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Power to commissioners

Specially appointed commissioners should have both the bark and the bite. Yet, there have been instances, even recently, that led many to conclude they really had no bite and not necessarily because of lack of will on their part.

A few days ago, the Animal Welfare Commissioner was reported lamenting about what he called lack of regulations after the traditional Santa Marija horse races in Victoria once again took place in the heat of the mid-afternoon on feast day. This happened despite guidelines from the veterinary authorities that the event should be moved to the morning or late afternoon. It seems he is not empowered by law to go further – and that would put him in a very weak position, to put it mildly – but does this apply to other authorities too?

In the Animal Welfare Act, ill treatment is defined as causing the animal to suffer, by any act or omission, pain or distress, which in its kind or degree, on in its object, or in circumstances in which it is inflicted, is excessive or unnecessary.

There is no doubt that subjecting horses to the scorching heat of August amounts to ill treatment but it would seem that, despite the anger that this stirs up year after year, the authorities are, for some reason, unwilling to check the practice. If the guidelines drawn up by the veterinary authorities are ignored, action ought to have been taken there and then to stop the ill treatment.

If the commissioner is not legally empowered to take action himself – a strange lacuna that ought to be rectified – surely there are other law enforcement officers who ought to have stepped in. The law protecting animals grants such power to the Director of Animal Welfare, to animal welfare officers or any officer or person authorised by the Director of Veterinary Services or the Director for Animal Welfare.

Citing traditions in support of holding the races in the heat of August does not take away the fact that such events amount to ill treatment.

Other than this case, other commissioners are battling against huge administrative bureaucracy in their work in defence of ordinary citizens. Their complaints boil down to unwillingness by the administration to reply to their queries in time, often leading the Ombudsman to issue a strong condemnation.

The Ombudsman put it this way in his annual report: “Outright refusal or extreme reluctance to disclose information can be said to have become a style of government that is seriously denting the openness and transparency of the public administration”. The Times of Malta is constantly being refused information sought under law on matters of public interest, at times forced to seek a legal remedy.

Both the Health Commissioner and the Environment and Planning Commissioner have complained over the long time it is taking government departments to reply to legitimate queries. This is unacceptable but the party in government continues to ignore the erosion of basic democratic norms.

The Ombudsman could not have said it any better when he declared: “Administering in a shroud of secrecy is indicative of a siege mentality and instils a sense of insecurity and doubt as to whether the public administration can withstand the legitimate scrutiny of public opinion in the search of truth.”

No wonder the commissioners’ wings are clipped.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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