Academic spells out painful truths to PN at extraordinary general council

'The Nationalist Party must not only reform the institutions of the State but also the institutions of the PN itself'

Academic Mario Thomas Vassallo
Academic Mario Thomas Vassallo

There will never be a future without clientelism in Maltese politics if a wholesale change to the electoral system isn't put in place, an academic has told an assembly of PN stalwarts.

Mario Thomas Vassallo, a senior lecturer at the University of Malta, spoke at the extraordinary general council meeting of the PN, tearing into the party’s faults as an opposition and those of Maltese society at large - in particular the lack of political education.

Vassallo who teaches politics at university, said he was worried by the fact he had never seen politics as stained by filth as it is today.

But he was there to speak about renewal, he said, chastising other speakers for speaking only about dirt.

“Civil society is there to create pressure and scrutinise government but a political party has to create policies and assert itself,” otherwise it would simply be a commentator on what is going on, Vassallo said.

“The role of the politician is in the party…not only to scrutinise the government but to make reforms This is what the people expect of the political party.”

But to make politics you must first achieve power, he said, adding that what was once leadership is “now being interpreted as power, as dominion over others.” Power has a Macchiavellian aspect - when it becomes a goal in itself it becomes a source of abuse said the academic.

He quoted from the three international reports on power in Malta in 2019. The Venice Commission report which says that the holder of the Prime Minister’s office has absolute power as dictated in the constitution. That report spoke of positions of trust and their abuse and the lack of separation of parliament and the executive, with backbenchers almost all having a role in the executive.

Second was the Greco report on institutionalised corruption. From that it emerged that that police should be free to do their work without political pressure. It spoke of the institutional framework free of political interference. There were lots of watchdogs, Vassallo said, “but they all have muzzles and leashes. It cannot bite and it cannot move, either.”

There was also the Malta Report on sustainable government indicators by a German thinktank. This report also speaks of the power of the Prime minister and the state of the opposition. “The country lacks a strong and constructive opposition, ” he quoted. “I think that the [PN’s] reply to the Budget and this document [of reforms] give an indication that you want to turn over a new leaf, so …the Nationalist Party must not only reform the institutions of the State but also the institutions of the Nationalist Party itself.”

That report also spoke of Civil Society as being heavily politicised, which damages its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. “Let civil society act for itself. Don’t patronise it,” urged Vassallo.

The academic also spoke of the lack of trust in the current political climate. “The worst thing that could happen to the country was that it contracts the malady of cynicism. [Saying] ‘Nothing can be reformed, we were like that and that’s how we’ll stay.’ That would truly be the grave of the Maltese Republic.”

The PN in government had devolved government and opened the road for the EU politics, he said, but it also made choices which are not according to good governance…Nick Clegg had described Malta as the most centralised government.”

“It was you who introduced the concept of persons of trust. Labour widened and stretched it, but you introduced it,” he reminded the assembled PN stalwarts.

“It was you who through your choice, in the Gonzi administration, had started the practise of having a small cabinet and giving backbenchers posts in the executive to keep them happy.

“On paper, the Labour party added the Whistleblower Act, parliamentary scrutiny on public appointments, the removal of prescription on MPs as well as the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life.

“But the Labour party in government implemented a system of clientelism beyond anything that we had ever seen. Before you would have to knock on a minister’s door if you wanted something, now it is the minister’s office who calls you up to see if you need anything,” Vassallo said, adding that nepotism didn’t start under Labour, but in the time of Aristotle.

“These problems are the people’s problems,” he said. “We were promised Malta for all of us, but I have never seen a Malta as divided as today. Money laundering, the ‘nothing is anything’ attitude and then the murder of a journalist exposing ties between big business and politics.”

Before writing laws, politicians should be enforcing them with their their morals and virtues first, before doing so through the institutions.

People must know who they are voting for, he said, highlighting the fact that “there are lawyers here who made money off [the sale of Maltese passports].”

Vassallo recommended the closure of political TV and radio stations.  The creation of these stations should have led to pluralism but, in fact, led to more polarisation, he said. “This country will begin to breathe a sigh of relief when Net and One stop broadcasting.”

The proposed changes were radical but not radical enough, he said. “The biggest wound in Maltese politics is the electoral system, the single transferable vote which we inherited from the English, because they wanted the individual to be more powerful than the party… But it is an incubator of clientelism.”

“If we want to heal ourselves of this system of clientelism which eats us up from the inside we must think about the electoral system and here there is nothing” he said, brandishing a copy of the PN proposals on good governance.

“If we want to talk of due diligence we must conduct due diligence on our candidates and this must be ongoing,” he said, to applause.

Vassallo also said he wanted to see more political education. “We aren‘t giving youths political education. I teach politics and there is a poverty in political knowledge. But to teach politics we must first know the difference between politics and power,” he said, urging the return of politics to being a noble profession.

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