Prof Kevin Aquilina, the Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Malta, shares his views on the steps the country needs to take for the strengthening of democracy.
Malta is at a crossroads. Since Independence, it has made substantial strides in various sectors, notably infrastructure, communications, maritime affairs, aircraft legislation, financial services, gaming and tourism. Yet it has lagged behind in other sectors.
Such sectors relate to the development of democracy; respect for human rights and the rule of law; strengthening of good governance; introducing a better separation of powers between the three organs of the state so that they check and balance out each other better. Others relate to adopting wider transparency and accountability measures; and taking concrete steps to fight corruption and the perception of corruption.
More needs to be done in these areas to develop a vibrant democratic society where the State institutions are perceived to be working for the common good, transparently and in full compliance with the dictates of the law, where human rights are safeguarded, where government leads by example, where citizens trust the institutions which administrate power in their name and where, overall, citizens are proud to be associated with the State of Malta and its institutions and to be called ‘Maltese’.
Various measures are needed to turn a democratic deficit into a vibrant, democratic and pluralistic society:
- Tighter and more effective controls upon government through measures which make it more accountable to independent institutions of the State, as well as to the fourth and fifth estates; constitutionalising the right to good administration;
- Ensuring that the independence of the judiciary is safeguarded in relation to appointment, promotion, discipline and removal, with the judiciary itself playing a pivotal, if not unique, role in its auto-regulation;
- Creating new structures intended to put the government on the spot; ensuring that a system of meritocracy substitutes the system of nepotism/position of trust employed by both political parties in government;
- Curbing ministerial interference in the operation of several public corporations which, through such influence, end up as glorified government departments;
- Providing more information held by government to the media; empowering the media – in concrete terms – to investigate maladministration by restricting the cases where the Freedom of Information Act is used to curtail access to government-held information;
- 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;
More needs to be done in these areas to develop a vibrant democratic society
- Revising secrecy provisions in Maltese legislation which protect disclosure of abuse and maladministration by the public administration rather than pinpointing and disclosing the public administration’s mistakes, corruption and abuse;
- Ensuring that all major government contracts and all direct orders are given the go-ahead by the Auditor General before government approves them;
- Strengthening extant institutions such as that of the Ombudsman by establishing a parliamentary committee to investigate those complaints which have been decided in favour of the complaining citizen but remain unimplemented by the public administration; allowing the Ombudsman to investigate private sector organisations which carry out public functions;
- Introducing a propositive referendum to empower the citizenry to propose what politicians might perceive to be unpopular measures;
- Dealing effectively with Members of Parliament who do not perform, who misbehave or who betray the wishes of the electorate; curtailing abuse of parliamentary privilege while ensuring that parliamentary questions are answered properly and in a timely manner;
- Establishing the Office of Public Prosecutor as distinct from the Office of the Attorney General; revisiting the law on public inquiries; penalising the squandering of government monies but holding spendthrifts personally liable to reimburse the damage caused to the public purse;
- Removing partisanship from the appointment procedures of the constitutional commissions and the Broadcasting Authority; guaranteeing a wholesale revision of Maltese Law to ensure that Public Service Broadcasting Limited is no longer licenced by the government but by the broadcasting regulator – the Broadcasting Authority – as is the position with all other radio and television stations;
- Ensuring that the Commissioners for Administrative Investigations are appointed by the ombudsman, not by the prime minister and the leader of the opposition; ensuring that laws are properly enforced by the public administration rather than having a system of law enforcement through the granting of amnesties at regular intervals, thereby deriding the rule of law;
- Putting appropriate measures in place to avoid conflicts of interest at all levels of government; enshrining the principle that justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done squarely in the Constitution for all courts to comply with.
These are but a few instances of where Malta should have moved since Independence. If there is no political will for such action to be taken – and the last 53 years of Malta’s statehood have demonstrated this – then it will have to be civil society and the fourth and fifth estates to guide our politicians in that direction.
Only time will tell whether such efforts will be successful or not.