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Your MPs have to do better than that

Parliament, Malta. Photo: gov.mt

Government politicians and their hangers on have stuck a Shop-Vac in the public purse and they’re sucking as hard as they can.

It’s the Maltese Buffett approach to public administration. Get the biggest plate you can find, load it up and stagger away with it. Then rush back with another plate and do it again and again until there’s nothing left to take. What if someone else gets it first?

Comprehensive asset declarations are meant to put a check on such behaviour. They can reveal warning signs of corruption, illicit enrichment and conflicts of interest, and they’re a powerful tool for ensuring integrity and transparency in public administration.

That’s why public officials are legally required to declare their assets in more than 150 countries. Many countries also make asset declarations openly available online for public scrutiny, which allows journalists to uncover irregularities and trigger official reviews by anti-corruption agencies.

Unfortunately, this system isn’t working in Malta because no one seems to be looking at them.

Even the Principal Permanent Secretary recognises this. Mario Cutajar admitted that “there had been a lot lacking in terms of Cabinet members declaring their assets”.

Here’s why you should care about this annual formality — and why the current scribbled single-page sheets are completely inadequate for holding your officials accountable.

Some Parliamentary Secretaries declared they earned absolutely no income for five whole months.

Asset declarations expose unexplained income streams and unexplained wealth. That’s why they’re required to include gifts, sponsorship deals, and sources of income from consulting contracts, directorships, investments, and “commissions”. Such patterns can indicate corruption.

Sure, a politician could in theory hide kickbacks from corruption by forming an offshore entity in a secretive jurisdiction like Panama and it would be very difficult to find out about it. But the requirement to file clear, verifiable, scrutinised asset declarations each year makes it much more difficult to access and use those funds.

Asset declarations also expose double and triple dipping. That’s when your government officials aren’t satisfied with the salary paid by their primary role, and so they award themselves all sorts of other salaries, positions and perks on top of it.

Giving government jobs and consultancies to backbench MPs is a good example of this. In addition to taking a parliamentary salary, Manuel Mallia hoovers up another €58,000 as chairman of the Occupational Health and Safety Authority, and €56,000 a year as a part-time legal advisor to the Prime Minister. Various political appointments since the last election have boosted his income by €100,000 a year, The Times of Malta reported.

But Mallia is not alone in taking advantage of his position. More than two-thirds of MPs in Malta are receiving some form of income from the government through full time employment, direct orders or other top ups. These people are padding their bank balance at taxpayer expense simply because they can get away with it.

Asset declarations also expose conflicts of interest. That’s a situation where an individual stands to benefit personally from actions or decisions taken in their official capacity.

You can hold your politicians accountable, or you can sit back and accept your MPs seem to be lying about assets and income to parliament with impunity.

For example, The Shift revealed that Economy Minister Chris Cardona is a director of a Labour publishing house that gets direct orders from government, including from his own Ministry. Profiting from business deals with companies that have government contracts is a very clear conflict of interest. And yet, no action was taken to put an end to it. Instead, it was met with a collective shrug.

The current system of asset declarations isn’t working. Your elected officials have to do better than a few scribbled lines on a single sheet of paper. They’re not whipping off their homework on the way to school.

But making more comprehensive — and clearly legible — asset declarations a requirement is not enough. The system only works if the information in those declarations is verified, and if irregularities are investigated, with prosecution and sanctions for those who break the rules.

Here are a couple ideas for improving things.

Step one: The numbers have to add up. That seems like a simple enough requirement, but right now the actual declarations filed by MPs don’t even match the salary scale published by their own government.

Some Parliamentary Secretaries also declared that they earned absolutely no income (not even from their well known roles before being appointed) for five whole months.

Step two: The Commissioner for Public Standards should be reviewing every one of these declarations, comparing them to previous years, and flagging irregularities.

Step three: Irregularities must be investigated and officials must be held accountable.

Why not start with the Economy Minister? Or Konrad Mizzi, who states in his declarations that his income and net wealth have decreased steadily since 2014, but his declarations show that he has been spending more than he’s been earning since 2016.

There’s also the Prime Minister’s miraculous bank balance which, according to him, hasn’t changed at all in the last four years. Something is clearly off here. Muscat is either concealing other sources of income from taxpayers, or he just can’t be bothered to fill in these forms with anything resembling a sense of responsibility to the people who voted for him because he regards himself as being above such laws.

You can hold your politicians accountable to the people, or you can just sit back and accept the fact that your MPs seem to be lying about their assets and income to parliament with complete impunity.

You’re the one getting screwed over, so I guess the choice is yours. But you should also ask yourself what else they’re lying about or quietly forgetting to include.

The ‘Cover Your Assets’ series is ongoing. Look at what we’ve published so far here.

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