Grasping the nettles | Martin Scicluna

Martin Scicluna, Today Public Policy Institute director, warns against the dangers of complacency, against a national backdrop of problems traditionally swept under the carpet.

Today Public Policy Institute director, Martin Scicluna
Today Public Policy Institute director, Martin Scicluna

'Manifestos' have a long history of radically shaking up global political establishments and influencing international political models... for better or for worse.

Suffice it to say that some of history's most far-reaching political earthquakes started out as little more than humble manifestos, sometimes composed only by one or two authors... including a rather well-known specimen written by a certain Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the mid 19th century.

Elsewhere, Thomas Jefferson's 'Declaration of Independence' - though not a manifesto in the strictest sense of the word - nonetheless provided the blueprint for a democratic model that is still going strong 200 years later, and has proved to be a major influence on many democratic systems worldwide.

In Malta, however, the word 'manifesto' has traditionally taken on another and decidedly less consequential definition. Manifestos are uniquely associated with individual political parties; and even then, the purpose they serve rarely looks beyond the exigencies of       system, to justice, to local councils, to animal welfare and beyond.

However, reading through the manifesto I cannot help but note that, while it accurately (in my view, at any rate) diagnoses many of the country's more pressing maladies, it does not seem to offer many specific, tangible solutions.

To give an example: TPPI recognises certain intrinsic problems affecting the operations of the law courts. But its proposed solution is to 'set up an independent commission, headed by a retired Chief Justice, to examine in detail every aspect of the administration of justice...' 

All well and good, but how does the TPPI propose that any such commission actually solve these problems? Scicluna acknowledges the lack of detailed proposals in some of the sections; in fact he describes it as a deliberate aspect of his institute's entire approach.

However, he also invites me to consider that some other sections do contain specific proposals... including some rather detailed ones. "Social security is one example, where we had the luxury of a previous, very detailed TPPI report (The Sustainability of Malta's Social Security System, 2009) to fall back on..."

Going on past experience, however, it seems that reception to these proposals was less than enthusiastic. "Despite our best efforts, government has not addressed the endemic problems facing social security since then. We had offered to give a presentation at the time, first to then social policy minister John Dalli, and then to finance minister Tonio Fenech. They simply didn't want to know..."

But it is not just disillusionment with former reaction that has informed the TPPI's present approach. Scicluna also points out that the role of a policy institute/think tank such as the TPPI should not to be confused with that of a civil servant. The former generally limits its contribution to proposing policy direction; but it is up to the latter to assess the feasibility and viability of the individual proposals, and then translate them into practicable strategies.

"What should happen in a serious government structure is that a civil servant would pick up on suggestions, and present them to an incoming government. This is what I personally did for Alfred Sant when he became Prime Minister in 1996, when I was defence advisor to government..."

The mere mention of Alfred Sant (by the complex science of association of idea, etc) calls to mind one of his more memorable catchphrases: the 'power of incumbency', to which the former Labour leader once attributed the extraordinary longevity of successive national governments.

Without going into the specifics of past elections: it remains a fact that - in this country and elsewhere - incumbent governments do enjoy a natural advantage over Opposition parties, in the sense that they can base their policies and plans on actual information that is not always available to the Opposition... and even less so to independent think-tanks.

Was this a limiting factor in drawing up the manifesto? And if I may make the comparison: the Labour Party is also often criticised for failing to produce detailed solutions to all the problems it complains about itself. But how can either Opposition or anyone else - media included - propose solutions to economic problems, without a clear picture of the state of the country's finances?

 "Yes, Opposition is always at a great disadvantage, in the sense that it is not privy to the government's detailed financial information," Scicluna says. "In fact the first thing any opposition should do is undertake a comprehensive spending review - to show what they found, and then see what can be done about it. Government, on the other hand, is aware of where the real skeletons are..."

But this, he continues, only adds to any government's responsibilities to address such problems immediately... instead of leaving them for future generations to discover at their own cost.

And yet, the present government has apparently passed up numerous opportunities to facilitate solutions to such problems. As an example, Scicluna cites the Freedom of Information Act, which was officially passed (with some fanfare) through parliament in 2008... but which still hasn't come into force almost five years later.

"It is disgraceful that such an important piece of legislation has not yet been implemented. It says a lot about the levels of accountability we are dealing with..."

And yet, on paper at least, all the parties concerned appear to have welcomed the input of the TPPI. How does Scicluna himself rate the official reactions to date.. and more to the point, how does he reconcile such reactions with the apparently contradictory failure to actually take up any of the suggestions themselves?

"So far reactions have been extremely positive, yes... though I can't help but note a distinct reluctance to grasp the nettles, especially of part one. "

Part one (as outlined above) contains some of the more economically challenging proposals, and here Scicluna admits to a certain frustration at the fact, while everyone ostensibly agrees with the need to address unpopular issues, we have so far failed to make the transition to direct action.

"When we presented our proposals to both government and opposition, they responded with enthusiasm to some elements... but then again, both sides were very chary of some of the proposals: especially the ones to ensure that we start living within our means."

Tellingly, the most resounding reaction from both government and Opposition was to insist that "stipends would not be touched". Scicluna shrugs with a certain resignation.

"I can understand the desirability of retaining this sort of system in its present form. What we question, however, is the affordability of such systems under the present circumstances..."

There is plenty of room for discussion, he concedes... but to hear a political party - any political party - simply refuse to even discuss an issue is not very encouraging. 

"To pretend that there is no problem is dishonest," Scicluna adds - though he makes it clear he is not referring only to the stipends issue (on which, in any case, there is consensus between the two parties). "If you start from the perspective that politics is really all about winning elections and nothing else, then yes, the approach would on paper make sense. But is that what politics is really all about? And even so... that does not mean you are entitled to be misleading in the proposals you offer the country. Even if the only thing that matters was winning elections, there is still an honest and a dishonest way to go about it..."

Scicluna is nonetheless confident that local politics is beginning to undergo a sea-change, and he attributes this to an ever-more discerning electorate.

"There is a tendency to argue that the electorate will always put its own particular interests first, but this seems to be changing. An electorate that is sufficiently educated will value a more honest approach. And the Maltese electorate is a good deal better educated than the political parties often give it credit for..."

Scicluna attributes this in part to the overwhelming revolution in digital communication technology. "People today are far more attuned to global reality than they have ever been in the past. They are, let's face it, far less likely to be taken for suckers today, than they ever were in the past."

Turning to a number of individual areas addressed in the report itself, Scicluna explains that the point of departure was often rooted in basic observation of problems which are almost self-evident. In several of these areas, he identifies an "innate cultural conservatism" at work in the resistance to change... though he acknowledges that the same conservatism is "both a strength and a weakness of ours".

"Some areas of administration are very efficient," he concedes with satisfaction. "For all its external problems - the bed shortage at Mater Dei, for instance - it is a fact that the national health service is functional to a high degree, despite the strain on the nation's finances. Other areas of public administrations, however, still have a long way to go."

One example that sticks out concerns is the Police Force, which has in recent years proved singularly recalcitrant. Here, the same 'innate conservatism' can be seen to have caused more problems than it solved. Scicluna invites me to consider the resistance, exhibited even by the force's uppermost echelons, to the introduction of basic human rights to persons in custody: rights that have since been upheld by the European courts.

"Compare the Police to the Armed Forces in this respect, and the difference in culture is enormous," he adds. "The AFM is more 'can do' - it is better trained, it responds to situations with alacrity and determination... The police, on the other hand, are slower to react, and more set in their ways... some of which go back 50 years at least..."

Scicluna suggests that there is 'natural inertia' at work, which has traditionally undermined attempts to overcome certain intrinsic problems.

And yet, I put it to him that Malta's conservatism has stood us in good stead - not, admittedly, when applied to the police or law courts; but most would agree that Malta's traditional prudence has helped ward off financial difficulties of the kind currently engulfing Europe.

Martin Scicluna agrees, but also reminds me that the argument can work both ways. Malta, he warns, cannot afford to be complacent in the face of global economic issues. We cannot afford to rely only on an "extraordinary faith in our own resilience".

If we do, the consequences could be catastrophic.

"I would be wary of arguing that Malta has 'survived' the current impasse," he warns. "I think the message conveyed is extremely complacent. If, as seems to be predicted, Europe enters into a real recession in the next 12 to 18 months, there is certainly no reason to believe that Malta would be 'immune' to its effects. And if reality does strike, and Malta is hard-hit... if it starts to lose employment, for instance - we would be forced to revise many of our previous certainties..."

Pointing towards the experience of other eurozone countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy, Scicluna argues that it makes no sense to wait for the tsunami to strike before erecting safety barriers. "All the news from those countries strongly suggest that the worst of the crisis is far from over. If we don't get our act together now, and confront the issues raised in the TPPI report, we will not be able to deal with the impact."

And yet, the rhetoric emanating from government these days seems to suggest the very opposite. Listening to the Prime Minister, one hears talk of how well Malta is weathering the international storm...

Scicluna agrees. "Yes, the Prime Minister does tend to highlight the importance of maintaining high employment figures; and he is right to do so because it is one of his government's strong points. But at the same time he overlooks the fact that unless some of the challenges listed in our manifesto are addressed, that same strength could easily be eroded in future.."

All in all, then: how confident is Scicluna that the TTPi's words of warning will be heeded... and if so, in time to avert future calamities?

"I am confident that the issues themselves will be addressed, for two reasons. One there is simply is no alternative. Doing nothing is not an option when dealing with mounting problems, and this is now becoming apparent to everybody."

The second reason is a direct result of what Scicluna refers to as the 'European compact': "The dynamics of European Union membership will force us to take action; any future government, of any persuasion, is going to have to face up to the challenges. It is the beauty of the EU - there is a big brother after all, and he is watching us..."

What does Today Public Policy Institute expects from a party that has been in opposition for 25 years? The Institute should acknowledge that from the opposition, Labour could do nothing. So it is useless referring to the 'two political' parties.