An opportunity that is too important to lose

Nonetheless regardless of any such deficiencies, or ironies: the PN’s proposals do represent an opportunity for strengthening the rule of law; and above all, for eradicating the culture of impunity, that has had such a devastating impact on our country’s reputation

In a political atmosphere as polarised as Malta’s, it is always heartening to hear that the two main parties are, in fact, capable of putting aside their differences to pursue the common good.

That, at least, was the impression given by Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis: in reference to the Nationalist Party’s package of 12 anti-corruption legislative proposals, unveiled last week.

Overall, this package addresses some of the key areas where Malta’s institutional set-up has long found to be lacking. Among other things, the proposals include: measures to limit government’s duties and actions during an election campaign; the creation of a special inquiring magistrate, to focus only on corruption investigations; the recognition that political trading-in-influence, obstruction of justice, and omission of duty by public officers, should all be criminal offences; as well as the enaction of specific legislation against mafia association and organised crime.

In reaction, Zammit Lewis said that: “Government will support the Nationalist Party’s legislative proposals on corruption and rule of law if they make sense in Malta’s legal and political context”; whilst also pointing out that: “I found support from the Nationalist Party in July 2020 for the reforms we put forward. We disagreed in some areas, but on important aspects I found certain support. Certainly, for government, if the proposals make sense there will be support from our side.” 

On the surface, this makes a pleasant change from the pattern of political behaviour we are more accustomed to (whereby the proposals themselves would have been instantly shot down, just because they came ‘from the other side’).

Meanwhile, it is only fair to point out that at least one of these proposals - t o create a ‘committee of experts to analyse the state of journalism and the media sector in Malta’ – has already been overtaken by events. Government has in fact already established such a committee – to be chaired by retired judge Michael Mallia: one of the inquiring magistrates in the Daphne Caruana Galizia enquiry – which was launched yesterday.

Nonetheless, it remains a fact that the present Labour government has indeed given the impression that it is ‘dragging its feet’ – as the Daphne Foundation recently complained - when it comes to implementing other aspects of the same, broader reform.

And nowhere is this more visible, than in government’s reluctance to effectively curb its own powers: especially – but not exclusively – when it comes to what former (Labour) prime Minister Alfred Sant once famously defined as ‘the power of incumbency’.

This situation makes an open mockery of democracy: as public institutions like the PA are routinely exploited to – among other things - issue permits like cheesecakes, in a bid to secure more votes for the party in government.

So even if it is somewhat ironic, that Labour now defends the same practices it had deplored under Nationalist governments – and even more so, that it is now the PN to propose changing that system: after having benefitted from it for decades – it remains a fact that the country cannot realistically progress, unless this issue is finally resolved.

But while Zammit Lewis has so far indicated a willingness to implement these reforms, the reality is that - rather than grudgingly accept them - Abela’s government should really have been the one to present such proposals on its own steam.

Nonetheless, the most urgent of these reforms is arguably the appointment of an inquiring magistrate with the power to initiate investigations on corrupt practices, without having to be being solicited to do so by police reports (or complaint made by citizens.) 

This would ensure that cases like the Panama Papers will be immediately investigated by someone who enjoys security of tenure; and who is fully equipped by his/her own staff including detailed police officers. 

It was Alternativa Demokratika which first proposed this reform back in 1992; and it was a Sant led government which in 1997 started considering such a bill.  Once again, it is also ironic that the same proposal now comes from a party which had ignored its urgency, during its 25 years in power. 

All the same, however: the PN’s late conversion is still welcome as a way to limit the impunity of any government holding office; even if, to be fair, some of the bills proposals may indeed require further fine-tuning.

It is disappointing, for instance, that the PN’s reform package does not include a strengthening of the party financing law, to curtail the corrosive influence of big business on democracy.  This was also a recommendation of the Daphne inquiry and it would be a shame if Malta goes in to another election, where some people have more power than others simply due to their financial clout.

Nonetheless regardless of any such deficiencies, or ironies: the PN’s proposals do represent an opportunity for strengthening the rule of law; and above all, for eradicating the culture of impunity, that has had such a devastating impact on our country’s reputation.

Surely, then, it is an opportunity that should not be lost for any reason: least of all, because of purely partisan considerations.