Time to move beyond political feudalism

This was the second high-level political resignation in the past year, after former Home Affairs minister Manuel Mallia was made to step down following an apparent attempt to minimise a shooting incident involving his personal driver. 

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The events culminating in former Gozo minister Giovanna Debono’s resignation from the PN – but not from parliament – have once again highlighted a need for clearer rules of engagement when it comes to public figures stepping down from office. But on a broader level, the controversy which culminated in the arraignment of Debono’s husband on misappropriation charges also strongly reinforces the argument that Gozo is long overdue for a thorough administrative reform.

This was the second high-level political resignation in the past year, after former Home Affairs minister Manuel Mallia was made to step down following an apparent attempt to minimise a shooting incident involving his personal driver. The controversies underpinning these events may have been different, but the two cases are analogous in what they reveal about Malta’s attitude towards political responsibility at various levels.  

Both Debono and Mallia ultimately resigned over alleged crimes committed by members of their ministry’s respective staff. It transpires that both resignations were involuntary. Both had to be requested to step down by their party leaders, and there was an element of defiance in both their responses: Mallia stopped short of tendering his resignation, and had to be removed from office; Debono agreed to resign from the Nationalist Party, but – as our edition today reveals – refused to vacate her parliamentary seat, even though this was requested of her by PN leader Simon Busuttil.

The implicit attitude suggests that public figures often consider the role they occupy almost as if it were their own private property, rather than a responsibility with which they are entrusted. And this attitude is by no means limited to these two individual politicians. It has often been observed across the full spectrum of public posts, both in and out of parliament.

There have been a few notable exceptions – Chris Said, for instance, had voluntarily resigned when investigated over allegations concerning his family… only to be reinstated once his name was cleared. But these are few and far between. In the main, the pattern of behaviour in such cases involves stolidly refusing to accept that one’s position is untenable. This naturally saps public confidence in politics, as it points towards a rather primitive concept of political responsibility that views public positions as little more than personal fiefdoms for the benefit of the incumbent. 

In Giovanna Debono’s case, this impression was reinforced by the fact that the staff member happened to also be her own husband: an uncomfortable arrangement that would be considered inappropriate in most mature democracies. And the alleged crime with which he has now been charged – offering construction work and materials to constituents for free, payment to those who do the work to be made from the ministry purse – in itself illustrates the same quasi-feudal mentality whereby entire constituencies come to depend on hand-outs from a ruling (and almost dynastic) elite. 

This culture of political patronage and nepotism still prevails across many localities in Malta, but few can deny that Gozo – for various reasons – has been particularly susceptible. 

Even the fact that Gozo has been allotted its own dedicated ministry seems to militate directly against a political tide which has flown in the clean opposite direction over the past 20 years. Since the early 1990s, it has been government policy to gradually decentralise the country’s major power nodes. The introduction of local government was perhaps the most conspicuous step in this direction. But even the creation of various autonomous and semi-autonomous authorities, regulatory bodies and quangos suggests a cognisance that parts of the decision-making process should be kept at arm’s length from the central government. 

On all levels, the movement has been away from the previous situation whereby direct control over all decisions was always invested in the figure of a single ministry. 

Whether it worked in all cases is naturally debatable: we have all seen how authorities such as MEPA often seem synchronised with government policy. Likewise, local council elections have in a sense become an extension of the partisan divide that regulates politics on a national level. The most recent example, in which both Nationalist and Labour parties claimed victory for decidedly partisan reasons, is a classic case in point. 

Nonetheless, all parties agree on the basic objective behind the move towards decentralisation as a means of maximising checks and balances. Curiously, however, we have simultaneously engineered the very opposite situation in Gozo: there, all major decisions are ultimately invested in a single ministry, with little or nothing in the way of checks and balances to ward off the possibility of malfeasance.

Clearly, the present administrative set-up in Gozo is prone to abuse, and the ‘works-for-votes’ scandal only made this fact visible to all. Surely, the time has come to bring this particular region of the Maltese islands in line with the same movement towards decentralisation we have seen everywhere else.

There are many ways this can be achieved without dismantling existing structures. Some years ago, AD/The Green Party proposed an inclusive Parliamentary Committee for Gozo Affairs, made up of all Gozo’s MPs, to ensure transparency and serious governance by the Ministry for Gozo.

Given the evident lack of transparency and serious governance we have witnessed over the years, it may be a good idea to revisit this proposal today.

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