Technocrats are not the solution

If such powers of appointment are granted to the Prime Minister, it would effectively mean that our electoral system would be up to a point misleading

Joseph Muscat has become the latest Maltese prime minister to hint at a radical Constitutional reform that would allow for the appointment of unelected technocrats to the ministerial cabinet.

It is hardly an original proposal: indeed, there was considerable debate on this point as recently as 2011, after the leaked US Embassy Cables had revealed that former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi felt hampered by the ‘limited talent pool’ at his disposal.

Dr Gonzi had even pointed out that the Constitution did not allow him the facility to appoint technocrats, since the law stipulates that ministers need to be elected officials.

It may be worth revisiting some of the arguments raised back then. Former (PN) minister Michael Falzon had opined that the time had perhaps come to consider widening the pool to also include unelected ministers.

“Without making any judgements on present members of Parliament, I have already said I was in favour of considering amending the Constitution to allow for technocrats to be made ministers, without being members of Parliament,” he argued. “If countries far bigger than us need technocrats, why shouldn’t we?”

Even across the political divide, the proposal was met with interest. The late Lino Spiteri, a former minister in Dom Mintoff’s Cabinets in the 1980s, likewise agreed that it might be worth discussing whether a “limited number of ministers” could be appointed from outside Parliament.

“They would sit in the Cabinet and the Prime Minister would be accountable to the House for their actions,” Mr Spiteri wrote, adding that Mintoff and Gonzi had both implemented a version of it; Mintoff by having General Workers’ Union members sit in on Cabinet meetings, Gonzi by having (former special envoy to the EU) Richard Cachia Caruana in attendance.

Be that as it may, simple cross-party consensus may not be the only consideration. By definition, Muscat’s express views – quoted in ‘The Maltese Legal System Volume Two, Constitutional and Human Rights Law’, by David Attard – also involve granting the Prime Minister greater powers than those already afforded by the present Constitutional set-up. 

Such a move would naturally require Constitutional changes – and therefore the consent of the Opposition – but beyond the formalities and political considerations, his proposal could also open a Pandora’s box.

If such powers are granted to the Prime Minister, it would effectively mean that our electoral system would be up to a point misleading. In our system we vote to elect candidates to Parliament, on the understanding that the Cabinet would be formed from the parliamentary group. By widening the definition of the Cabinet to include unelected officials, we would effectively create a system whereby the people vote for Nationalist or Labour candidates… but have no actual say in the composition of the incoming government.  

In practice, it would be a case of ‘voting Joseph (or Simon)’… but ending up with no idea of who you would actually be ‘electing’.

This possibility raises serious questions regarding the most fundamental aspects of our political system. Accountability to the electorate and Parliament is the fundamental basis of a parliamentary democracy; and if this were to be changed, we would end up with a Presidential system of government. (Interestingly, Muscat has also said that he is in favour of increasing the President’s powers… which would also necessitate a change in the way Presidents are appointed.)

Such a system may well have its advantages… but it is considerably different from what we are used to, and in a country with only one house of representatives, it can only seriously dilute the power of parliament – and, by extension, the control of the electorate.

The consequences could be serious. In principle, voters in a democracy should know exactly what it is they are voting for… and, more importantly, should also have the power to remove ministers from office. The beauty of a representative democracy is that the electorate has the power, every five years, to axe a minister or MP who did not perform to expectation. In theory, the people should retain the power to express confidence or clip the wings of MPs. This would not be possible with unelected technocrats, either in theory or in practice.

Moreover, the civil service – starting with permanent secretaries – is supposedly already made up of experts who advise politicians. If the ministries and departments, who must be given all the necessary resources to attract the best talent, employ experts at all levels, there should be no need for a technocrat minister. Moreover, experts are also known to get things wrong. They certainly provide no guarantee against error of judgements or wrong decisions being taken. 

Politicians also have other responsibilities beyond leading a ministry competently. A minister should firstly give political direction, while also guaranteeing fairness and transparency: qualities which technocrats do not necessarily have, and do not need to respect if their loyalty is to the prime minister and not to the people.

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