Not fighting the mafia, is what makes a ‘Mafia State’

Politicians on both sides must show less pride and more maturity at this juncture in this country’s trajectory

On paper, it is welcome news that the package of 11 Bills, tabled by the Opposition, passed parliament’s first reading on Monday.

Though it may have been a mere formality, government did not, in the end, oppose the omnibus Bill: paving the way for the second reading stage to commence on Thursday.

Parliament will thus have the opportunity to at least begin this important debate, before it will have to adjourn for this year’s election. And while the timing is arguably inauspicious - for the eve of an election is not the ideal time,for political discussions on important laws that require bipartisan commitment - it is certainly a debate that needs to take place.

Regardless of any questions surrounding who proposed these legal amendments, and why: there can be no doubt that Malta does need an overhaul of its national legislation, in order to fight corruption and mafia-style crimes.

Admittedly, the Opposition’s bills are by no means perfect or exhaustive – and government is certainly within its rights to question their practical applicability, in some cases - but they do provide a very good basis for discussion. 

From this perspective, it was disconcerting to hear Prime Minister Robert Abela pre-emptively signalling his government’s intention of shooting down the proposed legislation, during the forthcoming debate.

Indeed, Abela even labelled this motion as an attempt to “paralyse the economy”.

“They are telling us these are laws against corruption. But when you read them, you realise they are there to paralyse the economy and scare business,” he said. “My message to them is clear: you could not stagnate the economy in a pandemic, you will not do this now.”

He also said the laws would brand Malta a “mafia state”. “I assure you I will be there on Thursday to defend our country.”

It remains to be seen how the Prime Minister intends to ‘defend our country’; but surely, this defence will have to include at least a concession, that the bills themselves are, de facto, necessary.

Nor does it help that Abela is evidently entering election mode, and already exploiting this issue to drum up political support (at a time, it must be said, when his own popularity may be waning).

One thing Abela seems to be forgetting, however, is that the Opposition’s mammoth motion also comes in the wake of the (highly damning) findings of the Daphne Caruana galizia murder inquiry.

To be fair, government has held discussions with a number of stakeholders in recent months, that led to the announcement of a committee of media experts as requested by the inquiry. 

But it does not appear, as yet, that - apart from the work to set up the media experts committee, and prepare the relevant laws targeting the journalism sector - government has embraced other recommendations made by the inquiry.

This is clearly a failing on government’s part. But it also provides impetus for Abela to make amends, by considering the raft of proposals that are now on the table before him.

And he would be well advised to approach this debate with greater political maturity, too. For these legal changes propose several new concepts that will require serious debate: such as the special anti-corruption inquiring magistrate, with prosecutorial powers; and a specific anti-mafia provision. 

The Opposition is also proposing new crimes such as abuse of public office and regulating government’s power of incumbency when an election is called. It is altogether too cavalier, for government to simply dismiss all that as an attempt to ‘sabotage’ the economy.

As the Chamber of Commerce rightly noted, in a statement two weeks ago: ‘no more time should be lost’. 

Politicians on both sides must show less pride and more maturity at this juncture in this country’s trajectory. Government must display genuine willingness to engage with the Opposition. And the Opposition must also be willing to compromise so that the legislative initiatives not only bring about change; but also take into account Malta’s peculiarities as a small country. 

With enough good will from both sides, these significant reforms may even represent an opportunity to right many of the wrongs identified by the public inquiry. 

But with an election around the corner, time is limited; and in some of the proposed reforms, meaningful consultations with different stakeholders is likely to conflict with the short period available. 

In these cases, both major parties must make a political commitment to continue discussions after the election. Indeed, the only silver lining to the timing problem, is that – whoever wins the next election – the debate would have already started; and would be scheduled to continue.

All things considered, then, Prime Minister Robert Abela cannot afford to so lightly brush this reform aside. Otherwise, there is a danger that his own prophecy may come true… and that, by failing to fight the mafia that has infiltrated it, Malta may indeed become a ‘Mafia State’.