Lands reform must be transparent

Transparency and accountability should be a higher priority for the Lands Department than other, less sensitive sectors.

If every cloud has a silver lining, the only positive thing to emerge from the otherwise unsightly Gaffarena debacle is that the Labour government has now set itself the important task of reforming the Lands Department.

Indeed, the two cases (in as many years) involving the same Gaffarena connection had illustrated just how urgent this reform had become. The Lands Department is also an important strategic centre of knowledge and power in its own right. By its nature it is a sensitive area, regulated by laws which permit, in certain cases, the forced requisition of private land by the state. Moreover, the Maltese economy is such that land, by definition, is at a premium. Any agency in control of sizeable tracts of land – well-regulated though it may be – is automatically going to be a hotbed for potential corruption. 

For this reason alone – and also as a principle in itself – transparency and accountability should be a higher priority for the Lands Department than other, less sensitive sectors.

Yet over the years we have seen movements in the opposite direction. The Gaffarena examples, which involved land expropriated and sold under conditions thought by the National Audit Office to be favourable to the buyer – are by no means unique. 

The precise details, however, shed light on what appears to be an unwholesome familiarity between business and political interests. Former minister Michael Falzon has already resigned, so it is pointless to dwell on the specifics. Suffice it to say that Gaffarena was even accompanied by a ministerial aide in his negotiations with the Government Property Division.

The two reports of the National Audit Office and the Internal Audit Investigation Department (IAID) made it clear that, over and above the political shortcomings, there were structural problems too. Not least, the Lands department was found to be systemically discriminatory when adjudicating between business interests and ordinary tenants in expropriation cases. The Malta Developers’ Association had long flagged this problem. Before the inquiry was concluded, the association said it could not ignore the discriminatory way in which the Lands Department had treated the case to the detriment of numerous citizens whose land has been expropriated by the government or who requested to redeem their ground rent.

“These have been waiting for long years under numerous administrations to be granted their rights. This must be considered also in the light of the huge difficulties the ordinary citizen faces when he tries to find government land to exchange with his property, which has been expropriated.”

But just as the Lands Department must be more transparent and accountable, so too should be the process of reform. The government needs to secure as wide a public consultation base as possible that includes citizens, notaries public and members of the legal profession, architects and realtors.

This would also be a good opportunity to enact one proposal made by the Opposition, and introduce a new parliamentary committee for MPs to scrutinise and grill these political appointees: thus ensuring both full-time parliamentary employment for MPs; and a public democratic process of accountability.

Moreover, the department is also a valuable data resource, which could empower the citizen if the data is more accessible. With the digital technology tools at our disposal, the government should continue with the digitisation of Lands Department records started under the LEMIS process, in order to keep proper audits of who accesses records and to ensure no document is lost.

These should also be made readily available to the public online so that the process of democratic scrutiny can itself be ‘crowdsourced’.

The reform should also ensure that the transition from ‘department’ to ‘authority’ does not become an excuse to create specific ‘agency rules’ to create a new fiefdom, as happened with Identity Malta, which is itself replete with complaints of inattentive management in areas where the lucrative Individual Investor Programme does not fall.

An authority would require a proper charter that makes it incumbent on those who lead it – probably a CEO to run the authority, and a politically-appointed chairman to represent the government’s interest – to be accountable in the eyes of the law and endeavour to make this property registry unassailable by corrupt practices.

There are even political reasons to undertake this reform. Labour should now start taking note of recent warnings, including from the media, that its lackadaisical attitude towards good governance would open it to potentially embarrassing situations that are now even costing it its own ministers.

One example is the presence of Labour MPs as chairmen of public companies or government corporations. Joseph Muscat has effectively installed people whose loyalties lie less with him and more with their own constituents: people who are tied to their grassroots support, not to Labour’s overarching and long-term mission. 

Little has been said of the fact that the chairman of the BICC – housed at 36, Old Mint Street – is a Labour MP who in the past has rendered his architectural services to the Gaffarenas. Would it not be wiser of Muscat to install politically accountable chairpersons who respond to their minister – rather than MPs who seem to consider that this extra cash is a ‘thank you’ due to them? 

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