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The general election we deserve

Imagine this. A general election is called tomorrow for 21 March. Another massive Labour victory is what everyone expects. But why? One reason: the shambles that is today’s Nationalist Party. We’re already talking about it all the time. But there’s another reason and no one is talking about it.

Everyone – Labour supporters and critics alike – assumes Labour will run the kind of campaign it ran in 2017. Not just slick but extravagant: busting the limits, in spending as well as the runaway favours and promotions granted during the electoral campaign itself.

Given its reputational problems, Malta needs an election that does not itself look corrupt. Robert Abela needs such an election, too. The institutional reforms are going to take time: reviews, agreement, the passage of laws. Joseph Muscat’s toxic legacy will take time to flush out. It’s still catching up with the Abela government.

But assurances about the general election campaign need no reviews or new laws. The gold standard already exists: a caretaker government that undertakes to engage in no sharp practices. In theory, Malta endorses the standard already. So all Abela needs to do is commit to adhere to it. But to get him to commit, he needs to be challenged to do so by the media.

It would not be meaningless. If he breaks that promise, it will haunt him during the election campaign. It would undermine all the noble pledges we can expect about restoring Malta’s reputation. If, however, he does keep that promise, it would enhance the value of every other campaign promise he makes.

But he needs to be asked. Somehow, right now no one is asking.

It’s partly understandable. All eyes are on the demands for heavy lifting needed for substantial reforms and constitutional changes. The likes of Pieter Omtzigt, the Council of Europe’s rapporteur, draws most of the attention when he wags a finger at Owen Bonnici. The institutionalised rot in the police corps, and the sleaze emerging in the assassination-related inquiry and court cases, take up the rest of the attention.

Yet these urgent and time-consuming reforms are distracting us from the urgent and instantaneous commitments the prime minister can give us today.

Let’s begin with conflicts of interest. Does Abela commit to ending the practice of backbench MPs being given roles in the Executive? He doesn’t need to end it overnight. But is he ready to commit to putting a stop to it by the end of this legislature?

Does he agree with the topsy-turvy hierarchy in the civil service? Currently, the top civil servant can also serve under a permanent secretary who serves under him…

Let’s go on to accountability. Does Abela guarantee that this year the ministerial declarations of income and assets will all be filed on time? Will they all conform to the same rules – unlike some previous years when, depending on what was more convenient, one minister included his wife’s income and another didn’t?

Does Abela commit to investigating why Konrad Mizzi’s ministerial direct orders were published so late (if all of them even were), breaking the law?

Will we be given a report of Sai Mizzi’s work to date – and when? This can’t be difficult if her work is already being accounted for.

Next, some questions about transparency. Does the prime minister commit to punishing any minister, public official or civil servant who does not use government servers and email for government-related work?

Will Freedom of Information requests be treated seriously? The Muscat government treated them evasively. Any information divulged was the exception rather than the rule. Should we look forward to further routine denials on the basis of ‘commercial sensitivity’? There’s plenty to indicate that was a euphemism for, ‘How I raid the public coffers is a proprietary professional secret and none of your business’.

And let’s just end, for now, on freedom of expression. Will the Department of Information respect the law and include all media organisations when issuing statements?

Does Abela, as Labour leader, commit not to use partisan online armies for cyberbullying and doxing (giving out the personal information of a target)?

None of these questions requires anything more than a promise and, sometimes, a deadline. They require no thought, only political decency. They ask if Abela is ready to follow the minimum standard practices of governments committed to accountability, transparency, separation of powers and freedom of expression. No institutional reform is required; only reform of behaviour.

The questions ask for the information we need to make an informed choice at the next, probably imminent, general election. If we don’t have the self-respect to insist we deserve the answers, we need not wonder why we’re given scant respect by our politicians.

Former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat at the launch of the Streamcast data centre in 2018.

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Special Rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Pieter Omtzigt.

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