Meritocracy: a blatantly forgotten promise

It is true that there is a prevalence of public positions given to persons with known Labour connections, often at the expense of civil servants who are trained to handle the responsibilities of the posts concerned.

Aesop’s well-known fable about the ‘boy who cried wolf’ may be a cautionary tale about the dangers of raising a false alarm; but there is a warning in it also for the townsfolk who ignored the boy’s pleas for help when it really mattered.

From this perspective, an additional ‘moral’ can be gleaned. Even if the person raising the alarm may lack credibility, one ignores the warning only at one’s own risk.

By analogy, this applies to the current political state of affairs in Malta. The Nationalist Party has shouted itself hoarse raising the alarm over ‘institutionalised corruption’ in recent months. Likewise it has sounded dire warnings about political nepotism and clientelism: evidently forgetting the many years it was on the receiving end of the same criticism when in government.

But this doesn’t change the fact that some of the Opposition’s criticism – even if tiresomely repetitive – is justified. The Labour Party was indeed elected on a platform to fight corruption and ensure meritocracy and transparency. There is evidence aplenty that it has not fully lived up to this promise; yet its response to criticism has stolidly been to remind the Nationalist Party of its own former misdemeanours.

This is entirely unhelpful – and equally repetitive – because it offers no reassurance whatsoever that its electoral pledges are being honoured. Even if we all agree that the PN is poorly positioned to complain – and there is no consensus on that point – this does nothing to address the validity of the complaint itself.

The Identity Malta visa scam is the latest battlefield on which the parties now exchange accusations of misconduct. PN deputy leader Beppe Fenech Adami alleged that “a whole clique of Labour activists [was] placed at Identity Malta to help Vella Bonnici”. Questioning their credentials, Fenech Adami added that the individuals – Ryan Spagnol, Mqabba mayor Charlene Zammit, Amanda Mifsud and IIP CEO Jonathan Cardona – had been given jobs at Identity Malta because of their political affiliations.

Whether or not the intention was ‘to help Joe Vella Bonnici’ – the man who runs Identity Malta – is naturally debatable. But it is true that there is a prevalence of public positions given to persons with known Labour connections, often at the expense of civil servants who are trained to handle the responsibilities of the posts concerned.

Once again, however, the government simply returned fire by pointing out at the racket itself allegedly began in 2011 under a Nationalist administration. This is a non-sequitur: visas may have been illegally traded in the past, but the present government made significant changes to the administrative organisation of the entire department… and statistics show that the number of questionable visas awarded has skyrocketed since.

Identity Malta’s establishment was in fact one of Labour’s first legislative acts, taking under its wing the Individual Investor Programme, the land and public registries, the passport and civil registration offices, the identity management office, and the citizenship and expatriate affairs office.

The result was a seismic shift within the Civil Service, whereby many experienced public officials made way to accommodate ‘persons of trust’.

The director-general of the public registry, Dr Stephanie Pappalardo, was detailed to other duties in the ministry of home affairs. Ermelinda Zahra, director of the public registry, was boarded out in 2014, while Dr Keith German, director and land registrar at the Lands and Public Registry, was informed in December that he would not be reappointed after his contract expired this year.

MaltaToday is reliably informed that the person replacing German resigned after a few months and that the Land Registry is still without a Land Registrar.

Moreover, government’s response to date has failed utterly to address the chief complaint at the heart of the matter… which incidentally does not come only from the deputy leader of the Opposition party, but also from anyone who once valued the PL’s core promise of meritocracy.

Persons appointed to sensitive public administration posts very often do give the impression that they were chosen for their political affiliations. In this case, there are no particular qualifications of any kind to justify the choice. Among the replacements we find serving Labour local councillors, and even the partner of family minister Michael Farrugia. 

Even on an island where political nepotism is rife, rarely is it done so openly and so blithely.

Whether or not all this amounts to institutionalised corruption – as the PN insists with increasing stridency – is actually irrelevant. The present administration is committed to the principles of meritocracy and transparency, and therefore cannot refuse to respond to criticism that its own appointments are based anything but merit.

Ironically, when in opposition the Labour Party itself had promised to issue public calls for applications for all such posts, as well as detailed justification of the final selection. It cannot so blithely disregard such an unambiguous electoral promise, without so much as an explanation.

The government therefore has to answer the Opposition’s question: not because it was asked by the Opposition, but because it is directly relevant to its primary role as chief administrator of the public weal.

Has meritocracy increased or decreased on Muscat’s watch? That is the question…

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