A farewell to meritocracy

Engerer’s European credentials are not under discussion here but rather the inescapable whiff of political nepotism that raises eyebrows

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The surprise appointment of Cyrus Engerer as a special representative of the Maltese government to the European Union may well be the last nail in the coffin of Labour’s ‘meritocracy’ pledge.

But it also underscores the fragility of a political system in which neither of the main two political parties has ever managed to rise above a culture of political backscratching.

The post in question technically places Engerer within the diplomatic corps, and is pegged to a Scale 3 salary of €34,680.

This however does not include financial allowances amounting to €50,000, for a total salary of €85,000. Nor were details of the full financial package made available in reply to a parliamentary question. Already, then, there is a hint of secrecy to add to the impression of political patronage.  

Defending his controversial appointment, Engerer himself points towards his accreditation with EU institutions as ‘proof’ of his suitability for the post: a post which appears to have been created specifically to accommodate him.

“I’m accredited to the Council of the European Union and every necessary screening for accreditation has been made,” Engerer said in reaction to widespread incredulity at the announcement.

This response, even if technically correct, does not address the main objections to the appointment. Engerer’s European credentials are not under discussion here. It is rather the inescapable whiff of political nepotism that raises eyebrows… especially considering that the present Labour administration came into power two years ago precisely on the promise of a different way of doing politics.

Cyrus Engerer brings with him to the role a considerable amount of political baggage. His defection from the Nationalist Party in 2011, together with his subsequent wholesale endorsement of Muscat’s Labour Party, raises suspicion that his appointment may have been fuelled by a sense of personal obligation by the Prime Minister.

Nor is this the first instance whereby those loyal to the party in government have been rewarded with sensitive public posts under the present administration. Earlier examples include the appointments of Aaron Farrugia and Clifton Grima, two Labour activists, to the posts of chief executive of the Malta Freeport and chief executive at Mount Carmel hospital respectively. Neither had any qualifications that rendered them suitable for positions of such technical responsibility. It would seem their close affiliation to the Labour Party was all that mattered in the selection process.

Ironically, it was precisely this pervasive aura of political patronage that had originally provided the impetus for Muscat’s successful 2013 electoral campaign. The electorate had been given assurances that under a new Labour administration, public appointments would be made on the basis of personal and professional merit… as opposed to political affiliation, which had so often been the butt of criticism of public appointments under the Nationalists.

In view of the Prime Minister’s choices, it is quite simply impossible to take Muscat’s pre-electoral claim seriously. 

Besides, even if one concedes that Engerer has enough experience in the EU sphere to justify his appointment, it remains a fact that the former Sliema councillor was convicted of circulating compromising images of a former partner – for which he received a two-year suspended sentence.

Engerer’s accreditation suggests that his criminal record is not considered an obstacle to occupying the role; but it does raise questions about the government’s commitment to the principles of good governance. One must perforce question a screening process that ignores past misdemeanours connected specifically with breach of trust concerning sensitive information, for a role that also involves handling sensitive data at European level.

Above all, however, the episode illustrates the malaise currently gripping Malta’s political milieu. That a prime minister can so cavalierly appoint a political crony to a public post, in defiance of an electoral commitment, also points towards a sense of political invincibility on his part. To date, the present government has consistently defended its own performance on the basis of past failures of former Nationalist governments; and this is one area where the Opposition cannot realistically criticise without being reminded of its own previous shortcomings. 

This makes it altogether too easy for the present government to side-step criticism by arguing that the Opposition had done the same in its own day. It is difficult to counter this argument: how can the Nationalist Party complain about nepotism, when one of its own senior cabinet ministers – Giovanna Debono – is currently being investigated for abuse of taxpayer money for political reasons, allegedly conducted by her husband who had been employed within her own ministry?

This in turn suggests that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is buoyed by the knowledge that his government lacks a serious credible alternative… a situation that can only be exacerbated by the results of recent electoral tests, in which the PN under new leadership has so far proved unable to register any significant progress at the polls.

This is however no excuse to blatantly ignore one’s own electoral commitments. Many had been swayed by the meritocracy pledge because they believe in the underlying principle of good governance, and had been disillusioned by past PN governments for the same reason.

Muscat would do well to remember that his own party, too, is susceptible to the same loss of trust.