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Atmosphere of public distrust - Denis Tanti

Consecutive Eurobarometer surveys have shown a growing decline in trust among the Maltese public towards the country’s democratic institutions.

“This situation has led to an authoritarian government under the total control of the Labour Party.” Photo: Matthew Mirabelli“This situation has led to an authoritarian government under the total control of the Labour Party.” Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

A survey carried out in October 2013 that sought citizens’ perceptions of justice and the rule of law within their own country, revealed that 46 per cent of Maltese people agreed that the law was being applied to everyone equally and without discrimination.

The trust of the Maltese in their national justice and the legal system had plunged down to 35 per cent by last November according to another survey, in comparison to the 50 per cent trust of EU nationals.

Only a few years ago Eurobarometer surveys showed that the police enjoyed a high level of trust by the Maltese public, which exceeded 70 per cent. This trust has also gone down drastically to 53 per cent by last November, which is much lower than the EU average of 72 per cent.

Snapshots taken by various international organisations all indicate a perception of steady regression in the country’s quality of governance.

According to the latest Corruption Perceptions Index released in February by Transparency International, which ranks countries by their perceived levels of corruption as determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys, Malta has lost 10 places in one year falling to 47th place on the index. This is the worst placing obtained since the country started to be monitored by the organisation in 2004.

Washington-based Freedom House, which over the past 45 years issued an annual report on democracy and liberty around the world, this year has similarly placed Malta a staggering 16 places lower than last year in its democracy and liberty ranking.

Another deep plunge was given to Malta by Reporters Without Borders in its annual World Press Freedom Index, that has been published annually since 2002 and measures the level of respect by the country’s authorities to freedom of journalists, news organisations, and netizens. Malta had the sharpest drop of 18 places to 65th place from among 180 countries, faring worse than authoritarian regimes such as Comoros and Niger.

According to Reporters Without Borders, press freedom in Malta is in a problematic state. MEP Francis Zammit Dimech has attributed this deplorable situation to the unleash of hatred and intimidation towards journalists by top government officials. 

A classical example can be taken from Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield who runs a blog that he uses to attack all those whom he perceives as critics of the Labour government. He has published a multitude of posts about investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who, before she was assassinated last October, had reported extensively on corruption within Malta’s political scene and the country’s links to offshore tax havens.

Bedingfield’s blogs have been indirectly financed by the Office of the Prime Minister itself, since he has been paid out of public funds while he uploaded his blogs during his office hours in his position of coordinator of parliamentary questions.

Condemnable ferocious attacks by exponents of the Labour Party against journalists who do not hail from the same political camp did not started after the party rose to power five-and-a-half years ago, but long before.

Justyne Caruana, the current Minister for Gozo, had intimidated journalists during the party’s general conference by accusing them of acting maliciously and referring to them as snakes spreading venom among people. 

Through the extensive powers conferred upon him by the Constitution and the lack of safeguards, the Prime Minister has succeeded in hijacking the country’s key institutions responsible for the proper functioning of democracy.

The legislative and judicial branches of government have been rendered incapable of effecting the required checks and balances over the executive branch

Muscat appointed successive police commissioners known for their loyalty to him and his political party, that led to the takeover of the police force by the executive branch of government. This has been evident by the consistent reluctance on the part of the current commissioner Lawrence Cutajar to investigate the reports of the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit, that concluded to serious suspicions of money laundering by Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri.

The hijacking of the country’s democratic institutions has enabled the executive branch to expand its authority over its legislative and judicial counterparts. The resulting imbalance in the separation of powers has been augmented even further by the situation where ministers and parliamentary secretaries have a foot in both the executive and legislative branches. Added to this, there is Labour’s comfortable nine-seat majority in Parliament.

This situation has led to an authoritarian government under the total control of the Labour Party. The legislative and judicial branches of government have been rendered incapable of effecting the required checks and balances over the executive branch, to control it from exceeding its bounds and take timely action to correct abuse of power on its part.

The weakening of the country’s democratic institutions has led to a collapse of the rule of law that the country has never experienced before throughout its 54 years of independence.

 This undesirable situation has in turn diminished the people’s trust both in the government’s political integrity and the supposedly democratic institutions themselves.

Muscat has time and again artfully deceived the public with his repeated promise that never materialised of holding a Constitutional Convention with a representation from the different political and social sectors, for the purpose of strengthening democracy, reducing partyocracy and giving birth to the Second Republic.

Similarly, the constitutional change promised by Muscat to eliminate the discretionary power of the prime minister over wrongdoings by public officials and to enable immediate censoring in such cases, has never materialised.

It is evident that Muscat-style New Labour government prefers to reserve the necessary space for its political machine, to be able to conceal facts about alleged cases of political dishonesty and abuse of political power by its clique that keep regularly cropping up.

The recent news that the long-awaited Standards in Public Life Act would finally be put into force provides some peace of mind to the general public, after the Labour government has left it hanging as a Bill for three years and a further year and a half since its enactment.

With mounting pressure, the Labour Party has assented to the nomination of George Hyzler to fill the position of Commissioner for Standards in Public Life. This nomination was reported to have been made by the leader of the Opposition more than eight months previously. Hyzler is a public figure renowned for his honesty, integrity and fairness, which makes him an idoneous person for the appointment of commissioner that requires to be endorsed by not less than two-thirds of all members of Parliament.

The law vests the commissioner with the authority to investigate breaches of statutory or ethical duties allegedly committed in public life by members of the House of Representatives, including ministers and parliamentary secretaries, as well as persons engaged in positions of trust as advisors or consultants to the government or to any statutory body.

Despite Muscat’s pre-electoral assurance that New Labour would hold politicians and government officials accountable for their actions with no time bar, the law precludes the commissioner from investigating complaints of official misconduct and lack of accountability to the public that would have taken place before its date of coming into force. Hence, the government’s procrastination has permitted holders of high public offices to abuse of their position and dodge their responsibilities for a number of years without having to worry about being subjected to scrutiny.

That the government has failed on good governance is evident and this has been acknowledged by Muscat himself. No wonder the current atmosphere of public distrust. 

Denis Tanti is a former assistant director (industrial and employment relations) in the Ministry for Health.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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