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Democracy is not mob rule

The government — and its ministers, employees, and ‘persons of trust’ — still have to obey the law

Justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia protest Malta
Crowds at the Truth and Justice protest held in Valletta to mark the one year anniversary of Daphne Caruana Galizia's assassination on 16 October 2017. Photo: Pierre Ellul

What would you do if your electrician said it’s perfectly fine to stick a fork in a wall socket? Would you hire him to wire your house?

No, you’d question his credentials — and possibly his sanity.

What about the mechanic who says, “This town is flat, so you don’t really need brakes…”?

Or the policeman who refuses to investigate the theft of your wallet because, “Well, there’s no evidence the wallet is gone…”?

You wouldn’t have any trust in these people. They know nothing about their jobs.

That’s exactly how I feel when I hear serving members of parliament say that, because they won an election with a majority, they can now do whatever they want.

Now, I don’t know if these elected officials actually believe this or if they’re just pushing the narrative to evade their legal responsibilities. Some of these people are not career politicians, having gone straight from “person of trust” to public office, so I think it’s wise to get a few definitions on the table.

Here’s the crux of the issue…

The Party who wins an election is given a mandate to govern. They’re in charge for the next five years. But you know all those laws that fill rooms full of legal books? They still have to follow them.

This government loves to tell BBC reporters and European officials about how strong the rule of law is in Malta, and just how much they all respect it. But it doesn’t mean what they seem to think it means.

“We won, so too bad for you,” translates to, “we rule, and that’s the only law.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t right at all, no matter how many times Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar repeats it to the son of a journalist assassinated under the Labour government’s watch.

I’ll save her and her colleagues the trouble of rummaging around looking for that heavy Oxford English Dictionary and just type out what it says.

The principal dictionary of the English language defines the rule of law as, “The authority and influence of law in society, especially when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behaviour”.

So far so good. Laws exist to constrain the behaviour of institutions and individuals for the good and safety of all.

Winning an election does not place anyone above the law. On the contrary, it puts them in the spotlight. When given greater powers, they’re subjected to greater scrutiny by the citizenry. They’re not being “picked on unfairly” by people who are “just negative” or “traitors“. It’s what these elected officials signed up for.

But wait, there’s more.

The Oxford English Dictionary goes on to describe the rule of law as, “the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.”

Do you see why I get so confused by our local parliamentarians?

All members of a society — including those in government — have to follow the laws just like everyone else.

That means you’re not allowed to take kickbacks on passport sales. That is illegal.

And you’re not allowed to take payments from Dubai companies who you sold a percentage of the national power station to, even if you were the Energy Minister at the time and you just wanted to bet on 17 Black. That’s illegal, too.

You can’t just shoot at protected birds or hunt out of season, either, even if you feel very strongly that hunting is your tradition. Hunting is legal (not in spring), but those specific acts are not.

And you can’t just build without a proper building permit, even if you’re politically connected or the chief of Infrastructure Malta. You have to apply like everyone else, and you actually have to have a permit before you start the work.

The police have a responsibility to investigate and prosecute these activities. When they do not, it means that the rule of law has collapsed.

Democracy is the will of the people. We gather together as citizens and cast votes for the politicians we want to lead us. The Party who wins that election is asked to form the government.

But the government — and its ministers, employees, and “persons of trust” — still have to obey the law. Political power doesn’t magically exempt them from it.

That’s how functioning democracies work.

“We win, so tough luck, we’ll do what we want,” is just mob rule.

The Shift takes part in the RSF 2019 World Press Freedom Index in London

Lyra McKee journalist

Concern after journalist, 29, killed in Northern Ireland