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Political level playing - Tonio Borg

In recent times, the lack of political level playing between the government and Opposition has manifested itself in several incidents and situations, including legislative and administrative measures. The most recent example of course being the fact that while the Prime Minister has a full copy of the Egrant report, the Opposition does not.

This has led to a situation where the Prime Minister every now and then cites the evidence contained in the report, which is in his possession in its entirety, while the Opposition only knows what the authorities have decided to publish. This has rightly led to a constitutional case regarding discrimination against the Opposition.

In the meantime languishing in the law courts are cases and inquiries which have not experienced the celerity and swiftness to be concluded that other cases have. There are magisterial inquiries requested by the Opposition which have not been concluded, some of them requested even before the Prime Minister’s request for an inquiry into the Egrant affair.

Is there any reason for such a delay?

Does it make sense to conclude the report requested by the government and leave other inquiries requested by the Opposition in a sort of legal limbo?

Examples abound of this discrimination, prejudicing level playing. An apparently trivial matter is the one relating to regulations issued by the Planning Authority in 2016 regarding billboards. They were hailed as environmentally friendly.

In actual fact the authority allowed itself, subserviently, to be used for a political purpose.

Except after the dissolution of Parliament, a hefty tax was imposed on the erection of billboards with a political message. Conveying a political message, a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution, was considered at par with publicity for a new model of car or commercial product.

The tax was not based on any environmental or traffic safety consideration. It was simply a tax to gag the voices of dissent. One may argue, “But this applies to the government as well.” Not so!

Billboards have been erected, at public expense, with blatantly political messages such as “We have solved the waiting list problem” next to Mater Dei Hospital in the past. As we have seen recently, ministers have inscribed their names in bold on billboards heralding new projects.

The medium of communication is the prerogative of the person who desires to communicate

Indeed the situation is worse than before, for while the Opposition is shackled by the new regulations, the government can charge the hefty tariff contained in the regulations to the public purse, an indirect form of party financing in breach of the law. Not to mention the fact that the party now in government was allowed full freedom when in Opposition to erect billboards with political messages.

The Opposition in 2016 filed a human rights action challenging such muzzling of communication under the guise of environmental regulations issued by an environment authority.

A request for a prohibitory injunction to be issued to prevent the authorities from removing the Opposition billboards was rejected on the grounds that the party could convey its message through other means, ignoring the fact that the medium of communication is the prerogative of the person who desires to communicate.

The case, two and a half years later, is still pending before the courts. As if this were not enough, the authorities were quick to dismantle banners criticising the conduct of investigations relating to the Caruana Galizia murder which were hung on a balcony of a private building in Valletta.

A human rights case has been instituted by the slain journalist’s family against such arbitrary and discriminatory action. Other, pro-government billboards attached to government political party clubs did not catch the attention of the zealous law enforcers and were of course exempted from such assiduous enforcement of the law.

It reminds you of the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and scrupulous but one-sided application of the law.

Another measure used to strengthen the party in government’s communications capacity is appointments to positions of trust. This method of recruitment, of dubious constitutional validity, has been used to employ, without any need for a public call, blue eyed boys and girls as public relations officers, assistants and deputy assistants, legal counsel of all sorts and all sorts of offices and posts, including dog trainers, messengers, maids and charwomen.

In the bad old days, ministers were allowed to recruit only four persons in their private secretariat from outside the public service, and then two had to be of a clerical grade. This capping has been thrown overboard. Ministers and parliamentary secretaries can employ anyone from outside the service in their 21-member private secretariat. 

Democracy does not survive only when elections are held. It gets its nourishment from other, non-electoral realities and measures such as strong and vibrant institutions, a justice system which controls executive power in real time and above all the vigilance of civil society and the fourth estate to guarantee fairness, equity and transparency in the administration of public affairs.

Some, if not all, of these elements are certainly lacking in present-day Malta.

Tonio Borg is a former deputy prime minister and European commissioner.

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