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Unaccountability getting out of control

Malta may have all the trappings of a democracy but a closer look at how the government is running the country shows a worrying deficit in one of the basic democratic principles: accountability. Equally worrying is that, rather than taking heed of calls for greater transparency and accountability, the government keeps riding roughshod over the people’s right to know.

It is only able to do this because it has skilfully conditioned many to believe it can do no wrong and that, in any case, lack of accountability is no big deal when considering that the country is doing so well economically.

The Tourism Ministry made an absolute mockery of the right-to-know principle when, as reported in this newspaper, it failed to give timely replies to requests submitted under the Freedom of Information Act. Indeed, the Data Protection Commissioner felt it had to admonish the ministry for dragging its feet for over five months to reply to a request for a list of all contracts given to the Tourism Minister’s financial advisers.

Another recent case showing administrative indifference to the people’s right to know is that of Parliamentary Secretary Silvio Schembri. The junior minister has just mailed his constituents a 32-page colour booklet setting out his performance. But, up to now, he is not prepared to let the people know who paid for it, whether he footed the bill himself or if it was paid out of public funds. If the expense was not all covered by the income generated from the advertisements, who paid for the difference?

His case may be considered of minimal importance compared to that of the Tourism Ministry and to so many other examples. But it again confirms what the Ombudsman describes as a style of government that is seriously “denting the openness and transparency of public administration”. It reflects a pattern of non-accountability that appears to have become part and parcel of government policy.

The government may well deny claims it is unaccountable but the situation on the ground shows an administration that is becoming more, not less, secretive and that it has adopted a siege mentality. It all boils down to a kind of arrogant attitude that is manifesting itself in practically all aspects of administration.

All governments show a degree of arrogance, particularly when they enjoy the support of huge majorities, but Joseph Muscat’s administration is now excelling in it. The problem is that, as the Ombudsman put it so well, failure by the government to disclose information “generates suspicion and favours abuse and corruption”.

This is precisely why there is so much talk today about sleaze, wrongdoing and outright corruption. It is the government itself that is creating the atmosphere that breeds claims of corruption. In the opinion of the Ombudsman, the issue over lack of accountability is now getting out of control and that the people’s right to an accountable public administration is being seriously prejudiced.

He adds: “When the thin, dividing line between administering public affairs in the interest of the common good and satisfying personal, sectoral or partisan interests becomes increasingly blurred, a window of opportunity is created that allowsclientilism, political patronage, opportunism, abuse and eventually corruption to fester.”

Arrogance and a politically self-serving attitude have become hallmarks of this administration.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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