All the government’s (wo)men

Maltese public life has become even more suffocated by the influence of political parties, with nary a voice in opposition to sound the alarm.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

When it was once fashionable to hold Nationalist administrations up to the light of their profligate ways by promising a bonfire of government-appointed boards, Labour promised a trim to the estimated €1 million bill for the extra-governmental bodies that seemed to collect friends-of-friends together to hammer out decisions on the ministers' behalf.

It was ironic that it should be former Prime Minister Alfred Sant who elected himself to douse the flames of umbrage with some realism over the way governments appoint their trusted men and women. After all, it was Sant who had rued the extensive influence of the network of friends-of-friends inside business and politics during his parliamentary career, and who suggested trimming the costs of these bodies. And it was his successor who made meritocracy one of his party's pledges for a change that, as it turns out, we cannot always believe in.

As unelected bodies whose decision-making powers range from the naming of streets and designing of postage stamps to the execution of school construction programmes and overseeing the national airline's financial health, there is no question about the usefulness of political appointments to government 'boards and commissions'.

Instead of relegating particular decisions to the humdrum of departmental bureaucracy in the civil sector, which can run the risk of being disconnected from civic and public life, government quangos have been effective in welcoming members of the private and non-governmental sector to perform functions best suited for their expertise rather than those of other civil servants.

In other cases, various government officials from a cross-section of ministries are invited to occupy boards that take decisions which require a wide input of public service insight.

The reality of these Maltese quangos, now conveniently styled by government critics as 'iced buns' for the Labour faithful (a case of the Opposition's seeing the mote in Government's eye, but not the beam in its own), is that a good deal of the business they carry out is important to the functioning of the country.

It might be argued that the perfunctory business of the organisation of national festivities should not be the remit of a specialised committee and instead organised by civil servants who are otherwise already embedded within the Ministry for Culture.

But few are those boards whose culling will either generate substantial savings to the taxpayer or whose work would not be sorely missed.

With over 100 such bodies overseen by over 800 appointees, whose honoraria could range from as little as €500 annually to a five-figure number for executive chairmen, Maltese quangos cost less than other government extravagances, and on paper they should be providing independent, arm's-length advice on government work.

But by their very essence, they are undemocratic bodies constituted to work for governments, which in turn outsource their decision-making to expert advisers and other trusted individuals, who more often than not are close to the establishment and the party in government.

As of recently, the appointment of so many trusted Labour activists, party friends, campaign volunteers, benefactors and now even MPs has reignited the lingering question about the effectiveness of these boards. The spate of appointments within the first months of the change in government only served to intensify the impression of a changing of the guard, as if promises of a meritocratic 'turn' should have - at the very least - materialised in the form of less party presence and more people power.

On the contrary, we witnessed what seemed to be the deliberate accumulation of party influence inside government boards and commissions, to such a degree that it has undermined the credibility of the very people appointed to serve on these bodies.

The tribalism in these appointments, in some cases made in utter disregard of the necessary competences and expertise which the people appointed should have, has only reinforced the public's impression that political parties retain their iron grip on the workings of the State through the influence of their chosen people.

And what's more unfortunate for the public is the inability of the Opposition to offer radical or constructive criticism of this unashamedly indiscriminate manner of sowing political influence across the public sector: for over 20 years, it was the practice implemented by the Nationalist administration, and now Labour seems to have turned its back on its own vague electoral promise of a 'Malta for all'.

This newspaper does not buy into short-term fixes, such as the assumption that axing boards and commissions delivers value for money. What's at stake is decision-making and the independence of such bodies. But the incestuous relationship between Government and the party that occupies it only serves to reinforce the democratic deficit of these appointments. How can we trust the independence of bodies which are controlled by MPs, former MPs, MPs' relatives and spouses, business partners or party benefactors?

Maltese public life has become even more suffocated by the influence of political parties, with nary a voice in opposition to sound the alarm on the way public sector decision-making is increasingly becoming the business of the party apparatchiks.

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