It's not all Greco to me

Whether our prime ministers were benign or malign dictators is not the result of our set-up, but the result of their level of prudence – or imprudence

Whatever GRECO says, at the end of the day, the issue is the singer, not the song
Whatever GRECO says, at the end of the day, the issue is the singer, not the song

By quite an uncanny coincidence, the GRECO report on Malta was released on Wednesday and hit the press on Thursday, the same day that George Vella was officially appointed the tenth President of the Republic of Malta.

On Thursday, The Times, that had already published a leaked – and correct – version of the GRECO report did not bother to mention its release. For those who get confused with acronyms, GRECO stands for The Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption.

Rather than mentioning GRECO for the umpteenth time, the editorial of The Times revolved round the appointment of the new President and while praising his merits, the editorial also referred to reports that George Vella had ‘insisted he should chair the constitutional reform steering committee’. This tallies with the Prime Minister’s revelation that George Vella took some time before accepting to serve the country as President. Rumours have it that he insisted on chairing the steering committee, rather than the outgoing President, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, as the PM, Joseph Muscat, originally intended.

The GRECO report notes that Malta has, on paper, “an impressive arsenal of public institutions involved in checks and balances but their effectiveness is being questioned in recent years due to a wave of controversies concerning the integrity of senior government officials in relation to the use of state resources and privatisations, tenders, energy supply, the sale of land, the award of contracts and public positions.”

The much-touted GRECO report, actually says nothing new. The waves of controversies about many of these issues are not only recent. Check old issues of newspapers and you will conclude that Malta permanently wallows in controversies – whoever is in power – and that for years on end many people have been pointing out certain aspects of our inadequate administrative set-ups that give rise to controversies.

The colonial mind-set of many Maltese – including large swathes of the media – however, gives more importance to something uttered by a foreigner than to the same thing uttered by a Maltese person.

GRECO’s recommendations are mainly attempts to address deficiencies and defects in our administrative set-up – that same set-up that we inherited from our previous colonial ‘masters’ and that has been in place since Malta’s Independence in 1964 when the powers of Her Majesty’s Colonial Office were transferred – practically lock, stock and barrel – to the Prime Minister. From this point of view, Minister Owen Bonnici is historically correct when he says that these problems are not the result of this administration’s actions. However, it is also correct to say that recent events and developments have made these deficiencies and defects even more glaring.

Whether our prime ministers were benign or malign dictators is not the result of our set-up, but the result of their level of prudence – or imprudence

Addressing the defects in the system by taking up all of GRECO’s recommendations wholesale will not solve our problems. The problems are also the result of a peculiar introvert and perverse Maltese mentality. Politicians of all hues and colours will tell you about people asking for their intervention in Court cases. The idea of the independence of the law Courts is certainly not engraved in many people’s minds.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Malta is a very small island where everybody is somebody else’s relative, or almost. This makes our society ‘incestuous’ and prone to obvious consequences. After all, it was not Joseph Muscat who inspired the idiom ‘mingħajr xaħam ma tvarax’ (one cannot launch – a boat – without grease).

Whatever GRECO says, at the end of the day, the issue is the singer, not the song.

Some sections of the media as well as – to a certain extent – the PN depict this sorry state of affairs as the result of the way Joseph Muscat is running the show. Adrian Delia was reported as saying that the current administration has hijacked our institutions and we are therefore in a situation where democracy is threatened. I rather think that on being appointed, these institutions fell automatically into the Prime Minister’s lap without him having to take the trouble of hijacking them.

I have often said that the Prime Minister’s power in Malta’s Constitutional and administrative set-up make him a dictator – a dictator who faces elections every five years when he/she can be replaced by popular vote by yet another dictator. Whether our prime ministers were benign or malign dictators is not the result of our set-up, but the result of their level of prudence – or imprudence.

This is not to say that GRECO’s recommendations should be ignored. They should be taken on board. But again, piecemeal measures will not suffice. That is why the work and function of the constitutional reform steering committee headed by the President is very important.

In the space of two or three weeks we have had not only GRECO’s recommendations, but also the Venice Commission reports and the leaked Moneyval report as well the publication of a consultation document proposing constitutional changes to ensure gender balance in Parliament. To these one must add the PN declaring that it wants the appointment of the President to be subject to a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

I agree that some Constitutional reforms could be urgent – such as that of reforming the role of the Attorney General by removing conflicts of interest via the appointment of a separate independent prosecutor. In this case the urgency comes from the way this issue has always been put on the back burner by different administrations.

However, if we are going to reform our constitution, we should avoid taking this piecemeal approach and let the constitutional reform steering committee produce one document about all the needed constitutional reforms.

In his address following the swearing-in ceremony, the new President referred to the constitutional reform steering committee, saying that everybody’s opinion and views should be considered, not just those of politicians. He said that the exercise is still in its infancy and will need time to be concluded, suggesting it could eventually lead to a Constitutional Convention.

Considering that the President’s short address touched on many other subjects, he dedicated quite some time on the need to reform the Constitution so as to remedy current controversial divergences on our institutions. While acknowledging what had been achieved in the past, he emphasised the need for safeguarding the rule of law and the importance of protecting our democracy from erosion.

The President’s address was like a whiff of fresh air, leaving no doubt that the House of Representatives had made the right choice.

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