Wanted: Good governance

The truth is that, while the government’s attitude towards matters of governance had remained largely unchanged, there was an awakening of thirst for higher standards among the population at large.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

There can be no mistaking the fact that public expectations of governments have changed beyond recognition in recent years. This was already evident in Labour’s landslide victory in 2013. By the standards of former years, the Nationalist administration under Gonzi may not have been expected to win that election. But nor would it have been expected to fare so badly.

The truth is that, while the government’s attitude towards matters of governance had remained largely unchanged, there was an awakening of thirst for higher standards among the population at large.

There is a double irony in this: the Labour Party was the first to recognise this new reality, and to capitalise on the demand to produce a credible manifesto – based on the principles of ‘meritocracy’ and ‘accountability’ – which propelled it to victory. 

Yet under the same Labour government, the standards of public administration have simply not been elevated to the expected level. Joseph Muscat’s administration certainly cannot claim to be any more ‘accountable’ than Gonzi’s. In many respects it is arguably less. Its dogged refusal to publish any contracts pertaining to the power station deal with Shanghai Elrctric, for instance, contrasts with the PN’s publication of at least parts of the BWSC contract in 2008.

The second level of irony concerns the Nationalist Party, which – now in Opposition – appears to have made the same realisation that Muscat made in 2013. Likewise, it rose to the occasion with an equally plausible (and probably easier to implement) raft of proposals concerning ‘good governance’: the same issue which had ultimately cost it power at the last election.

Many of these proposals are in line with issues that MaltaToday has long argued editorially. Foremost on the list is a system for public scrutiny of government appointments: an issue that has since assumed greater relevance, given the spate of entirely non-transparent appointments of ‘persons of trust’ effected under this government.

The Nationalist Party proposes two tiers of public scrutiny: two-thirds approval by the House of Representatives for posts such as that of President of the Republic, Commissioner of Police, Commander of the Armed Forces, Principal Permanent Secretary and the like; and also a parliamentary grilling for chairpersons of government boards and authorities.

There may be room for discussion on the actual measures, but it has become patently clear that the entirely Colonial mentality whereby newly elected governments install ‘their’ people to all sensitive posts, has to end once and for all. Public posts are by definition intended to serve the public, not the government of the day. Parliament – being both representative and in itself a public institution – is clearly the logical place where such appointments should be properly debated. 

The Opposition’s proposals also touch on regulations for politicians and public figures. A proposed new code of ethics would require ministers to declare conflicts of interest to the Commissioner for Standards; “refrain from associating themselves with unsavoury characters”; oblige them to declare their spouses’ assets; and refrain from appointing relatives or business partners to public positions; declare all gifts above €150 to the Commissioner; and register all meetings they hold with lobbyists.

Again there is an irony, given the PN’s past defence of its own ministers over some of those same charges. Few can however deny that a more specific code of ethics is indeed required, given the shenanigans we have witnessed over the years from both sides.

While some of these proposals have been aired elsewhere – including this newspaper – others are more original. Opposition leader Simon Busuttil envisages a ‘Ministry for Citizens’ Rights’, which he claims would fight clientelism by ending people’s dependence on ministerial largesse.

“It will not compete with or limit access to the Ombudsman, but if anything, ensure that citizens are given adequate services from public administration in the first place.”

The ministry will provide a “one-stop-shop for complaints from citizens in relation to services provided by the public administration” and see that they are well served by the relevant public authority in good time. It will liaise with other ministries “to put a stop, once and for all, to situations where people are sent on a wild goose chase from one department to another.”

The list is longer, but as most of the proposals are generally rooted in the same principles – ironically, the same ones enshrined in the Labour manifesto – there is no need to go into any detail. What remains to be seen is what emerges, now that both sides of the House (on paper, at least) are committed to the same principles.

By far the most positive aspect of this latest political development is that it represents a radical shift in thought among Malta’s political class as a whole. Both major political parties have now come round to understanding that ‘power’ is slightly more than just a political end in itself. Governments also exist to deliver to the electorate what it wants… even if ‘what it wants’ ultimately weakens its own hold on power.

The next step is naturally to translate this consensus into a workable formula whereby corruption may be minimised (if not eradicated), while also guaranteeing good governance at all levels. Here, the ball lands squarely in the Prime Minister’s court.

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