Sofia Inquiry: A turning point

Staffing authorities with cronies, who may not have the required competence or who are simply yes-men is a disservice to society and the bona fide operators they regulate. When politicians act in this way they only help foster a culture of ‘anything goes’, which is only a short distance away from impunity.

The three members of the Jean Paul Sofia public inquiry board – Ombudsman Joseph Zammit McKeon, Auditor General Charles Deguara and perit Mario Cassar – must be commended for the report they penned. 

The board did not sugar-coat its observations so as not to ‘hurt’ people. The board did its job well and the manner by which it discharged its functions gave it the moral authority to make pertinent and uncompromising observations on the construction sector, the people tasked to regulate it and the failings across the board that enabled the Corradino tragedy that killed 20-year-old Jean Paul Sofia to happen. 

Let us be clear… before the inquiry board had the opportunity to take a deep dive into the systems that regulate the construction industry, many had spoken about lax enforcement by the authorities that allowed developers to cut corners. Unfortunately, ears remained shut and eyes closed. In Sofia’s case, cutting corners had fatal consequences. 

From the amateurish way, public land at the Corradino Industrial Estate was given to the rookie developers, which the inquiry said should have never happened, to the lack of inspections on the building while it was being constructed, the whole process was fraught with failings. 

This leader hopes that the Sofia Inquiry will now serve as a turning point on several counts. 

It should serve as a turning point for public officials, well-paid CEOs and chairpersons, and all those in the public service tasked to regulate, inspect and oversee different sectors of the economy. 

In a very pertinent observation, the inquiry board referred to public officials and their attempts to accommodate developers at all costs, while hiding behind anonymity and bureaucracy to escape the consequences of their shortcomings. Public officials have to shoulder responsibility for their actions and must be accountable for the decisions, or non-decisions, they make. 

In one of the salient comments the inquiry board remarked: “In a normal country, negligent or irregular behaviour leads to civil legal consequences and sometimes criminal consequences. Someone, somewhere must understand that what is bent cannot remain so but must be straightened. It’s wrong to say everything goes on the mistaken premise that people forget over time. When those who are obliged to defend the common good, stop doing so, the risk is that the illegality becomes acceptable, and the rule of law gravely prejudiced.” 

The inquiry board’s observation is very true across the width of the public service. This is an attitude problem – the anything goes attitude that in Sofia’s case proved fatal. 

It is not acceptable that a CEO paid €80,000 or more adopts a lax attitude towards governance. If things are wrong, they should act to correct them. If public policy is creating lacunas, they should speak up with policy makers to enact the necessary legal changes. 

Instead, throughout the inquiry, we had a litany of public officials shirking responsibility for the failings that underpinned the Sofia tragedy. 

Public officials – from the very top to the bottom – must be empowered to make decisions within clear, transparent policy frameworks and shoulder responsibility for these decisions. And they must be given the resources to work efficiently and effectively. 

But the inquiry must also serve as a turning point for politicians. Staffing authorities with cronies, who may not have the required competence or who are simply yes-men is a disservice to society and the bona fide operators they regulate. 

When politicians act in this way they only help foster a culture of ‘anything goes’, which is only a short distance away from impunity. 

While the public inquiry did not enter into the merits of political responsibility its findings are a damning indictment of politicians as well. 

Politicians are to blame for starving authorities from the required resources; interference in operational decisions and unwillingness to ensure enforcement is thorough and effective.  

This leader hopes that the humility being shown now by government politicians after having opposed a public inquiry last year, continues to be reflected throughout the coming weeks and months. We can only hope that the next time MPs are forced to vote on a matter despite their conscience telling them otherwise, they will find the courage to serve the common good. 

The third turning point concerns the construction industry. We can only hope that this sector has learnt its lessons. We will not hold our breath. 

Within this context, the inquiry argued against self-regulation, calling instead for strong regulatory authorities with the ability to bite were necessary. 

“If someone is going to argue that these recommendations are rigid and too draconian… they haven’t understood the gravity of the situation which cannot improve with good will alone,” the board said. 

On Wednesday in parliament, the Prime Minister spoke boldly about the need for the construction sector to ‘shape up, or ship out’. He was correct because the sector has long acted like it owns the country. But the Prime Minister must also acknowledge that the construction sector’s cowboy attitude was in part due to the appeasement of politicians.    

The Sofia inquiry is as much an indictment of the construction sector and the authorities that regulate it, as it is of the politicians who enabled the circumstances to occur and persist. 

This leader hopes the inquiry’s recommendations are implemented with expediency because it is only in this way that Jean Paul Sofia’s memory can be honoured.