No excuse not to implement GRECO reforms

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said in Parliament that the criticism levelled by Greco was partially a result of the "irresponsible way" the Opposition has portrayed Malta in international fora

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is mistaken, if he believes that even the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (Greco) report – which found serious systemic shortcomings within Malta’s power-structures – can be attributed to a campaign of misinformation spearheaded by the Opposition party.

In Parliament on Monday, Muscat said that criticism levelled by GRECO was partly a direct result of the “irresponsible way” the Opposition had portrayed Malta in international fora over the past years. He added that much of the report was based on open sources like media reports, which were “rightly or wrongly” taken as facts.

There is, admittedly, some truth in the claim that the Opposition may be presenting an exaggerated portrayal of the rule of law situation. This is especially evident in the PN’s reaction to MEP Sven Giegold’s call for Article 7 to be invoked against Malta.

Muscat has a point when he argued that: “if the arguments being fed to this MEP by certain members of the Opposition were true, then it was obvious that Article 7 action would need to be taken against Malta given the skewed portrayal.”

But this cannot be extended to the GRECO report in its entirety. It cannot be denied that some of the reforms it demands have not been enacted, despite an electoral promise dating back to 2013

The battle-cry that first ushered Labour into power was precisely one of ‘Transparency, Accountability, Meritocracy’. Public scrutiny of appointments, such as regulatory authority chiefs, the judiciary, diplomatic posts, etc, all fall into the same category of concern. And the 2017 manifesto was more explicit still: promising ‘Parliamentary scrutiny’ for all such decisions.

Yet the GRECO report found that “a system of sanctions is also clearly lacking," while the criminal justice system was at risk of paralysis and that a redistribution of responsibilities between the Attorney General’s Office, the Police and the inquiring magistrates was required to avoid this situation. 

To be fair, government has since launched a Commissioner for Standards in Public Life. But there remain other areas – most notably, the Police and the Attorney General’s office – that have proved less than effective in investigating allegations of corruption.

It is welcome that government recognises the need for a gradual implementation of any reforms, with particular focus on the people who are appointed to certain posts. It is also understandable that new magistrates and judges still need to be appointed, even before the reforms are enacted. Malta’s population is growing, and so is the law-courts’ caseload.

But apart from obvious considerations – e.g., anyone appointed to any public office must be a person of integrity – it is imperative that our institutions are seen to be functioning, regardless of the individual who occupies the post.

It's no good having all the best reforms and legislation in the world… if the people appointed do not carry out the duties mandated. We need public officers who will see through any investigation/action as necessary, and not falter at the first challenge.

We have seen examples of investigations by the AG, and institutions such as the FIAU. But has action ever been taken?

To the contrary, we have seen the fine example set by the Customs in recent months and years: where it has taken its mission to heart and we are seeing results regularly.

At a press conference last year, customs director general Joe Chetcuti said that a total of €123 million worth of illicit drugs had been seized at the port in 2018: following the discovery by customs officials of 288kg of cocaine, worth €32.4 million - the second largest cocaine bust ever in Malta – at the Freeport.

There is an irony in the fact that Finance Minister Edward Scicluna and Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi were also at that conference, saying they had come as a show of support from the government for the sterling work being done by customs.

"We are here to show the government's support to the employees and support staff of the Freeport for their success in detecting the drugs," Scicluna said, adding that the success was being noticed by the authorities of both large and small countries.

Echoing Scicluna's statement, Mizzi said that the recent large drug haul was solidifying Malta's reputation as a country which was serious in its battle against the trafficking of drugs.

"We can do such good work if we work as a team - teamwork is the best feature of this country. It enables us to address this big international issue concerning the drug trade, and we are building a reputation that Malta is not to be messed with when it comes to narcotics," he said.

The irony is that, while Malta’s reputation in the fight against narcotics has indeed improved… our reputation in the fight against government impunity has deteriorated.

There is, admittedly, no one simple solution to the issues raised by Greco. Some measures require Constitutional change, so cross-party consensus may be required.

But the government's, and the country's, responsibility should be to introduce adequate checks and balances that satisfy all parties. And there is no excuse for not doing that. It is what Muscat promised to do in 2013.