Let’s look beyond ‘Blue’ and ‘Red’ | Darren Carabott

At 19, DARREN CARABOTT became Malta’s youngest local councillor. At 29, he was elected to Parliament, and replaced PN stalwarts as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. Today, he argues that Malta needs to evolve beyond partisan politics, to move forward

Nationalist MP Darren Carabott
Nationalist MP Darren Carabott

Last March you were appointed as chair of the Public Accounts Committee: in a reshuffle that saw all three (veteran) Opposition members being replaced. This followed a series of sessions over the Electrogas issue, which had descended into partisan bickering. Do you feel that your own appointment - as one of the PN’s younger, and more ‘moderate’ voices – signals a change in the Opposition’s approach to this committee?

First of all, it is important to stress that the appointment of the PAC chairperson is the sole prerogative of the Opposition leader. He alone can take the decision; and this is very clearly explained, in the law.

At the same time: although the three former members – Karol [Aquilina], Beppe [Fenech Adami] and Ryan [Callus] – certainly don’t need me, or anyone else, to defend them: all three of them got re-elected, in the last election. So I don’t think there was any question of ‘trust’, concerning any of them…

Nonetheless, all three were replaced, halfway through an ongoing debate…

Not exactly: bear in mind that, when the PAC’s term of office has expired, the subject of discussion ends with it. It was, in fact, our decision to continue the Electrogas discussion. At the time, many local media were even asking us: ‘what are you going to do?’ Are you going to continue? Are you going to start afresh?’

And I made it a prerogative, within the committee, that: although we are going to continue that discussion, from where it left off - and we will be referring to past testimony, just so as not to repeat everything from scratch - this is still a new [committee] legislature.  Having said that, I still felt the need to resummon several witnesses – including Konrad Mizzi, next Tuesday – because it’s not a ‘clowsed chapter’; and also because he is no longer a member of Parliament (which makes a certain legal difference, even with regard to way he can answer questions).

But to go back to your original question: I can only speak for myself. Just to put you into context: I was also elected as a member of the Commonwealth Association for PACs. As such, I have had opportunity to observe how similar committees – not to mention Parliamentary systems – function in other countries.

One PAC I particularly like to follow, is that of the UK. And I think that, if we were to adopt the same structures, and modus operandi – where it’s not just a question of ‘scoring political points’ - Malta’s Parliament could be so much more effective.

So yes: one of my main aspirations is to change the overall approach. But not just of the PAC; and not just compared with the previous legislature, either. What is needed is a holistic change, to the way Parliament operates as a whole. Why, for instance, do we have this divide between ‘Blue’ and ‘Red’? Isn’t it time to move forward?

You mentioned the British Parliamentary system, as an example to follow. But debates in the House of Commons can be just as ‘divisive’, and ‘partisan’, as what happens here. What is it about this model, exactly, that we should emulate?

Well, the biggest difference is that – within the UK’s PAC – none of the committee members, are also members of the executive. It’s in fact a rule of the House: PAC members have to be backbenchers, without any executive role. Why? Because how can it make sense, for a cabinet minister to be investigated by another cabinet minister? Or by a parliamentary secretary, within a cabinet ministry?

I see your point, but wouldn’t it also be true if all PAC members were backbenchers? Would it make any difference to how they act on the PAC? You said it yourself: we have a ‘Blue/Red’ divide. Even backbenchers are expected to show unswerving loyalty, to their party…

Let me put it this way: it’s good to be idealistic. Ultimately, the goal should always to be as ‘ideal’ as possible; but you also have to keep your feet on the ground. And the system is, unfortunately, ‘what it is’.

But when you have a situation where the Government’s Parliamentary whip – who will DEFINITELY not divert from the direction chosen by the Government Executive – continually raises issues, together with all the other government members, like ‘their government’s majority’... arguing that, because the Opposition is in the minority, we should not be ‘dictating things’… sorry, but what is any of this contributing to the discussion?

If there is something I would really like to achieve, over the coming five years: it is precisely to move away from this ‘political point-scoring’ mentality. Now, don’t get me wrong: everybody, ultimately, wants to ‘have his day in court’. It’s not just Labour politicians, but also Nationalists who want to score political points.

But there is another dimension to this. Here, perhaps, I am speaking also as a member of a younger generation, which sees things slightly differently; but a lot of people out there, are detaching themselves from the old idea that – just because they come from a ‘blue’ or ‘red’ family – they have to be ‘blue’ or ‘red’ themselves.

And to widen the discussion slightly: I see this also as a mission, for the Nationalist Party as a whole. It’s not just that we need, as a party, to solidify the grassroots support-base – the traditional core of ‘staunch Nationalists’. Now, we also need to look at those 80,000 who didn’t vote in the last election.

What do those people want? Do want to see a committee like the PAC, tearing each other to pieces like cats and dogs? Do they want to hear – instead of pertinent questions, about how their own tax money is actually being spent – pointless, time-wasting questions, which are based only on an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality?

Now: I firmly believe that this mentality is changing, on both sides of the divide. And I also believe that, whichever of the two major parties proves capable of winning over that faction of people, who argue: ‘Let’s do things differently; let’s look beyond partisan politics’ … that, I think, is the way forward.

As for which party actually succeeds: I am doing my utmost, together with my colleagues, to make sure that it will be the Nationalist Party.

Let’s turn to the Electrogas discussion itself. Last May, you said that: ‘Once there is an open chapter, it is the opposition's job to see it closed’. First of all: what do you understand by ‘closure’, in this context? And given that PAC has been discussing this issue for so long – and we seem to be nowhere near ‘endgame’ – when do you envisage that to happen?

I disagree that we are ‘nowhere near endgame’.  At the end of the day, there are still some witnesses that I, and my colleagues, believe should still testify: but now, we are certainly approaching the final stages.

One question that remains, however, is about the system itself. Our system tells us how the PAC is expected to function; but it doesn’t tell us ‘how to close the chapter’…

That’s precisely what I just asked, though. What practical effect would a final PAC resolution even have, anyway? Are there repercussions? Consequences? 

If, by ‘consequences’, you mean punitive measures… then no. We are a Parliamentary committee, not a court of law. But there ARE consequences, nonetheless. One, it is in the public interest to have a forum where people who have responsibilities towards the public – holders of public office – are made to give a public account of their actions. I’m not just talking about Electrogas, here. I’m talking about the principle that ‘Justice must not be SEEN to be done.’

And besides: there have already been consequences. The fact that Konrad Mizzi was compelled to answer questions before the PAC, for instance… don’t you think it had consequences?

That depends. Nothing much really came out of Konrad Mizzi’s answers, did it?

What about the fact that he ended up resigning from politics, altogether?

But that cannot be put down to anything that specifically came out from PAC sessions. Konrad Mizzi’s resignation was forced upon him by the party, after the NAO report…

Obviously, without a doubt, a large part of the work is carried out by the NAO. But the fact that someone has to go before the PAC, and give an account of their actions, and explain themselves in public… I think that has a certain weight, as well.

But it also depends on what action is taken afterwards. This is another area where we would benefit from looking at how things function in other countries. What usually happens, elsewhere, is that once the PAC concludes its inquiries, it will issue a number of recommendations. These are then tabled in the Parliament’s plenary; and the relevant ministers, or officials, are given a period within which to come back to Parliament, and answer those recommendations.

In other words, there is a follow-up. In Malta, this doesn’t happen.

Not to persist with the same question, but: doesn’t that leave us where we were before? With lots of ‘reports’ and ‘recommendations’, but no ‘follow-up action’?

Look: the question you’re asking is something I hear out there on the street, a lot. People keep telling me, ‘isn’t it all for nothing?’

There you go…

… but it doesn’t mean that we should all just give up, and do nothing. What I said about ‘idealism’ still counts; you still have to at least try to ‘close the chapter’; and to close it well. And an issue remains ‘relevant’, only for as long as you keep it under the spotlight.

Besides: it doesn’t change the fact that the PAC hasachieved results [in the Electrogas case]. For instance: before the Auditor General’s report, did anybody know how the meetings of the [Electrogas] Board of Directors actually unfolded? No: but when the PAC summoned those directors, individually, to testify… all of them confirmed, separately, that they had a two-hour meeting in which the chairman showed them a presentation; and they all, without exception, accepted that presentation unquestioningly.

Now: the Chairman testified that he had received that presentation from someone else – David Galea – which makes it: ‘detto, del detto, del detto’.  And yet, that is how the decision on Electrogas – one of the biggest contracts this country has ever seen; on which our entire national power-supply depends; and about which there were serious allegations of corruption - was actually taken. And it’s exactly what you would expect, from people who are appointed to simply ‘rubber-stamp’ the government’s decisions…

The latest twist is that the Opposition members are insisting that Police Commissioner Angelo Gafa has to testify (or, alternatively, answer questions in writing); with government members arguing that this would ‘prejudice the ongoing investigation’. Can you explain precisely why it is so important, in your view, that Gafa testifies at this stage? 

First of all, it’s important to clarify the respective institutional roles of the police, and PAC. The Police are empowered – actually, they are obliged – to initiate criminal proceedings, wherever there is enough evidence of a crime having been committed.

The PAC, on the other hand, has no remit to enter into questions of criminal culpability.  But its job is to investigate maladministration in government spending [‘infieq hazin’]: and one doesn’t exclude the other.  So part of our job is also to examine whether Malta’s national institutions are functioning well, or not, when it comes to possible financial crime in government spending.

And this is why I feel that it is important for the Police Commissioner to answer our questions. Whenever the National Auditor publishes a report, that report is automatically sent out to a number of institutions: among them, the Police.

So if there were so many allegations of corruption, dangling around this contract – and when the Electrogas case itself is also embroiled in the murder of a journalist: because Daphne Caruana Galizia wrote about Electrogas, ultimately – isn’t in the interest of the Maltese public, for the Police Commissioner to give a public account of his actions – or inaction – to date?

What about the allegation of ‘interference in the ongoing investigation’, though? Couldn’t there be valid reasons, for a Police Commissioner to want to ‘keep his cards to his chest’, with regard to an ongoing investigation?

If that’s the case, then Gafa should also explain why he had no objection to testifying before the PAC – when still an inspector - in the [Enemalta] oil scandal; but decides not to, in this case. But there’s no need for any PAC hearing to ‘interfere in the investigation’ – which incidentally is a crime; and as such, it is something I have no intention of doing. I will certainly not be asking Gafa any questions that may hinder the investigations…

One of the questions I will ask him, if he shows up – it’s among the three we’ve already sent in writing - is: ‘Has there ever been an instance, in general, when you found yourself asking questions [about Electrogas] to a politician – or a ‘person of trust’, or someone otherwise connected to government – but they refused to answer, for fear of ‘incriminating themselves’?

Legally speaking, however: that cannot be considered an ‘admission of guilt’…

In court, no. But in an investigation into whether government’s use of taxpayer’s money – in this particular case – was judicious, or not; it should certainly be enough to set off alarm bells, within the Police Force; and to initiate a serious investigation, into the Electrogas scandal.

Ultimately, however: my goal – not just as PAC chairman, but as a Maltese citizen – is to see to it that we have a functional system of ‘checks and balances’ between the institutions. And to ensure that what needs to come out - in this case, and others – DOES actually come out, in the end.