No serenity without transparency

Lyman Frank Baum’s Wicked Witch of the West melts away with a bucket of water. For citizens, transparency is an important feature of a democratic government – like water to life. Yet for Muscat’s government, scrutiny, unless in controlled splashes, is being steadily avoided.

The point of having free elections is that the people can choose those who can best lead a country. For some, that sentence defines democracy. Yet democracy has undergone numerous alterations as it withstood the test of time. Notably, the allocation of power is more refined.

A government should be subject to critical observation. Apart from the parliament and its committees, there are a number of independent institutions tasked with the job, like the Ombudsman and the National Audit Office. They are tasked with carrying out necessary verifications to make sure that taxpayers’ money is being used properly and effectively and that rights are observed.

The government decided to create different boards to deal with claims of injustices, practically overriding the need for independent critical assessment. These boards were questioned, because of their possible political bias and because they could be used as channels for jobs for votes.  This is especially true in view of the lack of government-party separation.

Examples of the government undermining the independence of institutions are plentiful. The Police Commissioner and the Attorney General faced an avalanche of criticism over their reluctance to investigate allegations of a web of corruption revealed by the Panama Papers, and against the recommendations of the country’s own anti-money laundering agency. Heads shifted, and now the agency defends the government against its own past recommendations.

The media is another sector tasked with the scrutiny of government. The Freedom of Information Act was supposed to increase scrutiny, but thanks to all the engineered loopholes within the law the country is faced with a situation where the media complains about the government’s persistent habit of refusing requests.

The most common excuse to dismiss them is that the request would intrude on “sensitive commercial matters”. That government action is hiding under private commercial interests goes to show that perhaps this government stopped being pro-business and actually became one, with the PM proudly (and inappropriately) declaring himself a brilliant salesman.

As Malta’s heritage is being sold off and the goodwill of the country trashed, you would think that the national deals taking place could only go ahead with transparency. Be it open spaces like Żonqor Point or three public hospitals, trading away public assets warrants public knowledge of what is being given up and what is being acquired in return.

Yet, one public private partnership after another has been mired in controversy. Even after the scandal and fiasco with Vitals Global Healthcare on three public hospitals, the government continues to refuse to provide answers.

The VGH deal was signed and stamped by the government long before anybody knew anything was up for grabs. The energy deal involving Azerbaijan remains the focus of questions when answers are not given.

To add insult to injury, Konrad Mizzi – the only EU Minister to appear in the Panama Papers – was behind both deals and continues to negotiate new ones. It is surreal.

Muscat’s government is determinedly opaque even as its back is increasingly against the wall. It is almost as if people are falling over themselves to grab what they can while they can.

Every time something makes it past its wall of confidentiality, the details are not at all convincing. If the government wants to convince us of its innocence, rather than regurgitate its state of serenity, it should not have a problem with accepting scrutiny – if it is not the Wicked Witch, it should not melt.


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