“What’s in it for you?” is perhaps one of the most common headlines when discussing Malta’s yearly budget. A lot could be in it for you – or very little – that would remain to be seen, but what is certain is that the focus on the budget proposals will briefly drown out the rumblings of a general election.
The budget forgotten, our public debates will revert to the habitual noise, a mixture of partisan platitudes uttered by politicians and party officials, interspersed with red-herring proposals as vote-catching initiatives.
All this ‘noise’ draws attention away from some of the fundamental problems that plague the country’s public administration. Bar a couple of press releases by NGOs, when was the last time the recommendations made by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Board of Inquiry appeared in public discussions?
Aside from the occasional vapid post on social media, when was the last time we read or heard about Malta’s “rule of law reforms”?
One of the recommendations to strengthen the rule of law made by that board of inquiry specifically highlights the need to “introduce into the Maltese Criminal Code the new criminal offence of Abbuzo d’Ufficio” (abuse of office) committed by a public official or someone in charge of public service in the performance of his duties or in the exercise of his functions”.
There is currently no adequate offence generally covering abuse of office, but this consideration lies at the very core of every scandalous revelation, particularly in connection with the misuse of public funds, the complete subversion of the country’s public procurement process and the inflation of government posts with useless appointments.
Preventing the abuse and misuse of powers is central to the idea of the rule of law but the current provisions in Malta’s Criminal Code make it almost impossible to prove offences such as, for example, misappropriation of funds or embezzlement because of the way these offences are defined in the Code – what legal experts would define as the constituent elements of the particular offence.
This may go some way towards explaining why most ministers repeatedly treat their ministries like personal fiefdoms, with record-breaking direct orders running into tens of millions of euros – the way the offence is defined allows them to ‘slip through the net’.
It may also partially explain why ministers continue to bestow hundreds of pointless government jobs, resulting in an increase in public sector employment of at least 25% in just eight years – current laws are simply inadequate.
Abuse of office should also include the reckless misuse of public funds irrespective of whether or not the public official makes any personal gain from the ‘abusive act’. In short, just because a minister is not making personal financial gains does not mean that he is not misusing public funds or abusing his office.
Finance Minister Clyde Caruana confirmed that, as The Shift reported last month, the deficit this year will be almost double the government’s own projections in last year’s budget speech, at over 11% of GDP. Government debt has soared to dangerously high levels that are going to continue rising for the next couple of years.
The debt to GDP ratio this year is at 61.3%, according to Caruana, and will rocket to 62.4% in 2024 – the wanton waste of public funds by government officials matters.
Worse still, the minister in charge of Malta’s rule of law reforms, Edward Zammit Lewis, has proved himself thoroughly unsuitable to even contemplate such reforms considering his close friendship with Yorgen Fenech, his botched attempts at surreptitiously changing the Constitution ostensibly to facilitate the imposition of administrative penalties, and, more recently the revelation that he is persisting in dishing out lucrative contracts to party insiders by simple direct order – a flagrant example of abuse of office.
So rather than asking “what’s in it for you”, perhaps it’s time to consider how we can all carry this burden moving forward.