A question of arrogance

If anything, it is the people who are increasingly showing a lack of trust in politicians and while this is underpinned by a myriad of reasons, arrogance by ministers is definitely one of them

Clayton Bartolo’s justification for withholding the full report that is supposed to detail the economic impact of Malta’s cash rebate scheme for the film industry smacks of arrogance.

The Tourism Minister told parliament on Monday during the budget estimates debate he was only tabling the abridged version since he “does not trust” the PN.

Frankly speaking it is the lamest excuse ever given by a minister to justify withholding information, which is of public interest.

Malta returns millions of euros to film producers as part of its 40% cash rebate scheme intended to attract foreign productions.

Such schemes are common place in the industry and in principle are no different to other industrial incentives Malta has provided over decades to attract foreign investment.

But whether the scheme is good or too generous in its current incarnation is a moot point at this stage. It is the minister’s attitude that is under the spotlight.

Speaking in parliament, Bartolo showed contempt towards the Opposition but even worse, towards taxpayers who are footing the bill for this report.

The probability is that the full report will be saying nothing different from the 40-page abridged version, which quantifies the economic spinoff from the cash rebate. But this is beside the point. The underlying principle is that no minister should withhold information just because they ‘do not trust’ the Opposition.

The report should be clear enough to allow its readers to reach their own conclusions. Irrespective of what the Opposition makes of the report, it will be out there for anyone to read and evaluate. This leader sees no plausible justification for the full report to be withheld and Bartolo’s behaviour is needlessly stoking the flames of suspicion.

Bartolo’s behaviour is childish and his arrogance is disturbing. It is precisely this attitude that leads people to switch off politics, feel angry or disconnected from those in power.

The minister may have received accolades from his ardent followers for rubbishing the Opposition but to the large swathe of middle ground voters his attitude is unacceptable. Indeed, it flies in the face of government’s recurrent budget theme that it has listened to the people.

The minister has a portfolio that comes with a lot of discretionary spending on events and sponsorships. The least he could do is be responsive to concerns and requests for information.

It is irrelevant that the minister has passed on the full report to the Auditor General, who is probing the finances of the Malta Film Commission and the tax rebate incentive. What is so special, or controversial, about this report that justifies it being kept secret? Probably nothing.

But Bartolo’s behaviour is possibly a reflection of a wider problem within government when it comes to transparency. There have been too many instances where ministers have acted in contempt of transparency by delaying parliamentary replies, publishing heavily redacted public contracts, being scant with the media when asked for information.

Transparency should be a core principle of governance and when full disclosure is not possible for clearly defined reasons, there should be circumstances where MPs are given disclosure in a confidential way.

An analysis of the impact the cash rebate has on the economy does not fall within the realm of exceptions.

It is not the first time the government has published economic impact analyses to justify proposed future projects that may be controversial in nature. But in this case, it seems, the full report is too hot to handle.

Ministers are accountable for their actions to parliament, where the representatives of the people scrutinise and question their decisions and behaviour.

Bartolo had no right to withhold the publication of the report because he does not trust Opposition MPs. Indeed, it was PN MP Julie Zahra’s duty to ask that the impact assessment be published in its entirety for everyone to digest and understand. She was doing her job.

If anything, it is the people who are increasingly showing a lack of trust in politicians and while this is underpinned by a myriad of reasons, arrogance by ministers is definitely one of them.