Minister moots possibility of 16-year-olds voting in more elections

In this week's edition of Reporter Owen Bonnici, David Agius and Ralph Cassar discuss various aspects Local Council system, from lowering voting age, funding, transparency and voter apathy

Justice minister Owen Bonnici has mooted the possibility of eventually extending 16 year-olds’ right to vote “beyond local council elections.”

This emerged during a debate on weekly TV discussion forum Reporter, where Nationalist whip David Agius, Bonnici and Alternattiva Demokrtika secretary-genereal Ralph Cassar went head to head on this week’s edition, discussing local councils.

Bonnici said he hoped Vote-16 would give “a new face” to politics and took the opportunity to encourage young people to “go out and vote for whoever they want,” adding that if the turnout was good enough government would consider extending this right to general elections and referenda.

The rest of the panel was less enthusiastic, however. Cassar advised caution, saying it would be wiser to study the results before taking this step. Agius dismissed the idea as a ploy to woo the young voter segment.

Lack of funding

Cassar and Agius agreed that lack of funding was the number one setback in the development of the role of local councils.

If the local councils are not going to be given a means of funding themselves they will have to resort to “begging from government” and be stuck with poor quality facilities and services, said .

Agius repeatedly pointed to the fact that the biggest obstacle in the expansion of local councils’ roles was funding. “The mentality of the government needs to change. Local councils get less than 1% of the national budget. Without an increase, they will remain the councils of fifteen to twenty years ago. They cannot develop in responsibility.”

He suggested that a percentage of revenue from road tax should go to the local council, calculating that this would translate into a €6 million increase in the budget for local councils.

Agius commented that the government certainly had funds to bail out Café Premier and has money to pay Cyrus Engerer’s €85,000 salary as the Prime Minister’s special envoy to the EU.

But Bonnici took him to task on his road tax suggestion, saying Agius was advocating the introduction of taxes through the back door. He asked how the government was supposed to make good for the resulting shortfall in revenue without increasing the burden on the taxpayer.

He pointed to the €1 million capital projects scheme introduced last January, intended to help local councils fund infrastructure projects. Bonnici said that he had found that many councils were operating from a position of debt when labour came to power.

“This €1 million is one way we are addressing that issue…. I understand that people want better roads and one of our solutions is to get the private sector to invest in this to avoid increasing the burden on the taxpayer.”

Lack of transparency

Asked what was needed to combat conflicts of interest and abuses in the local council system, Agius advocated an Ombdusman for local councils. Bonnici pointed out that there is nothing preventing the existing Ombudsman from investigating local councils.

Cassar added that the best guarantee of transparency in local councils Is the electorate themselves. The people would not re-elect a corrupt and mismanaged council, said the Alternattiva stalwart.

Voter apathy

Agius said he expected an increased Nationalist turnout, in part because of the spring hunting referendum. The PN shadow minister pointed out that a number of promised reforms had not materialized, citing changes in the local wardens system as an example.

Balzan questioned the minister about this. “There can be circumstances that will affect the tempo promised reforms are introduced,” answered Bonnici. “If, once in government, we discover  that an existing contract which we had planned to cancel  contains a termination clause which makes it prohibitively expensive, it will slow the process down.”

That said, the minister could not recall a single pre-election commitment which the current government was unable to implement. “We had planned things well when we were in opposition,” said Bonnici.

Reporter, hosted by Saviour Balzan, airs every Monday at 20:40 on TVM2, with a repeat at 21:55 on TVM.

More in Reporter