Government, interrupted - the reforms that got away

Lawrence Gonzi has been prime minister for just under nine years, and the Nationalist Party has been in government for just over 22 years. Yet trailing in the wake of its spontaneous combustion on Monday is a litany of promised reforms that never quite materialised.

In Gonzi’s mass meeting after the 2008 election, he promised to restart discussions on electoral reform.
In Gonzi’s mass meeting after the 2008 election, he promised to restart discussions on electoral reform.

When Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi dissolves parliament on January 7 2013, the Nationalist Party will have spent a total of just over 22 years in power. That is plenty of time to introduce the many, many reforms that the incoming government had promised before the 1987 election. Yet all these years later, many of these proposed reforms remain exactly where they were before 1987: in limbo.

Others were embarked upon but either scuttled altogether, or left woefully unfinished. And paradoxically, the one lasting and far-reaching reform which the PN administration did introduce was divorce: and it did so against its will, after actively campaigning to block the same law. 

But other reforms promised more than two decades ago appear to have simply been forgotten or pushed onto the backburner. Electoral reform, for instance, or a law on party financing. Another example is the proper implementation of legal rights for persons in police custody - after the same rights were practically botched in an earlier, 2004 attempt to introduce only selected parts of the same reform.

Elsewhere, a long overdue reform of the law-courts proved elusive throughout the 22-year reign of the PN... apart from occasional piecemeal attempts such as the setting up of a family court, etc. No attempts were ever made to overhaul the procedure to appoint of judges and magistrates; while legal reforms to offer protection for the whistleblower remain still-born to this day, despite a clear commitment to enact the legislation before the end of the present government's mandate.

And quite apart from the obvious areas where government may have been reluctant to implement changes that would work to its own disadvantage - party financing being the obvious example, but there are others - there were also the projects that simply fell by the wayside.

Party financing

Considering the contribution of Franco Debono to the government's downfall - and considering also that Debono was all along piloting a draft law on party financing - it is significant that the failure of the Nationalist government to introduce this basic piece of legislation would be mirrored in the failure to retain its slender majority for the whole term.

In a nutshell, the issue of party financing has pitted the PN against its own interests... and despite numerous vague commitments over the years, excuses were always found to procrastinate on the issue.

But the controversy itself goes back much further than that.

In 1995, a commission chaired by the late former Central Bank governor Anthony Galdes had proposed that political parties should declare every individual contribution above Lm5,000 (€11,500).

Labour agreed to the proposals but the PN objected, insisting that only donations over Lm20,000 (€46,000) should be declared. Alternattiva Demokratika, in contrast, had proposed that any donation over Lm500 (€1,150) should be declared.

Both AD and the only independent member of the Galdes Commission (Dolores Cristina, before she became an MP) had agreed at the time with the proposed Lm5,000 (€11500) benchmark.

But since no consensus was reached regarding the allowable limit of donations, or on the amounts which should be declared, this spelt an end to discussion on this sensitive topic until 2007.

Matters came to a head shortly before the 2008 election. The catalyst was the fact that PN secretary general Joe Saliba had candidly admitted to being a regular guest on board entrepreneur Nazzarenu Vassallo's yacht... who in turn revealed that he was a regular donor to the Nationalist Party.

In an exercise by this newspaper just over five years ago, numerous other entrepreneurs - including Charles Polidano, Karmenu Pensa and Anglu Xuereb, among others - likewise admitted to making regular undeclared contributions to both sides.

Less than a year later, the Council of Europe's GRECO (Group of States Against Corruption) came out with a recommendation for a law on party financing. Debono himself was entrusted with drafting this law, but he would go on to dissociate himself from a "diluted" version sent to Greco last year... and which was duly criticized for setting an 'unreasonably high' limit of €10,000 for anonymous donations.

In any case, the draft law was among the casualties of the collapse of the present government last Monday. It would appear that the Prime Minister who set such store on "always being on the right side of history" proved simply unable, in the end, to put a stop to what is ultimately a glorified exercise in money-laundering.

Electoral reform

But Gonzi's failure to reform Malta's electoral law is arguably much more incongruous, given that he himself had spearheaded the commission that drew up the proposed new law in the 1990s.

The Gonzi commission had recommended a five per cent threshold of votes on a national basis, as a minimum requirement for parliamentary representation. The same reform would have replaced the existing Constitutional mechanism which simply dishes extra seats to ascertain proportionality between votes and parliamentary representation.

But despite enjoying widespread support, the law would go down as yet another unimplemented pipe dream... even though its implementation was one of his first commitments as newly reconfirmed Prime Minister in 2008.

At a mass meeting on the Granaries just days after being sworn in, Gonzi hinted that his government would reopen discussions on electoral reform "in the coming months".

"We need to learn the lesson from the present electoral system, because we could have ended again that the party with the largest amount of votes could still not get enough seats to govern," Gonzi said in a clear reference to the clear possibility of his party failing to get the majority of seats if the third party was elected to Parliament.

"It is clear that we need to discuss more so that we strengthen the electoral system," he said almost exactly five years ago.

Yet the issue slipped quickly from his government's agenda, when it became clear that the PN would not necessarily be the net beneficiary of any such reform. As a result, Malta remains the only country in Europe - including such micro-states as Andorra and San Marino - in which only two parties enjoy parliamentary representation.

And just to illustrate the anomaly, in the last election Alternattiva Demokratika received almost 4,000 votes... which translated into zero seats in parliament. The difference between the PN and Labour's tally, on the other hand, amounted to around 1,000 votes: and these translated into four seats for the PN.

Small wonder, then, that the party to have benefited the most from Malta's flawed and democratically deficient electoral system, would be the least keen on changing the status quo.

Dr Lawrence Gonzi spent over 4,000,000 Million euros on a wasteful referendum on divorce which he lost anyway. In his nine year reign he also saw the demise and almost the bankruptcy of our National Airline (AIR MALTA)and the only thing that is keeping it afloat at the moment is an almost 200.000.000 Million euros in bail out money at the expense of the Maltese TAX PAYER. He also squandered millions of euros on a venture called Arriva which up to this day we have to see some good results. This project was so bad that he had to take over for his Infrastructure Minister because he couldn't handle the job. In the meantime He also managed to lose a Minister in in the process (CMB, not to mention the collapse of the GonziPN Government. Now here come the Judges and Magistrates in question? By the way to his credit Dr Gonzi did come up with the unwanted City Gate and the Topless Opera House and of course the Lift which is good. Thank you Franco Debono for waking up the Sleeping Lion.