Ombudsman: galvanised civil society brought about downfall of disgraced Muscat

Hard-hitting report by Ombudsman says drastic reforms are required if the Malta’s standing, trust, credibility and democratic credentials are to be restored

Former PM Joseph Muscat
Former PM Joseph Muscat

Malta’s Ombudsman has described 2019 as “a year of turmoil” in his annual report, reflecting on the year in which Joseph Muscat was forced to resign in disgrace after the arrest of Yorgen Fenech and the implication of his chief of staff in the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Anthony Mifsud described the year as a time when civil society became more organised, vociferous and proactive.

“Spurred on by dramatic events that through concert, design or pure coincidence exposed the negative corruptive ties between big business and the public administration. Civil society was galvanised into action. This and other factors, eventually brought about the downfall in disgrace of an administration that enjoyed the backing of a sizeable majority of the electorate through implementing successful, economic policies,” Mifsud, a former Auditor General, wrote in the opening lines of his annual report.

Mifsud commented on what he called the worrying experience of the fragility of the country’s institutions, “that seemed unable to cope with the added need to secure transparency and accountability of the public administration.”

“Their inability and failure to promptly bring to justice those responsible for serious violations of the law gravely undermined the democratic credentials of the country…

“It was not only civil society generally that clamoured for change. International organisations including the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission, Moneyval and others carried out thorough investigations on the state of the country’s institutions. They found them to be seriously flawed and suggested radical reforms to bring them in line with the basic requirements of a modern democratic state.”

But Mifsud said that many of these investigations were made before the morbid details of the sinister connections between big business and the public administration at its highest level, that are today known to have been the backdrop behind the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, became known.

“Undoubtedly, 2019 has shown clearly that all was not well in the State of Denmark. Drastic reforms are required if the country’s standing, trust, credibility and democratic credentials are to be restored,” Mifsud said.

In his hard-hitting introduction to his report, Mifsud said Malta had been through a period of stark contradictions, with economic success and material wellbeing “at the expense of the disintegration of moral and ethical standards have undermined the democratic texture of society.”

He said positive laws such as the Whistleblower Act, the law removing the prescriptive period for crimes of corruption by holders of public office and that setting up the Office of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life among others, “were completely neutralised by an arrogant and obsessive culture of impunity enjoyed by persons flaunting the right friendships and connections and having substantial financial clout to influence the decisions of the public administration.”

Mifsud said the situation becomes dangerous when such persons “act in cahoots or with the connivance of politicians and public authorities” and when those who have the duty to check abuse “are either cowed into silence, or prone to turn a blind eye to tolerate, if not condone, abuse and violation of laws and regulations.”

“When corruption becomes a way of life, when all are convinced that fat cats would by hook or by crook, get whatever they wanted, even  if that breached laws and regulations applicable to all,    if sanctioning of blatant irregularities that should normally lead to criminal prosecution and administrative penalties becomes the norm, the rule of law would be seriously prejudiced.”