Government’s contempt for Parliament knows no bounds

It is precisely because this government has ‘the biggest majority in history’, that it is vital for it to be 100% open and transparent in all its dealings with the public

Just over a year ago – on 15 September 2021 – the Commission For Standards in Public Life launched a project entitled “Improving the Integrity and Transparency Framework in Malta”: aimed, among other things, at “introducing better practices for lobbying transparency, and [parliamentary] asset declarations.”

More recently, the OECD’s Carissa Munro told this newspaper that her organisation is now preparing another report on the rule-of-law situation in Malta – the fifth in as many years – this time, specifically “about conflicts of interest, and the assets-declaration system.”

To these warning signals, we must also add the repeated concerns expressed by the Venice Commission and the European Parliament (among others), about the lack of transparency within Malta’s institutions: Parliament included.

Clearly, then, we are dealing with a situation where government’s ‘lack of transparency’ is impacting Malta’s reputation, as a European democracy; moreover, the secrecy that still reigns supreme over such matters, also raises legitimate doubts as tp whether the current government – or any of its members - ‘has anything to hide’.

As such, it is manifestly within Prime Minister Robert Abela’s own interest to ensure that his Cabinet – starting with himself – allay these concerns, by immediately complying with its most basic obligations.

These include the obligation to publish a full declaration of assets and interests each year: if nothing else, to reassure the public that there are no hidden ‘conflicts of interest’ to further pollute the political establishment.

And yet, unaccountably, the Prime Minister has consistently done the opposite in recent years.

In 2019, Standards Commissioner George Hyzler felt compelled to seek ‘clarifications’ from several Government MPs. Among them was Robert Abela himself: who had quantified his own income for that year, simply with the word: ‘Salary’.

To call this ‘unacceptable’ would be an understatement; but Abela chose to take his defiance of Parliamentary rules even further still. This time, neither the Prime Minister, nor any of his Cabinet ministers, have submitted any asset declarations at all, for 2021…. a full year after the expiry of the deadline.

Yet even this display of arrogance pales to insignificance, compared to how Abela’s government responded – in Parliament – to questions about this issue.

Government whip Andy Ellul took more than five minutes to answer a PQ, by his colleague Davina Sammut Hili, about the ‘Worker of the Year Award’ – which is an important matter, no doubt; and one which fully deserves attention.

Meanwhile, however, Ellul only found 30 seconds to address three Opposition PQs about the far more urgent issue of his government’s consistent flouting of Parliamentary rules.

And not only did he fail to produce a single justification for this unacceptable delay… but he openly mocked the questions with partisan ‘digs’ at the Nationalist Party.

“This side of the House has no problem with submitting their asset declarations,” Ellul told Opposition MP Ivan Castillo: even though, quite frankly, its failure to ever do so, in 11 whole months, strongly suggests that the very opposite is true.

Moreover, his non-replies also betray a truly shocking disregard for the Parliamentary process itself. “How can you [Beppe Fenech Adami] come here asking about asset declarations? The Prime Minister is not mine, but the country’s prime minister with the biggest majority in history…”

Aside from the unmistakable note of arrogance in that statement – which ironically calls to mind the very same ‘arrogance’ that Labour had once so loudly decried, when coming from past Nationalist governments – Ellul’s childish outburst only illustrates exactly why it is so important, to take these obligations more seriously.

It is precisely because this government has ‘the biggest majority in history’, that it is vital for it to be 100% open and transparent in all its dealings with the public. For not only do ‘large majorities’ entail ‘large political responsibilities’… but they also translate into ‘large amounts of political power’ (which - as history time and again proves, tends to eventually ‘corrupt’ even the best-intentioned of governments).

The issue, however, raises other concerns beyond secrecy, and lack of transparency. If nothing, it illustrates – yet again – why it is so important for the Standard Commissioner’s recommendations to be taken on board, once and for all.

For even if the government does, belatedly, submit its asset declarations: the system itself still allows its members to be ‘economical with the truth’.

This is, in fact, the substance of the concerns expressed by the OECD, the Standards Commission, and so many other institutions.

As this newspaper pointed out in 2015: “The entire exercise should be revised to maximise transparency at all levels. […] all too often, ministers limit themselves to financial declarations, property and business interests – omitting other assets that would be regarded as compulsory in most European countries, including possessions valued over a certain amount.”

The system also needs to be beefed up with regard to enforcement: here, the Speaker of the House should be taking centre-stage on such an important matter. But these targets will forever remain out of reach, if government persists in treating Parliament with such open contempt.

Any such reform will have to start with a single, all-important step: the immediate publication, without further delay, of the present government’s full assets and interests.