A year of broken promises

One does not uphold the principle of democracy merely to ensure that only one set of cronies divides the spoils

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

If a week is a long time in politics, then a year in politics is as good as a millennium. Yet it has taken three years for Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to deliver on one of his most crucial electoral promises: transparency and accountability. Despite a pledge to publish all major government contracts by the end of 2016, the commitment to publish the Electrogas contract fell through. Addressing parliament last April in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal, Muscat admitted that his government needed to up its game on issues related to good governance. 

“By the end of the year, we will publish the remaining contracts that we have signed in the main sectors to prove that we don’t fear transparency,” he said.

With hindsight those words may well be returning to haunt Muscat today. If even this promise has now failed to materialise, by the Prime Minister’s own assessment it proves his government does indeed fear transparency and accountability. Increasingly it is becoming apparent that Muscat is deeply uncomfortable with what the Electrogas contract may reveal. Given that sections of the media are already speculating that a clause may permit the government to acquire the new plant at public expense, such reluctance can only fuel rumours and foster a climate of popular suspicion and mistrust. 

Muscat now claims he will release this document “as soon as possible”; but even this revised pledge is riddled with contradictions. 

“As promised, the government published all major contracts except for the energy contract which is under the strict scrutiny of the EU Commission and is certainly not being hidden by the government,” a spokesperson for Muscat told MaltaToday. “The commitment to publish the contract remains.” 

This is both paradoxical and factually incorrect.  A spate of contracts and deals signed by the Labour administration remain unpublished to this day: including not just contracts with Electrogas on the construction and operation of the LNG power station in Delimara, (featuring a €360 million bank guarantee granted to the consortium); but also its heads of agreement with Sadeen for the private ‘American University of Malta’; its deal with Azerbaijani state-owned company Socar for the provision of gas; and a joint deal between Enemalta and Shanghai Electric to construct a wind farm in Montenegro. 

Muscat cannot therefore claim his government is not ‘hiding’ contracts. On the contrary, it is doing precisely that. To compound matters, most of the hidden contracts concern the energy sector, which has been notoriously exposed to corruption in recent years. The Enemalta oil procurement scandal rocked the Gonzi administration in 2012; and Muscat’s own administration has been mired in the Panama Papers scandal which saw the energy minister involved with hidden financial institutions in a tax haven.

But unlike the Gonzi administration, Muscat had been elected on the promise of transparency, accountability, meritocracy and the environment… and took advantage of his predecessor’s failure to satisfy on those very fronts. Yet once again he has been found wanting.

This indicates just how deeply the Panama Papers dented his credibility. It was not the first scandal to rock the Muscat government, but in other cases – such as the Café Premier and the shooting incident in the Sta Venera tunnel – he somehow eventually succeeded in taking decisive action when this was required.

But he failed to use the same yardstick for Konrad Mizzi as he had earlier used for Michael Falzon and Manuel Mallia. Mizzi was retained in his Cabinet and still presents press conferences on the energy sector: one of the sectors where Muscat has been most reluctant to come clean.

Meanwhile, the lack of accountability leads one to believe that accountability counts for nothing in this government. And this is reflected also in the choice of public appointees, often on a legally questionable ‘person of trust’ basis. Several such appointments were so blatantly political, they give the impression of a government that doesn’t care about meritocracy at all.

On a separate note, it is disappointing that we still talk of ‘accountability’ and ‘meritocracy’ as though they were favours generously bestowed upon us by our political leaders, and which can be withheld at will. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. Accountability, transparency and meritocracy are not optional.

The principle of accountability holds government officials – whether elected or appointed by those who have been elected – responsible to citizens for their decisions and actions. Transparency requires that the decisions and actions of government are open to public scrutiny, and that the public has a right to access such information.

Without these principles in place, democracy itself becomes impossible. Elections, and even the notion of sovereignty, are automatically rendered meaningless. One does not uphold the principle of democracy merely to ensure that only one set of cronies divides the spoils.

A secretive government not only raises suspicions, but – even more worryingly  – is also on the way to becoming a self-serving regime. Muscat would therefore do well to revisit his own electoral manifesto.