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Disbandment of TPPI - Martin Scicluna

In an act of self-harm, the Today Public Policy Institute disbanded itself this year.

In an act of self-harm, the Today Public Policy Institute disbanded itself this year.

Hermann Schiavone is the Nationalist Party spokesman on social dialogue. He is a member of Parliament, a representative of the people. As such his voice should be heard and respected. And as a “spokesman” (shadow minister) for “social dialogue”, he has a duty to be informed. But I have rarely come across such an ill-informed, partial and illogical article as the one he wrote on July 7 (Question Time: Only think tank folds up: good or bad?).

Read his opening sentences to catch the flavour: “To be honest I had hardly heard of the think tank [Today Public Policy Institute]. That may not be a bad thing as I believe that think tanks should work behind the scenes and not capture the limelight. The news of its closure does not shock or worry me. This was said to be the only independent, non-partisan think tank whose ex-chair was Martin Scicluna. I disagree completely.”

Really? What does he disagree with? Its independence? That it has closed down? That it captured the limelight?

The spokesman for social dialogue needs to sharpen up his thinking and communication skills. He should in future do his homework before pronouncing on something he clearly knows nothing about. God help the PN if Schiavone represents the calibre of their spokesmen.

The Today Public Policy Institute was formed on July 7, 2007. Its founder members were Sina Bugeja, Stephen Calleya, Juanito Camilleri, George Debono, Ranier Fsadni, Marlene Mizzi, Joseph Sammut, Jacques Sciberras, Fr Peter Serracino Inglott, Joseph V. Tabone, Joseph F.X. Zahra, Lawrence Zammit and Michael Zammit Cutajar.

As time went by, some members dropped out and were replaced by people of the same intellectual quality and breadth of experience. To mention just a few who joined later: Michael Bonello, Michael Frendo, Patrick Tabone, Clare Vassallo, Petra Caruana Dingli and others. There was one outstanding characteristic about the board members and that was their independent-mindedness.

I was the director general of TPPI from July 2007 until March 2017. It was a great privilege to work with people of integrity, who had Malta’s best interests at heart. Schiavone mocks the fact that TPPI, in line with its charter, was Malta’s only independent, non-partisan think tank.

Unusually for Malta, it addressed issues in a constructive, open-minded and tolerant manner and maintained an impartial and non-party political stance in advising on public policy issues. This was its strength. In a country divided by politics, it aimed to be objective, balanced and free from prejudice in advising on public policy issues.

Both the Gonzi and Muscat administrations between 2007 and 2017 valued this. TPPI’s reports were presented to the prime minister of the day (and all members of Parliament and policymakers). I can vouch from attending personal meetings of the lead authors with Gonzi and Muscat that reports were carefully considered, and in many cases acted upon.

The TPPI addressed issues in a constructive, open-minded and tolerant manner and maintained an impartial and non-party political stance in advising on public policy issues

TPPI – a think tank which Schiavone claims not to have heard of – produced a number of important reports in those 10 years. The first, about the reform of Mepa, was the basis of Gonzi’s attempt to reduce the environmental deficit after his narrow electoral victory in 2008. The report on managing the challenges of migration was firmly noted by government. The report on remarriage after legal separation was the spark that lit the fuse to the introduction of divorce in Malta.

A series of deeply well-researched reports on public health, energy security and fossil fuels positively advanced public opinion on these issues, although much still remains to be done. An excellent report in 2009 on the sustainability of Malta’s social security system was ignored by the government, but may yet come back to haunt future administrations. A report inspired by Fr Serracino Inglott on the state of the Constitution should form the basis of any future constitutional convention – if the country gets one as promised.

Other reports, such as those advocating same civil entitlements for the gay community, the need for the establishment of a national water plan, the introduction of Natura Malta (now called Ambjent Malta), and another describing the impact of Malta’s first 10 years in the European Union were also well received.

Contrary to what Schiavone says in his apparent ignorance, none of these reports promoted any “sectorial interest”. They were independently written with one objective in mind: “To promote wide understanding of strategic issues of national importance and to help in the development and implementation of sound public policies.”   

Until March 2017, when I departed as director general, I can vouch that all board members left their politics at the front door when they came to consider any one of the many issues that the think tank wrestled with. I do not recall a single instance when any of our 15 reports –or any of our discussions – were influenced by party politics. They were motivated solely by a need to achieve public good.

Until my departure – and I can only speak for the period until March last year – the absolute bottom line was that the Today Public Policy Institute examined Maltese public policy issues in a constructive, open-minded, independent, impartial, non-partisan and non-party political way. The moment it stopped doing so its value was diminished.

In an act of self-harm, TPPI disbanded itself this year. In well-chosen words of the editorial in the Times of Malta: “The think-tank board… may have acted precipitately by allowing itself to be swayed unduly by the polarised state of Maltese politics today when they opted to wind up the think tank… If ever Malta needed an organisation that was prepared to speak truth to power and to seek solutions which are workable and for the common good of Maltese society, it is now… The members of the think-tank board should have been spurred on by the current political climate, not given in to a sense of defeatism.”

Perhaps Schiavone, in his precious little bubble, missed that leader too?

Speaking personally, as somebody who dedicated 10 years on a purely voluntary basis to serving its board members and fostering the reputation of TPPI, I have to admit I view with some bitterness the intolerance and blinkered mindset of those members of the board who three months ago threw away years of careful reputational nurturing of TPPI in a fit of defeatist political pique.

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