Never too late for transparency and accountability

As with the accountability displayed by Justyne Caruana’s resignation, it is a case of better late than never

The resignation of Gozo minister Justyne Caruana appears to conform to a pattern that Robert Abela had already put into place with his previous choices of public appointments.

Caruana submitted her resignation following news that her husband Silvio Valletta - a former deputy police commissioner, who at one point oversaw the Daphne Caruana Galizia murder investigation – had an intimate degree of friendship with the alleged mastermind of that crime, Yorgen Fenech.

This was not the first time calls were made for Valletta’s removal from the investigation, but the weight of new evidence made the situation untenable for the newly appointed minister.

As with other Abela decisions, his acceptance of Caruana’s resignation signals a different direction from the preceding administration: suggesting that Abela is conscious of the need to deliver change, despite having promised continuity.

Though regrettable from the angle of losing one of only three women in senior Cabinet positions, Caruana’s sacrifice is nonetheless welcome as a sign that standards of good governance must be upheld at all costs.

If Robert Abela intends making this a mark of his administration, he can expect to find cooperation from social partners and stakeholders that goes beyond his immediate Labour electorate.

However, the reasons for Caruana’s resignation are not mitigated by her departure alone. The revelations surrounding Silvio Valetta also serve as a reminder of the urgent need for reforms in governance and the rule of law.

Once again we witness the unfortunate lack of awareness among members of the police corps (and likewise other public functionaries) that their roles in public life necessitate a certain distance from people whose powerful interests - while not evidently at loggerheads with the law - often also imply a certain contempt for rules that curtail their power and influence.

On his part, Valletta insists he was not aware that Yorgen Fenech was a suspect at the time. But we know for certain now that Fenech was not unknown to Muscat’s inner circle, and that it is arguable that Labour’s inner circle was also keen to foster an understanding with top brass so as to minimise the impact of a fully-blown investigation into the Panama Papers: and, following from that, the 17 Black revelations which point towards Yorgen Fenech.

Now that a police investigation has been launched into Valletta’s apparent friendship with Fenech, this is the time for the new Labour leadership to understand whether police investigators were instructed and dissuaded from investigating the Panama Papers on orders of the past Labour administration.

If that is indeed the case, it will take more than the resignation of a single minister to rectify the situation.

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On a separate note, Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia is to commended for considering the introduction of a lobbying register, which would create a record of all meetings held between the ministry and special interest groups: including, but not limited to, powerful business lobbies.

The importance of this initiative cannot be overstated, in a country where environmental concerns are constantly exacerbated by industries such as construction, hunting, aquaculture and many more.

From this perspective alone, it is interesting that Farrugia’s initiative has garnered the support of the tuna ranching lobby this week.

But with mounting perception that certain decisions – among others, by the Planning Authority – seem to favour certain lobby-groups at the expense of the environment, it is indeed surprising that to date, no effort has ever been made to monitor the influence of lobbyists on the decision-making process.

It is for this reason that lobbying registers are standards in European parliaments as well as the EU’s parliament, especially in matters of health, environment and consumer policy.

The proposal also has the support of the Chamber of Commerce, which wants a Register of Lobbyists – as well as a meeting log between politicians/senior officials and businessmen made available to the public: whereby government ministers should only meet interest representatives who have signed up to this register.

All in all, it is reassuring that ‘transparency’ – a promise originally made in 2013 – is finally making an appearance in aspects of the government’s environmental policy.

As with the accountability displayed by Justyne Caruana’s resignation, it is a case of better late than never.