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How taxpayers paid for Labour’s electoral campaign

We need to put institutional breaks on the power of care-taker governments to dispense jobs, permits and favours, all paid by us taxpayers.

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114 persons were employed by the Armed Forces in the month leading up to the May general elections, figures tabled by Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia in parliament revealed. This comes after a previous parliamentary question which revealed that a total of 574 AFM officials received promotions during the same month.

This is not the case of a country preparing for war or a national emergency.  It is the case of a government dishing out jobs before a general election.

This comes in the wake of other statistics showing how the government’s power of incumbency was abused before the general election. These included reports of a spike in government jobs in Gozo. Tax payers’ money was even spent by individual ministers on newspaper adverts in the independent media extolling their accomplishments in various areas.

Planning is one particular sector where the power of incumbency is having a lasting consequence in wrecking havoc of our common good.

A total of 364 permits, 46 of them ODZ, were issued in the last week of the 2017 electoral campaign. Only 60 permits were issued in the final ninth week in 2013 while 228 were issued in the final week of the 2008 electoral campaign.

During this year’s electoral campaign 588 illegalities were regularised by the Planning Authority through the regularisation scheme during, 405 of which were issued in the final two weeks of the electoral campaign. In the last week before the June general election, a total of 261 illegalities where sanctioned compared to only 75 in the last week of April, 43 in the last week of June, and to 81 in the first week of July.

Surely one cannot solely attribute Labour’s landslide to the abuse of the power of incumbency.  With all opinion polls pointing towards a comfortable Labour victory the government was clearly not in panic mode. One suspects that in this case the power of incumbency was used to maximise victory and ensure that Labour wins with the same margin as in 2013.

The power of incumbency may also have been used to ensure a full turnout among traditional Labour voters, some of which were threatening not to vote. Clearly Labour strategists banked on a knock out for the opposition. They were successful.

The result led to Simon Busuttil’s resignation and months of internal turmoil for the PN. There was logic in the final push of granting favours. It was not an act of desperation but a deliberate plan to consolidate power.

Surely abuse of the power of incumbency is not a new phenomenon. A study by Paul and Matthew Caruana Galizia on all permits issued between 1993 and 2016 shows that case officers’ recommendations to refuse ODZ applications were more likely to be overturned by the authority’s board during election periods. The report also exposed a spike of permits in the immediate aftermath of the 2013 election, which indicated  a “promise of exchange”.

What statistics seem to suggest is that Labour has made a shameless use of a power which previous Nationalist administrations used more cautiously.

What the country needs is to put institutional breaks to limit the abuse of the power of incumbency. Kevin Aquilina, the Dean of the Faculty of Law has proposed putting on the statute book laws which curtail the power of incumbency, ensuring that various permits, jobs in the public sector and other vote-grabbing mechanisms are not deployed during an election campaign or that public money is spent for political party propaganda.

One radical solution proposed by Aquilina in 2013 was the appointment of a caretaker government composed of the President and Permanent Secretaries who should  take over the governance of the country for the period between dissolution of Parliament and the election of a new government.

This is not about reinventing the wheel. Other countries have implemented such measures. In India, a code of conduct applied by the Electoral Commission states that announcements of new projects, programmes, concessions or financial grants which have the effect of influencing voters are prohibited before elections.

We augur that any discussion on constitutional reform will address this issue. We cannot afford to live in a country where governments buy their way to power through jobs and permits. We live in a ridiculous situation where the taxpayer is subsidising the electoral campaign of the party in government.

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