The State has been weakened, drastically | George Vital Zammit

Public Policy lecturer GEORGE VITAL ZAMMIT sounds an ominous warning about the lack of good governance in Malta. Apart from inviting international opprobrium, the situation also gives rise to practices that will be very difficult to eradicate in future

Economist and lecturer George Vital Zammit
Economist and lecturer George Vital Zammit

In an article last year, you argued that ‘by retaining his two right-hand men’ [Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri], Joseph Muscat ‘cast a shadow over his tenure, one he could have avoided, sparing the country from unnecessary embarrassment and humiliation’. And yet, Muscat also increased his own (and his party’s), popularity, as evidenced by the 2017 election result. How do you account for this paradox, whereby the same Joseph Muscat is judged completely differently by local and foreign observers?

It is a paradox, certainly; and it is something I still fail to properly understand. There is a huge discrepancy between the rhetoric used by Joseph Muscat before becoming prime minister in 2013, and afterwards. In my opinion, Muscat [as Opposition leader] came out with some of the most amazing rhetoric, and eloquent positions, we have ever had in Maltese politics.

So I was not entirely surprised that, by 2013, the tide had turned towards the Labour Party by such a wide margin. The margin, perhaps, was a bit surprising; but there was a need for change: after all, the Nationalists had been in power almost uninterruptedly for more than two decades.

But if you look at what was promised before that election, and what we are seeing now: there is a huge gap. In terms of economic goals, the country has become more prosperous. That can’t be denied or debated. There are, of course, nuances to that… because economic prosperity also brings with it notions of discontent. Some people invariably become more prosperous than others, leading others to complain, and so on.

All the same, however, there can be no doubt that Muscat has definitely achieved economic results: on top of a string of electoral victories, of the kind that had never been achieved before. But that, in my opinion, doesn’t make the shortcomings right. It doesn’t ‘right the wrongs’, so to speak.

We have had, to this day, a series of incidents where elements and principles of good governance have been breached. The question here is: how do we react to that? Have we become numb towards such developments? Do they not concern us anymore? I’m not saying many people are not concerned; they are. But they do not constitute a majority. So this, perhaps, poses a few questions about what Maltese society has become.

Have we become increasingly materialistic? In years after World War Two, for instance, sociologists started talking about ‘post-materialism’. Having a house, a job, your daily bread and butter… all that was important. But with peace, those considerations became secondary. What became important, with post-materialism, were people’s aspirations; the environment; quality of life, etc. Because if the basic needs are satisfied, you will start looking at other things.

Where does Malta fit into that? We are aware, for instance, that we have a finite piece of land… and yet, even though some people are quite disappointed by the way we are treating this land of ours, there seems to be a drive, among all us Maltese, to ’make a buck’. That seems to be the most important thing on the agenda: irrespective of all the breaches of good governance. Of which there have been quite a lot, too.

In my opinion, history might judge the current administration differently. Yes, we have created unprecedented wealth, and unprecedented prosperity… but quite a few things are being neglected, and they will definitely come back to haunt us.

At the same time, however, most of these breaches consist of things we always used to accept in the past. In the 1990s, for instance, we had a Chief Justice who was appointed by his own brother… and no one batted an eyelid. Now, there are court challenges to block individual judicial appointments; even if all Malta’s judges and magistrates have always been political appointees. Doesn’t this feed into the perception that breaches are only to be condemned when they come from one political party, and not the other?

I think it is perilous to look at it that way. I agree that history repeats itself; and there is always a precedent. But if you run on a political platform to change things – if you promise that things would be done differently, and raise expectations of a fairer system – but then, not only do you do the same as your predecessors, but actually regress, and make things worse… to the extent that 80% of judicial appointments are now political… that’s a very, very high percentage…

It has always been 100%, though. There is not a single judge or magistrate, appointed before 2016, who was not chosen directly by the government of the day. Why is it only an issue now?

First of all, I think we need to qualify this: I think most people are professional, and can wear two hats. When you have a deputy Speaker presiding over the House of Parliament, it will always be someone from one side or the other. But once in that role, you are expected to take off your hat as an MP of your party, and put on the hat of Speaker of the House. People can make that distinction.

I fully believe that most people appointed to the [judicial] bench are perfectly capable of taking off the hat they used to wear, and become impartial magistrates or judges. I am sure of that. But because justice is not only expected to be done, but seen to be done… you will always have a perception issue.

I’m not saying that people who have had political positions in the past should be disqualified from the role… because that would lead to a situation where people feel they are ‘condemning themselves to eternal damnation’ by participating in public life. That should not be the case. I still think that politics is a service.

But just as they should not be disqualified… they should not make up three-fourths of the appointments, either: which is now the case.

The issue is not limited to just judicial appointments. There are also expectations of public decency which need to be met. It is never, in my opinion, acceptable that a minister grants an assignment to his wife, on the public payroll – I’m referring to Mrs Sai Mizzi – even if she is probably the best qualified person for the job. I just don’t think that should be done.

I think it should naturally occur to you that, because there is a family connection, you need to be more prudent. But the opposite is happening: all sense of prudence, of propriety, has been thrown out of the window.

Meanwhile, the National Audit Office, the Ombudsman, and more recently the Commissioner For Standards in Public Life, are all constantly, constantly flagging governance issues… come on. Something is clearly wrong.

For what it’s worth, my own understanding of the situation is that, because government has a comfortable majority in Parliament, and because the electorate has given it a clear mandate… government feels omnipotent. And that has its dangers.

To me, this is a complete misunderstanding of the rule of law: the idea that, because you have an overwhelming majority sanctioning your mandate… then that makes everything alright. Sorry, but no, it doesn’t…

There are, however, reasons for the present government’s unassailability. You mentioned one yourself: people wanted a change after two decades of Nationalist administrations. Could it be, then, that an overwhelming majority reconfirmed Muscat’s mandate, simply because there isn’t any real Opposition offering a truly different way of doing things? That – even if disillusioned – people still prefer to be badly governed by Labour, than governed equally badly by the Nationalist Party instead?

Perhaps; but if you don’t try to change things when you have such a strong mandate; when your nine-seat majority in Parliament is in no way imperilled… if you don’t try and change things, even with such a wide margin of comfort… then things will never change at all.

My concern is precisely this: Muscat has strengthened the Labour Party; he has strengthened his own persona, in his role as prime minister; but he has weakened the State. Drastically. The issue of public appointments is, in fact, a prime symptom of this: when precedence is given to loyalty, more than competence… that is what you get. A drastically weakened State…

That certainly seems to be the conclusion of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which has issued recommendations on how the Maltese State can be strengthened. One recommendation is to give more executive powers to the Presidency, which would effectively alter the country’s entire Constitutional set-up. Isn’t there a danger that, in order to address governance issues that we all agree exist, we may end up creating new political realities… and with them, new political problems?

Personally, I don’t think we should go down that route, just because the Venice Commission recommends it. But I don’t think we should ignore the recommendations, either.

The truth is that there is an international spotlight on Malta, whether we like it or not. We have exposed ourselves to various critical reports – by the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, by the foreign press, etc… and we have to be careful.

Now: I myself have never subscribed to the view that the Nationalist Party is ‘fanning the flames’ behind all this criticism. I never agreed with that, because… well, you probably remember the situation we had in the 1980s: the ‘Foreign Interference Act’, and what it led to. It was embarrassing, quite frankly. But today – and this is something that many people discount – we are living in age when everything you say, everything you do, everything you tweet or post, automatically becomes ‘international’.

So this perception that we can somehow encapsulate Malta, and cocoon ourselves from the rest of the world… this is not on.

Again, however, all this criticism comes mainly from overseas. It is not reflected in any widespread local concern. And as your own ‘Foreign Interference Act’ reference illustrates… we also have a history of resentment at being ‘told what to do’ by foreigners. Would you agree, then, that this ‘international spotlight’ might backfire? That instead of addressing our governance issues, we will simply entrench ourselves in our political positions?

It may not be a cause for concern today; but a time will come when the effects will start being felt. The real danger is not what the outside world thinks of us; it is the long-term effect the present situation will have. Because we have set in motion certain practices that will be very hard to eradicate in future.

To give you an example: admittedly, this happens – and has always happened – before every election; but the last time it happened [In June 2017] it got elevated to public attention, because the Gozo Chamber of Commerce actually complained about it. So many people were siphoned off from the private sector, to be given a government job on the eve of the election, that it caused a Labour crisis in Gozo.

This gives an indication of how the landscape has changed: because previously, this kind of political patronage was underpinned by the usual laws of demand and supply. Jobs may have been dished out unfairly, for political reasons, in the past… but there was generally a need for those jobs to be filled. The way that need was addressed might have been very objectionable; but the need itself was real.

This? This is totally different. There was no ‘need’. What happened was that we created positions that didn’t need to be created; we lifted people from private enterprise – where they were needed – and placed them where they were not needed; and without them even asking for it, either. Those people did not go knocking on government’s door, asking for a job. They were called at home, and asked: ‘Do you want a job with government?”

So, apart from hurting the private sector (in this instance)… we are also creating a false sense of dependency, and entitlement, that will be very difficult to eradicate later on. What makes this so wrong, however, is that it throws the concept of ‘meritocracy’ out of the window.

When you are given something you don’t deserve… it is wrong on two counts, not just one. You are taking something that shouldn’t belong to you… and you are taking it from someone else who might really have deserved it. That’s two wrongs, not one.

I could add a third: that the people who come later will also expect to be given something they don’t deserve…

Of course. It’s a self-perpetuating system. At the next election, the people who were ‘offered something’ will expect to be offered more… and sooner or later they will hold politicians to ransom.

This time, it’s government offering people things they don’t need, and didn’t ask for… next time, it will be people knocking on government’s door, and threatening not to vote unless they’re given what they want. Not just the ones who ‘got something’ in 2017… but also their wives, their husbands, their nephews, their nieces, etc. There is no end to the cycle.

Now: did we really need to do this? I don’t think so. And it worries me, a lot. I am worried about posterity, in this sense. Not to play a puritan card, or anything… but because we are creating, or strengthening, a sense of entitlement and dependency that will return to haunt us in future.

So the question becomes: how do we break this cycle? I would say that we have to start by wanting to break it; by not condoning and perpetuating it; and by at least trying to make the necessary changes today.

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