Starting with the absurd overreaction to a politically naive comment about ‘pastizzi’, and culminating in surreal (and to date unsubstantiated) accusations of a minister being seen inside a brothel, the past two weeks provided a perfect smokescreen for the government to go ahead with a number of largely unnoticed decisions.

While people worked themselves into a furore about Dr Anne Fenech’s misguided pastizzi remark, Sai Mizzi – wife of former Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi – was once again appointed to the post of Malta Enterprise trade envoy: this time after a public call was issued. 

Meanwhile, Lino Farrugia Sacco – a judge who was facing impeachment proceedings before his retirement – has now been made chairman of the Lands Authority.

Given that the Labour government has already courted controversy over numerous public appointments, both these choices are imprudent. It is inconceivable that a government elected on the promise of ‘meritocracy’ should persist in breaking that pledge so openly at every opportunity. 

Sai Mizzi’s original (direct) appointment had provoked an outcry on the basis that the government should not (for very obvious reasons) double up as an employment agency for its own ministers’ families. Ironically, Labour itself had decried similar appointments made by the Nationalists – the most recent example being the controversy surrounding former Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono’s husband (subject of an ongoing court case).

The double standards are too conspicuous to ignore. Labour cannot cry foul over unmeritocratic decisions when in Opposition, then go on to do the same thing when in government. Least of all, if it also blames the preceding administrations for all the problems it has inherited, but which are now its own to solve.

In this particular case, matters are compounded by the fact that Konrad Mizzi had been supposedly demoted from the energy ministry due to the Panama Papers revelations. Yet six months after this ‘demotion’, he still fronts the Labour government’s initiatives and pronouncements in the energy sector; and, most unaccountable of all, was even appointed to chair the European Union’s energy council (ie, the same portfolio that had been removed from him in the local context).

Both these appointments – the renewal of Sai Mizzi’s contract, and the unofficial reinstatement of her husband – belie earlier commitments to meritocracy and transparency.  

Even the appointment of Judge Farrugia Sacco shows a disregard for the due process of those who also uphold the law, but in doing so tend to be more cavalier about the codes of ethics that govern their lives. 

Farrugia Sacco had been censured by the Commission for the Administration of Justice over his refusal to relinquish the chairmanship of the Malta Olympic Committee when still a judge. He was further implicated in a Times of London investigation into illicit ticket sales, and faced impeachment procedures under both the Gonzi and Muscat administrations.  

Farrugia Sacco retired before the procedures could reach fruition; this may obviate the impeachment attempts in themselves (it is pointless to try and impeach a retired judge), but one cannot ignore the implications for the concept of ‘meritocracy’.

All this follows on from numerous other questionable public appointments: including the daughter of the (Labour) Speaker of parliament as magistrate, together with at least three former PL officials likewise being appointed to the judiciary bench. Elsewhere, the government has time and again resorted to ‘persons of trust’ to fill sensitive public positions: at a time when the legality of this system was being questioned by Malta’s foremost constitutional law authority. 

The bottom line is that Joseph Muscat promised us a system whereby people would be appointed to public offices only if they passed a screening procedure, and were deemed suitable for the post. He also specifically promised an end to political nepotism. 

Yet he has delivered the very opposite: appointing people with dubious records and sometimes very clear connections to Labour, to posts of the most extreme sensitivity.

All this smacks of sheer impudence by a government whose governance record is as miserable as its economic strategy is successful. The impression that is coming straight from Castille is that Labour’s steroidal economic drive comes accompanied by a blatant disregard for common decency and the ordinary rules of engagement.

Even on a political level, this attitude is difficult to explain or understand. Muscat may feel confident that his impressive 36,000 lead over the PN is virtually unassailable; that, given his undeniable economic successes, he can weather these ‘minor’ storms to a certain victory in 2018.

If so, it is an unwise strategy for a number of reasons. Muscat seems to be forgetting that it was widespread disillusionment with precisely the same issues (among others, naturally) that had contributed to the extent of Gonzi’s defeat.  He would be mistaken to consider those votes as already in the bag. There is a palpable sense of disappointment and resentment that his government appears to be ignoring, at its own risk.

Above all, however, the undisguised nepotism that has dogged Muscat’s first term has severely eroded public trust in vital national institutions. This, and not ‘pastzzi’ or ‘brothel scandals’, constitutes the real threat to democracy in Malta today.