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Fireworks and conflicts of interest

The Government’s first six months in office have been marked, above all, by a succession of public appointments in which party colour, not quality or merit, has dominated the selection process.

Meritocracy was promised incessantly in the months before the election. Cronyism and patronage were to become things of the past. Instead, there was a clean sweep of virtually every previous public appointee, the removal and redeployment of almost 80 per cent of the permanent secretaries and the still to be formally announced replacement of all ambassadorial posts. Some of the appointments have been deliberately politically provocative and may, in due course, come to haunt the government.

The pre-election promises of meritocracy have been largely betrayed.

The key, it could be argued by the Prime Minister in his defence, lies in whether the new incumbents will deliver effective results, not their political affiliation. However, that argument still leaves hanging unanswered whether political loyalty on its own is any test of real competence. But even that low threshold for selection has now been transgressed by an appointment that is not only blatantly political but is also open to question on grounds of conflict of professional interest and even possible bias.

The legal consultant of the Malta Pyrotechnics Association, Labour MP Michael Falzon, has been appointed by the Government to chair a Mepa working group tasked with devising a new policy on the building of fireworks factories in ODZ areas.

It is an appointment, covering the sensitive and life-threatening issue of the granting of permits for new explosives factories, which was made without any prior consultation with the planning authority board.

By contrast, the other working groups tasked with the revision of Mepa policies – a crucially important exercise to update detailed planning policies – are led by Mepa or other public entity professionals.

Not the fireworks factories working group, however.

In this case, a lawyer well known for his strong and long-standing advocacy of the fireworks industry and who has already made public statements about how the planning authority should grant permits for new fireworks factories has been selected – over the heads of the planning authority board – to lead the study.

A conflict of interest occurs when there is a clash between the public and private interests of somebody in an official position. The key reason for shunning conflicts of interest, especially where land use planning is concerned, is to avoid the use of private office for private gain or to ensure that the exercise of undue influence to favour a particular outcome does not contaminate the planning process.

No matter how good Dr Falzon is as a lawyer on behalf of the fireworks industry, there seems a clear case of conflict of interest that should automatically debar him from leading such a study.

By all means, call Dr Falzon to give evidence to the working group to draw on the “goldmine” of knowledge on the subject that he allegedly possesses.

However, to invite him to lead such a study is, quite frankly, to invite criticism of bias that will undermine the outcome and objectivity of the report even before it has begun.

This is too serious a study for it to be prejudiced in this way. Justice in such processes must not only be done but must also be seen to be done if the credibility of such a sensitive and important technical report is to be upheld.

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