Public officials must be open to public scrutiny

Not only has there been no attempt to make the declaration exercise more transparent, as the exigencies of a modern democracy demand… but the present government has in some ways done the opposite

Though claims that government had increased MPs’ salaries ‘by stealth’ have proven unfounded, the controversy itself may have inadvertently placed its finger on a much deeper underlying malaise.

Among other indicators, Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi pointed towards a discrepancy between certain MPs’ declarations of assets, and the amount they were supposed to be earning. 

Azzopardi noted that some parliamentary secretaries declared an annual income of €60,000… when the official 2013 salary (which is not supposed to have increased since then) stood at €42,000 pa. The discrepancy works out at around €18,000.

In the end, Principle Permanent Secretary Mario Cutajar categorically denied that members of Cabinet had been given a pay rise. 

It emerged that, in many cases, the discrepancy could be accounted for by the inclusion of a €7,000 refund, in the event that the MP declined the use of a ‘second car’ provided by the State. Similarly, other allowances and perks also served to artificially inflate the assets declarations.   

Significantly, however, Cutajar added that “the declaration of assets by the members of Cabinet left much to be desired, as it lacked a detailed revenue breakdown.”

Much of this controversy could, in fact, have been avoided from the outset, had the procedural rules surrounding Parliamentarians’ declarations of assets demanded such a detailed breakdown of income in the first place… instead of simply allowing MPs to declare a lump annual sum, as is still the case today.

Yet not only has there been no attempt to make the declaration exercise more transparent, as the exigencies of a modern democracy demand… but the present government has in some ways done the opposite.

In 2015, the ministerial code of ethics was amended in a way which substantially watered down the requirements involved in MPs’ assets declarations. This newspaper had pointed out, at the time, that “the direction currently being taken is one that will further weaken a crucial democratic exercise that is already widely regarded with casual nonchalance by most government ministers here.”

All too often in the past, there was a tendency to treat this exercise as a perfunctory but ultimately meaningless token gesture to satisfy the democratic criteria of openness and transparency. Individual ministers often failed to submit their declarations altogether, or were afterwards discovered to have made significant omissions.

Some even openly ridiculed the exercise, by also declaring their household pets (a tortoise, in one particular case), and other such trivial nonsense. Apart from being unbecoming of an MP, such behaviour denotes the lack of seriousness traditionally accorded to this important democratic tool.  

More worryingly, there is evidence that the annual declaration of assets is not taken seriously by the public at large, either… with ominous implications for the state of Malta’s democratic health.

A survey conducted in this newspaper in 2013 revealed that a staggering 64% do not believe the declarations of assets submitted by Cabinet members. A total of 3,616 respondents took part in the poll, which saw 2,313 respondents voting they did not believe the declarations. According to these readers, there was no way of knowing whether some declarations were an accurate reflection of the actual assets held.

From this perspective, one thing that the Azzopardi allegations confirm is that – to date – there is still no mechanism in place to verify such declarations, as Cutajar himself admitted. 

The only existing mechanism is retroactive and punitive: false declarations are subject to the same criminal provisos applicable to perjury, including (in theory) prison sentences. But this cannot be described as a system of checks and balances to stifle possible abuse at source.

Given that our lack of checks and balances has invited such scathing criticism of Malta’s rule of law situation – especially in the last two years – it is unconscionable that the general public still has no means of ascertaining the precise income of public officials.

This represents a major stumbling block in the fight against corruption. If, in practice, it proves impossible to quantify a minister’s assets, it will prove equally impossible to determine whether that same minister is in receipt of illicit, undeclared income.

This is why failure to declare a healthy foreign bank account, or to misrepresent an entire portfolio of properties, is automatically suspect in all counties which take corruption seriously. And there is good reason for the public to be suspicious: recent history shows that corruption has been a major problem undermining all past administrations of government... as well as independent polls confirming that the perception of corruption – founded or unfounded – is higher in Malta than in any other EU state.

There are other considerations, too. Alongside annual income, public officials are expected to also list the value of any properties they own. In practice, however, they are free to supply their own valuation of such properties… which are not separately confirmed by an independent authority, as they would be for tax purposes.

As such, the public is left with no other option but to simply take the public official’s word on trust. Clearly, this is not a satisfactory way to reassure the public that the country is being administered in an open, transparent, and above all, clean manner.