A line that should not be crossed

In short, a Prime Minister is neither a salesman, nor a monarch; but a servant of the people. At moments, Robert Abela seems to forget this crucial fact

A few days ago, it was reported that Prime Minister Robert Abela had a private meeting with construction magnate Charles Polidano; just days after the latter was arrested and questioned over suspected money-laundering and corruption. 

In comments to the Times of Malta, which broke the story on Sunday, the OPM justified the meeting by arguing that the Prime Minister is requested meetings with investors on a regular basis, “to discuss their ideas and investment projects, and any potential challenges relative to their investment.”

“The meeting you are referring to, which had been requested by Polidano Group representatives a number of months ago, is one of them. The representatives from the mentioned group of companies also invited the prime minister to visit a new investment of theirs in the coming weeks.” 

Yet this reply simply misses the wood for the trees. What is questionable here is not so much that the Prime Minister ‘meets businessmen’ – though that in itself may sometimes be problematic: such as when the same Prime Minister was feted by a consortium of Gozitan developers, on the eve of the last election - but what is discussed in such meetings; and, in this particular case, the awkwardness of the timing. 

For the most pressing issue, in this case, is whether or not Prime Minister Abela also entertained Polidano’s recriminations, regarding his recent troubles with the police.  From that perspective, the timing of this meeting was certainly ‘inappropriate’, to say the least. 

The Times reported that the two discussed “the pressure Polidano is facing from a fierce competitor whom he blames for tipping off the police.”  If that was the case, the Prime Minister would have crossed a line which should never have been crossed.  If such matters were indeed raised by Polidano, Robert Abela should have walked out of that meeting, on the spot. 

That said, it also stands to reason that Prime Ministers would hold regular meetings with business leaders: amongst other things, in their bid to sustain job creation. And while one expects the same kind of ongoing dialogue with other entities - including trade unions and NGOs - maintaining a healthy and frank relationship, with leading business groups which employ thousands of people, does not necessarily amount to nefarious dealings.   

Yet to ensure that nothing unwarranted is discussed, such meetings should always be held in a formal set-up, in the presence of civil servants, and should always be minuted and remain for posterity in the public record.  And there should be harsh penalties in cases where such records are omitted or tampered with; or when private communication channels, like personal emails or Whatsapp chats, are used on official government business.  

Moreover, if individual projects are discussed, it must be ascertained that any words exchanged do not translate into commitments which override other regulatory bodies, in matters such asplanning.  In fact, the specifics of individual projects are best avoided in such meetings: which should be more of an occasion for the PM to assess the mood of the business community, and to bounce off strategic ideas. 

That is why it is of crucial importance to introduce a transparency register: in which all such meetings are logged into a register which also includes a summary of the matters discussed; and which should be accessible to the public in real time.   

Since such meetings may include confidential or sensitive information, one can accept a situation where the information is redacted; or even not disclosed at all. But as suggested by the OECD in a report issued last week, such decisions should be taken by the Standards Commissioner; and not by the government itself.  

Moreover, any such exemption should be time-barred, which means that the full records of such meetings should still remain on public record: even if to be accessed at a later date. 

But crucially, we have to move away from a mentality where Prime Ministers and their closest allies are treated like feudal ‘Lords’ and ‘Masters’, who can simply do away with all the formalities regulating the civic service.  For in each meeting in which he participates, Robert Abela remains the Prime Minister: in which position, he is supposedly representing everyone.  

And that should entail full accountability and transparency, in all official dealings with the general public: whether they concern business magnates facing criminal charges, or not.

In short, a Prime Minister is neither a salesman, nor a monarch; but a servant of the people. At moments, Robert Abela seems to forget this crucial fact.