Power of incumbency

Even if government has so far been successful in juggling economic growth and public expenditure to Malta’s benefit, there is a limit to how far this gamble can be stretched

30 March 2017, 7:27am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Once again election year is upon us, and there are indications that the apparatus of the State is being enlisted as a campaign tool for government.

The Times of Malta reported last week that the Water Services Corporation appointed 150 new water fitters, mostly hailing from Fgura, Paola, Tarxien and Santa Lucija – Konrad Mizzi’s electoral district.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat played down concerns that the Water Services Corporation is being used as part of a vote mobilisation campaign by Mizzi: insisting that the WSC’s ongoing recruitment is intended to replace employees who have retired in recent years, and that the amount spent by the WSC on water fitters’ salaries will be cost-neutral until 2018. 

If it were an isolated case, the explanation would be plausible. But there seems to be a sudden recruitment drive across the full public service. On Sunday, Illum reported that the Gozo ministry employed some 86 workers to look after the Citadella. 

There is no doubt that a heritage treasure like the Citadel requires maintenance; but a closer look at the new positions suggests that more people have been hired than were needed. Questions sent by Illum regarding up to 70 questionable new positions created at the Citadel have to date remained unanswered.

Meanwhile, government raised eyebrows by reissuing a call for low skills employment which had previously been frozen as a measure to reduce the swelling civil service. The Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure has since published calls to employ plasterers, painters, mechanics, carpenters and joiners. 

The Times quoted a senior civil servant saying that: “Before every election, pressure on politicians for government jobs increases and this has always been the case. However, this temptation has been resisted for quite some time now. We hope past lessons were learnt.” 

To add to this bonanza of public spending, a number of small infrastructural projects which have been in the pipeline for months have finally commenced and will be completed shortly before elections: among them Paola square and the Mriehel bypass footbridge.

This is certainly nothing new, as in the past we have seen governments and politicians use their power of incumbency to buy votes: from 9,000 jobs dished out on the eve of the 1987 election, to the wholesale abuse of planning permits in successive elections. But as that anonymous official put it: these were issues that were supposed to be phased out by now.

Apart from the obvious impact such an unsavoury habit has on the democratic process itself – elections cannot be considered ‘free’ and ‘fair’ if the outcome can simply be bought by the government of the day – there are very serious economic considerations also.

Management of the economy is one area the Labour government can claim as a feather in its own electoral cap. Muscat has so far proved the naysayers and prophets of doom wrong: four years into his stewardship, Malta is very far from ‘knocking on Europe’s door for a bailout’... as some predicted before the last election.

It is naturally debatable how much of this success is rooted in solid, long-term sustainable policies... yet it remains a fact that the Labour government has succeeded in lowering the debt-to-deficit ratio to below the required 3.6%, and that the European Commission has closed  excessive deficit infringement procedures against Malta.

But it is precisely to safeguard his own economic performance that Muscat must resist the temptation to open the floodgates of political patronage before the election. Despite favourable country reports, credit ratings agencies (and the Commission itself) recognise the swelling public sector as one of the black clouds currently hovering over the Maltese economy. 

Already we are spending too much on the civil service. Muscat managed to lower the deficit while also raising public expenditure: on his own cabinet to start with, and on the public service ever since. By September 2016, the public workforce had swelled by 3,000.

Even if government has so far been successful in juggling economic growth and public expenditure to Malta’s benefit, there is a limit to how far this gamble can be stretched. Overdo the expenditure, and any change to the economic conditions of the country could wipe out all the government’s good work in controlling the national debt. 

It is time to consider legislation to bring this practice to heel. In other countries, mechanisms are in place to bar government from abusing its power in this way. 

The exact date of the general election is yet unknown and maybe it is time to consider having fixed-terms which would see the country going to the polls on a fixed date every five years, as is the case in the UK, US and other countries. Thus governments cannot hide behind the excuse that Election Day is unknown and mechanisms which guarantee a level playing field can come into force at a stipulated time before every election. 

For example in India, a code of conduct applied by the Electoral Commission states that announcements of new projects, programmes, concessions or financial grants which have the effect of influencing voters are prohibited before elections.

Tenders are not to be finalised during the period of elections; grant or lease of government land is completely prohibited until completion of the election process. Moreover, no appointments or promotions in government enterprises can be made during this period, without prior clearance of the commission.

Moreover, In India any advertisements regarding achievements of the party in government at the cost of the taxpayer are prohibited.

Though prohibited in India and other parts of the world, anyone will recognise the above as hallmarks characterising election year in Malta: regardless who is in power.

This has to stop.