A perversion of the democratic principle

Paying the private sector for consultancy is tantamount to paying a lobbyist to influence decision-making, in a way that is obviously going to be beneficial to his own lobby-group

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

When, in 2015, construction developer and lobbyist Sandro Chetcuti famously said: “For businessmen, the parties are like two big shops”, the quote was met with much satire and public derision. There is, however, a stark truth to that claim that has unfortunately become too serious to be treated lightly.

It now transpires that the Maltese Government is paying Chetcuti €19,000 p.a. to act as “consultant” to a minister. Chetcuti is chairman of the Malta Developers Association: one of the island’s most powerful lobbies, grouping together both construction giants and real estate companies.

There is nothing wrong with that position in itself: lobbyists are entitled to lobby for whatever they deem fit. The issue concerns his role as a publicly-paid government consultant. It is ludicrous to argue that “no conflict of interest exists”, because (in Chetcuti’s words) “I only give advice on what I think is best for the country. Then it is up to the decision-maker to decide and implement decisions after taking note of all advice that is given, including, but not only, mine.”

What Chetcuti thinks is ‘best for the country’ is his own business: and in any case, is worth no more than anyone else’s opinion. We are all free to have such opinions; but we are not all paid to impart our views to Government. Chetcuti’s consultancy also takes place in a context where one opinion – that in favour of easing planning laws, to facilitate as much construction as possible – has so far prevailed over all other considerations, to the enormous detriment of the natural environment.

It is bad enough that successive governments have always been amenable to lobbyists calling for more construction – Chetcuti is hardly the first, and this issue is not just about his own consultancy – but that the lobbyists should be paid from public money, to offer advice which they would have given for free anyway... and which, in any case, government will follow regardless, as it has always followed the construction lobby’s lead... that is intolerable.

As for the point that other opinions are also offered to the decision-maker: one must question whether these come from concerned NGOs, or from paid government consultants. It is one thing to hold public consultation exercises, or a consultative committee where various stakeholders can have the guarantee of putting in an equal input of influence, and where debate and reason can at least be the driving force of legislation.

But paying the private sector for consultancy is tantamount to paying a lobbyist to influence decision-making, in a way that is obviously going to be beneficial to his own lobby-group. From a policy point of view, it makes no sense whatsoever.

Much worse than that, it also perverts the natural course of democracy (which was never perfect to begin with). It is true that a single decision-maker – government – takes decisions after consulting with the major stakeholders. But it is equally true that, in the interest of fairness and social justice, no one lobby-group should be privy to greater access to or influence over the decision-maker. This is why such legislation as ‘Revolving Door policies’ exist in other countries... to ensure that the decision-makers do not allow their roles to be usurped by private interest groups.

These vital checks and balances simply do not exist – or are woefully inadequate – in Malta. When the late Dom Mintoff co-opted the GWU’s secretary-general to the Cabinet in the 1970s, it was considered a perversion of the Constitutional powers he was endowed with. Today we have similar a perversion of the political process, where the private sector – not consumers or citizens – is given a hot seat next to the minister to ‘advise’ him and her on how to make laws for the rest of the country.

As with the Mintoff example, the issue is not that it is ’illegal’: it is that it should be illegal, but isn’t. With regard to this particular example, there are other, more immediate reasons why the practice should be stopped forthwith. Despite the introduction of a party-financing law (which stopped conspicuously short of outlawing certain private funding to political parties), it remains a fact that both parties are deeply dependent on financial contributions from the construction lobby. The rapport is already too close for comfort: this ‘consultancy’ seems to cement that rapport into a de facto ‘unholy union’.

And yet, news of this consultancy appears to have been accepted without too many eyebrows raised. The European Union, by way of contrast, is currently faced with a lobbyist scandal, after former EC president José Barroso approached members of the Commission to lobby on behalf of Goldman Sachs (even his ‘revolving door’ appointment there had raised questions internationally).  

How is it that in Malta, a minister is revealed to be actually paying the chairman of an employers’ group to lobby his own government... and this generates no form of outrage? Unfortunately, this can only lend weight to views that Malta is indeed lax when it comes to governance issues. It is not just the lobbyists who evidently view the two parties as little more than ‘supermarkets’, but the country as a whole.