Scrutiny and standards go hand in hand

Criticism is for has-beens, accountability is for fools, and standards are for the “holier than though”- this is what years of political propaganda have done to the country’s collective mindset – annihilating any expectation of acceptable standards in our public institutions and turning anyone who tries to insist on holding these institutions to account into figures of universal mockery.

By consistently equating criticism with “hatred”, “negativity” and partisanship, instead of viewing it as an attempt to improve a service or an organisation, every public body, and many persons in a position of authority seem to consider themselves above scrutiny, and consequently feel that they can proceed, undeterred, with retaining abysmal standards – all to the detriment of the taxpayer.

If they’re above scrutiny, then so are we

On Monday, the Office of the Ombudsman published the documentation in connection with a recommendation that was not implemented by The University of Malta.

In response to the recommendation, the University’s pro-rector Carmen Sammut wrote to the Ombudsman’s Commissioner for Education informing him that the University will not implement the recommendations because the composition of the Boards of Examiners “cannot be subject to review by the Office of the Commissioner for Education” as this would impinge upon the “academic supremacy of the Senate”.

The education commissioner replied that Sammut’s suggestion runs contrary to the “clear wording of the law” adding that such an approach was a “disservice to our Alma Mater, fostering as it does at best a perceived culture of academic arrogance and at worst one of institutional impunity”.

Sammut could have simply written, like many before her, that she disagreed with the Ombudsman’s conclusions, without invoking the “academic supremacy of the Senate” as a pretext to fend off inquiries and investigations into alleged mismanagement by the University.

It reflects the prevalent attitude towards criticism by many of Malta’s top government officials.

If the Principal Permanent Secretary, Mario Cutajar can misuse the Right of Reply to lash out at the Office of the Ombudsman, and Glenn Bedingfield can usurp precious parliamentary time to go after the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life and work with the Speaker of the House to shield individuals like Rosianne Cutajar from accountability, we can hardly fault the pro-rector for trying her hand at emulating this approach.

More shielding, fewer standards

Sammut’s response reflects a deeper malaise afflicting much of Malta’s administration.

For years, political propaganda has promoted the idea that asking a politician to behave better or asking an institution to correct a questionable practice or make good for a mistake, has got little to do with improving the standards to better serve the people. Instead, it’s all about hatred and division, nit-picking and perceived “superiority”.

This gives those in power the necessary leeway to keep things unchanged (for their own benefit in most cases).

The list of areas where standards have plummeted is endless, so we’re just going to take a snippet of things everyone can see, every day, as they try to go about their business. We don’t need to look far.

For example, Ian Borg’s disdain for journalists’ questions is well-documented. Nevertheless, during his time as transport minister, roads have been widened, flyovers inaugurated, pesky centenary trees removed, and direct orders dished out a-plenty, but everyone’s daily commute is as miserable as ever, the roads still flood where they shouldn’t, and traffic still backs up (sometimes for kilometres) as soon as there’s an accident.

There was no improvement in the standards of the island’s infrastructure or traffic flow – it is only the public coffers that are worse off.

What about our poor planning and construction standards, that neither party in parliament want to address concretely? This suits the construction lobby just fine. It can maintain its stranglehold on our politicians and ‘regulatory’ authorities while land, habitats, and viewscapes continue to be gobbled up by ghastly “blocks”, and building contractors can continue to operate substandard health and safety practices with impunity.

In 2020, a few months after Miriam Pace lost her life when her home collapsed due to excavations that were taking place next door, the National Audit Office found that the Occupational Health and Safety Authority (OHSA) still did not have a proper checklist to guide its safety inspectors when they review construction sites.

The OHSA brushed off the need for a comprehensive list, despite the Auditor General insisting that all details resulting from an inspection should be comprehensively recorded on a checklist and agreed to a reduced list with a set of guidelines.

Fast forward to 2022 (and many more injuries and deaths later) and footage emerges of scaffolding dangerously close to toppling onto a busy road. The Times of Malta reported that the Scaffolding Inspection Certificate, which was signed by a warranted engineer and stated that the scaffolding in question “has been inspected in accordance with the OHSA Regulations”.

Perhaps the Auditor General was not nit-picking, after all.

Those odious comparisons

This antagonism towards standards that pervades almost every corner of our culture may suit our government, except when they end up under international scrutiny.

In Malta, Rosianne Cutajar may have weaselled her way out of any form of accountability following a damning report by the Standards Commissioner that concluded she was involved in brokering a €3.1 million property deal involving Yorgen Fenech.

On the other hand, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) of which she was a part, voted that there was indeed a serious breach of rules of conduct when she failed to disclose a conflict of interest as she chose to speak out against a public inquiry into the Caruana Galizia assassination at the Assembly.

Shifting blame and shoulder-shrugging may suffice as an answer in Malta but it didn’t work with the European Public Prosecutor who reported that she was ‘unable to identify’ the institution in Malta responsible for detecting financial crimes, and recalled how nobody could provide her with answers on fraud investigations during a visit to the island.

Former minister within the Office of the Prime Minister Carmelo Abela may have sneered at criticism that Malta’s public broadcaster is heavily influenced by the Labour Party and government, but an international study by the Centre for Media, Data and Society still classified it as “State Controlled”.

The prime minister and the Leader of the Opposition may trade snide barbs and retorts during their speeches in parliament, but in front of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky our politicians cut a sorry figure, proving, as Jacques René Zammit pointed out, “that their skills are only useful to sway the home crowd with their appeals to themes and narratives that are only understood within the confines of the islands.”

Both are politicians, not statesmen. And the home crowd has been taught that this is the acceptable standard.

                           
                               
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