An indictment of our political culture

It should not really surprise us that the unwholesome situation mapped out in the GRECO report – which we have all tacitly accepted – would appear shocking and unacceptable when viewed by ‘outsiders’ to the local political scene

At a glance, the results of The Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO’s country report) on Malta read much like a medical diagnosis of a patient with a life-threatening condition.

Although the report is admittedly focused mostly on ‘perceptions’ of corruption, there is nonetheless enough documentary, case-based evidence to confirm that Malta still lags far behind when it comes to transparency, accountability, meritocracy and good governance.

GRECO judged that Malta “clearly lacks an overall strategy and coherent risk-based approach when it comes to integrity standards for government officials.” The criminal justice system was ‘at risk of paralysis’, and a redistribution of responsibilities between the Attorney General’s Office, the Police and the inquiring magistrates was required to avoid this situation. 

“Certain institutions have also turned out to have no real added value after 30 years of existence, such as the Permanent Commission against Corruption: it has handled over 400 cases and the limited data available suggests that it has not achieved concrete results to date.”

The newly established Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, GRECO added, “certainly deserves a better fate.”

In a sense, none of this can really be regarded as a surprise. Even the reference to the Permanent Commission against Corruption suggests that we are talking about intrinsic shortcomings that have been in place for literally decades.

Indeed, the GRECO report tells us more about our national reluctance to ever confront these issues, than about the issues themselves.

Perhaps the most striking example concerns the powers of the Prime Minister. “It is clear,” the report reads, “that the Prime Minister [has] significant powers over the Maltese State apparatus.”

It notes the ceremonial role of the President, whose powers listed in the Constitution are exercised vicariously through the supremely more potent role of Prime Minister, including the dissolution of the House of Representatives on the basis of the advice of the Prime Minister. Most members of constitutional bodies are likewise appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister: including the Attorney General, judges and magistrates, members of the Public Service Commission, the Broadcasting Authority, and the Employment Commission.

The power to make appointments to public offices, and to remove and to exercise disciplinary control over such persons, also rests with the Prime Minister.

It is immediately noticeable that this coincides with a political culture of ‘leader-worship’ in Malta. If Maltese prime ministers enjoy the plenipotentiary status of the kings and emperors of old… it is in part because we, as a people, have always lionised (and demonised) our Prime Ministers along similar lines.

Even if the aura of raw power exuded by Dom Mintoff, and later Eddie Fenech Adami, has been somewhat diluted in recent years, there can be no doubt that the leadership cult still dominates Maltese politics today. Consider, for instance, the speculation surrounding Joseph Muscat’s possible replacement when (or if) he steps down by 2020, as indicated.

It would not be an exaggeration to state that many (if not all) of the report’s other conclusions are symptoms of the same cause. For instance, the document highlights the ineffectual conduct of supervisory bodies which are “of little use” since these themselves are “unaccountable and/or ineffective” given that they depend heavily on the government’s authority.

“State institutions and the public administration must work in an impartial manner in the furtherance of the common good, and not be a tool at the service of the ruling majority of the moment.”

The reality, as indicated in this report, is that the balance of power was all along designed to ensure that the Prime Minister of the day retains the final say on any legislative decision.

Nowhere is this situation better evidenced than in the degradation of the natural environment. Despite the existence of numerous State regulators to safeguard the landscape, it is ultimately government’s agenda of ‘economic growth at all costs’ that calls all the shots: with authorities like the PA and ERA merely rubber-stamping the decisions.

It should not really surprise us that this unwholesome situation – which we have all tacitly accepted, and sometimes encouraged through our unconditional support (if not downright adulation) of our political leaders – would appear shocking and unacceptable when viewed by ‘outsiders’ to the local political scene.

What should perhaps shock us more, however, is our own acquiescence to this state of affairs over the past years and decades. Labour sympathisers have a habit of asking their detractors, ‘Where were you?’ when similar things happened under Nationalist administrations; and the sentiment may even be understandable, given that so much criticism is directed at Labour, when in reality both parties are equally responsible.

But it doesn’t lessen the present government’s responsibility to make good for the inaction of the past.

It is, however, encouraging to note that some of the shortcomings – such as the role of the AG – are finally in the process of being addressed. But unless the reforms have the effect of radically downsizing the Prime Minister’s executive powers, any changes risk sharing the same fate as the Permanent Commission for Corruption.

We will be left with just another ‘tool at the service of the ruling majority of the moment’.