Amnesties are no substitute for checks and balances

The sheer extent of the perception of corruption in our country cannot be addressed in such piecemeal and half-hearted fashion

Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna

Last Thursday, the Prime Minister made his strongest declaration to date on the scandal evidence of corruption in Enemalta's oil procurement division.

"I reiterate my appeal for anyone with information relating to this case to come forward. There is no need to reconvene parliament and push through a whistleblower's act. If anyone has evidence in relation to this particular case, I shall recommend to the President of Malta that he offers them the necessary protection to testify. This method is faster than reconvening parliament," he said.

Dr Gonzi's resolve for a speedy resolution is commendable - and he is technically correct to state that a whistleblower's act, on its own, might not suffice to address this particular case. Nonetheless, there are two fundamental problems with his approach to the same problem.

One: the offer of a 'proklama' (Presidential pardon/protection) may appear to appeal to direct protagonists in the affair where evidence to date presented by this newspaper has been irrefutable. Gonzi appears to be acting on the assumption that it is only guilty parties who can come forward with information concerning crimes - but this is not necessarily the case at all.

The whole point of a whistleblower's act is to also offer protection to people who have knowledge of corruption, but are not themselves corrupt. This would be relevant to any large-scale corruption activity in any government department; and in an administrative giant like Enemalta, it is unlikely that knowledge of such matters would be limited only to the one or two guilty individuals involved.

Besides: even if the proklama approach may indeed suffice to bring closure to this one instance, it does not compensate for the lack of an important tool in the fight against corruption. The main problem with Gonzi's offer is that it takes the form of an ad hoc and almost impromptu 'solution', which suggests that we are taking such matters only on a case-by-case basis - instead of concentrating on beefing up the present permanent structures like the permanent commission against corruption, the auditor general powers and the ombudsman, which would not only address issues as they arise, but also minimise the room and scope for corruption in future.

As for reconvening parliament, this in itself only illustrates how regrettable it was for parliament to dissolve without having brought into force the whistleblower's act - even though the law had already passed through all previous stages of approval. As such, this merely underscores an overall lack of commitment among the present administration. Coupled with the same government's earlier, dismissive attitudes when faced with strong indications of foul play in the BWSC affair - and its blind refusal to acknowledge any other allegations of corruption - it is easy to see why Malta has slipped so consistently in the Corruption Perception Index over the past five years.

A second and more worrying flaw in the government's approach is that the issue of comissions paid on oil procurement goes beyond a question of mere criminality. It creates the perception of being linked to decisions taken by government itself - for instance, government's repeated insistence of oil to power Malta's energy plants, despite several opportunities to convert our infrastructure to gas. And while it may well be a coincidence that these choices were all along uninfluenced by the activities and demands of a powerful oil lobby (which, it must be said, also benefited from the same decisions) the coincidence remains too close to home for comfort, and government should be doing everything in its power to dispel it.

However, by making government itself the vehicle that would offer protection to the whistleblower (bearing in mind that the President is powerless to grant protection, without the Prime Minister's permission) this measure is clearly insufficient in this case. What happens in the event that someone comes forward with information, implicating a  government member? Would this person be expected to go directly to government itself for protection, when he or she would (in this hypothetical scenario) be spilling the beans on government's own activities?

It must be said also that this is not the first time that the Prime Minister has suggested adopting a purely ad hoc approach to such matters. Last year (and again in response to a story first broken by MaltaToday) Dr Gonzi similarly offered an amnesty to anyone who came forward with evidence of wrongdoing by the police in the sequence of events leading to the death of Nicholas Azzopardi - who had alleged police brutality on his deathbed.

Here again the Prime Minister offered a one-off amnesty: apparently overlooking an uncomfortable detail concerning the chain of command at work behind the scenes. For ever since the police, prisons and law-courts were divided between two ministerial portfolios at the beginning of 2011, responsibility for the police now rests with the office of the Prime Minister himself. It would appear strange that the same Prime Minister offers an amnesty in return for information of possible criminality in a department for which he himself is politically responsible?

But the real issue is that the sheer extent of the perception of corruption in our country (so often reconfirmed by international polls and ratings) cannot be addressed in such piecemeal and half-hearted fashion. What is needed is a firm commitment to enact further serious anti-corruption structures on a permanent basis.

More in Editorial