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A culture of impunity

There can hardly be a more damning accusation against the government over lack of accountability and transparency than that just made by the Ombudsman. Yet, the government already appears to have swept it under the carpet, arrogantly thinking perhaps it will soon be forgotten.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat gives the impression he is more interested in GDP figures than good governance and he and his government are seen to be doing their best to desensitise people to wrongdoing, corruption, lack of transparency and accountability. Keeping a Cabinet and a chief of staff after they were found to have opened an offshore company in Panama is equivalent to downplaying an act that ought to have led to resignation, not to say police investigations and prosecution in case of any wrongdoing. When, according to one newspaper survey, the people’s top concern today is the chaotic traffic situation and the bad state of the roads, it becomes all too evident the government has succeeded in making people think that wrongdoing is not a priority issue.

Worse, people are often being led to believe that claims of wrongdoing are without foundation, invented by party rivals or critics – in Malta and abroad – to put the government in a bad light.

There is no question that the situation over traffic and roads is horrendous but lack of good governance ought to be of greater worry because it breeds other serious shortcomings.

It is now up to the parties in Opposition and to civil society to see how best they could counter the government’s frontal desensitising attack. The Ombudsman, Anthony Mifsud, was direct and clearly undaunted by the antagonistic manner in which the government usually treats criticism of the way it is administering the country. He said that outright refusal or extreme reluctance to disclose information could be said to have become a style of government that was seriously denting the openness and transparency of the public administration.

The government is undoubtedly fully aware of the people’s right to be informed of its actions but it has now reached the point where it feels it can very well ride roughshod over everybody, including the Opposition in Parliament, though, admittedly, the Nationalist Party remains in shambles.

Perhaps the Ombudsman’s most serious remark is that the situation is getting out of control and that the people’s right to an accountable public administration is being seriously prejudiced. How can an administration possibly ignore such warnings? In a way, as the Ombudsman well said, governing in a shroud of secrecy is indicative of a siege mentality and instilled a sense of insecurity and doubt.

No wonder he also brought up the “popular perception” that any illegality or abuse, however gross, could be forgiven, written off or forgotten. This, he said, could generate a culture of impunity that led one to feel safe to disregard laws and regulations and to commit illegalities in the face of express provisions.

This is dangerous because those in government and the people close to the party in power may be encouraged to consider themselves untouchable, as quite a number already do. The government has kicked its own promises of transparency and accountability in the teeth. It is no easy task fighting this governmental onslaught on key democratic values but the alternative is descending to steeper depths of decay.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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