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Conflicts of interest and nepotism

Nepotism has been a distinct hallmark of Joseph Muscat’s government since his party was swept to office after long years of Nationalist administrations.

Many would argue that the situation in this regard is not any different to that in the time of previous governments. And they are right, however, when raising this point, one cannot overlook the fact that before the Labour Party won the 2013 general election, the major plank of its electoral programme was that, if elected, it would do things differently. One would have thought that what they had in mind was a better and fairer system.

Their commitment to transparency, accountability and meritocracy had touched the right cords in a political climate blighted by transgressions. But once in government, Labour unscrupulously ditched its commitments. Not only has a Labour government not acted differently to what used to happen before but nepotism has now reached levels not seen since Dom Mintoff’s times, perhaps worse.

The latest example is the nomination of Marlene Seychell to chair the Malta Gaming Authority when she is a director of a company that owns a complex, which includes a bingo hall, run by another firm.

Those who deem this to be a classic case of conflict of interest can hardly be blamed. Yet, unbelievably, Ms Seychell has told a parliamentary committee scrutinising her nomination she sees no conflict of interest because she is not involved in gaming. Her view, she pointed out, was backed by legal advice.

However, her argument is unconvincing because even a perceived, or apparent, conflict should be regarded as an actual conflict of interest and, according to one authoritative body, should be treated as such until such time as the doubt is removed.

Ms Seychell, and/or those who appointed her, may have overlooked this point, although deep down she must know it would be better if she no longer forms part of the company, for she is prepared to resign her directorship if required. Surprisingly, the parliamentary committee failed to give due weight to the two key issues involved, influence and perception, as it decided to recommend approval of her nomination. This can only raise doubts about the effectiveness and suitability of this body.

Significantly, the term ‘public official’ refers not only to public servants, civil servants, public employees or elected officials but also “to any other official who performs public functions or duties on behalf of the State, a government, or a government organisation, where the exercise of lawful power is involved”. The term would, therefore, appear to cover also officials employed in a position of trust, a matter that ought to be kept well in mind when considering the private interests of such officials.

The real problem is that nepotism and conflicts of interest are so widespread today that many have come to consider them par for the course. Yet, it will not be surprising if thegovernment now comes out arguing that, with the introduction of the standing committee on public appointments, it has become the champion of meritocracy.

The government seems dead set to continue handpicking people of its own political persuasion for top posts and, so far, the parliamentary committee tasked with ‘grilling’ the nominees has appeared weak and accommodating.

But, then again, Labour did say it would do things ‘differently’.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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