2018 should be a year of major reforms

What better occasion than the end of a momentous year (momentous for all the wrong reasons), to ensure that the new one starts on a happier, more productive note?

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

The year that is about to end was not the ‘happiest’ one Malta has ever experienced. The murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia on October 16 still casts a long shadow over any clinical assessment of 2017. There were occasional reasons for jubilation this year, no doubt: but an event of that magnitude can only eclipse most other considerations; even important issues, like a record in economic growth, and the consolidation of a fiscal surplus.

Enough has been written about the crime itself, the subsequent arrests that were made, and the judicial process that is now ongoing. What remains largely unexplored is the long-term fall-out. In response to this murder, 2017 also witnessed the emergence of a grassroots social movement demanding justice and the rule of law. Perhaps more cogently, Malta has been under unprecedented international press scrutiny for the past three months. Much of this media attention has centred on our country’s many systemic, institutional shortcomings.

Already this debate has been sidetracked over questions over the accuracy of portrayals of Malta as a ‘Mafia State’. Much of the international coverage was undeniably exaggerated. It would, however, be facile to argue with the core perception that something is deeply rotten within the mechanisms of the Maltese state. This was evident to us long before last October’s tragedy: we have in fact been discussing Constitutional reform for over a decade now.

Clearly, this is not a discussion that can be postponed any longer. What better occasion than the end of a momentous year (momentous for all the wrong reasons), to ensure that the new one starts on a happier, more productive note?

Without going into too much detail, we are already aware of where some of the most pivotal reforms are needed.  While important steps have been taken to ensure the complete independence of the judiciary (with what long-term success, remains to be seen) there has so far been no corresponding effort to guarantee the autonomy of the police force. There are clear conflicts of interest in the way the office of the Attorney General is apportioned between ‘public prosecutor’ and ‘government legal adviser’. And there seems to be cross-party consensus to address these (and other) issues through the necessary legal amendments.

The question therefore remains why nothing has been done about any of these pending issues, despite the clear electoral promise of a forum for Constitutional change.

In truth, however, these systemic reforms – necessary though they are – represent only the tip of an iceberg. Other equally systemic and endemic problems also exist, and these are not always easy to rectify through acts of Parliament. Another issue that was heavily accented this year concerns an apparent breakdown in the political balance of power.  2017 was also a year in which the Opposition party’s inner conflicts spilled out into the open for all to see. The result of the August leadership election has left the formerly monolithic Nationalist Party teetering on the brink of a possible schism.

This apparent nosedive in electoral fortunes seems to be confirmed by recent surveys, which paint an overwhelmingly bleak outlook for the PN under Adrian Delia. This assumes greater relevance in the light of two important electoral appointments looming in 2018: the European and local council elections, to be held concurrently next June.

Admittedly a lot can happen between now and then. But if all things remain equal, Malta may well find itself in a very different political reality in just a few months’ time.

This creates inevitable problems which may in turn affect our ability to address some of the other, unrelated issues that also need to be rectified. Conversely to the state of the Opposition, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat now presides over an almost unopposed government. Electorally, he remains unassailable (indeed his majority seems to have increased considerably since the election), and – even more significantly, given the nature of the reforms themselves – the Parliamentary Opposition does not, at present, appear to be in a position to place its own stamp on Maltese legislation.

The embarrassing defeat of a PN-tabled amendment to the recent IVF legislation – in which eight opposition MPs abstained - also exposed the fragility of Delia’s grip on his parliamentary group. One must question whether a repeat of this pattern may jeopardise any serious attempt at Constitutional reform, which – in most cases – would require a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Recent history suggests that this was difficult to achieve, even when both parties were at their most unified. When one of those parties is in open revolt, it cannot command the necessary parliamentary clout to guarantee Constitutional change at that level.

Nor is it healthy that the ailing Opposition forces us to rely on the magnanimity of Joseph Muscat to ensure that any systemic changes are for the better. When a government become too strong, there is a tendency to abuse that strength for its own benefit. And the reforms under discussion affect the very foundation blocks of the Maltese state, which can only be tinkered with at great risk.

There is, in brief, much work to be done in the aftermath of 2017. It must begin sooner rather than later.