The Malta Independent 26 June 2019, Wednesday

Let us act now to stop this rot

Adrian Delia Sunday, 17 March 2019, 09:30 Last update: about 4 months ago

When one of Europe's best legal minds signals a red flag on the state of our judiciary system, we should all stop, listen and ponder on the state of affairs in which our country finds itself. Judge Emeritus Giovanni Bonello's comments carried by The Malta Independent on Sunday should serve as an eye-opener for us all.

Let me focus on two things he said which, in my opinion, stand out.

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Judge Bonello states that while there are some very good judges "with great integrity" there are "some who are just there to rubber-rubber-stamp whatever the government expects them to rubber-stamp". Secondly, Judge Bonello pointed out: "of the last 17 appointments, 16 were all relatives of party politicians, cronies of ministers or are somehow political intertwined."

The issue here is not simply one of cronyism or nepotism, but when one joins the first observation with the second, what one gets is a recipe for long-term disaster in a country with foundations firmly grounded in the rule of law.

Our system of governance is based on checks and balances to ensure that nobody in this country has absolute power. As the saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

To avoid an unhealthy concentration of power Malta, like other democracies, built the State on the three main pillars of governance. These are the Executive (government), the law courts and the legislative (Parliament). Our courts and Parliament are meant to keep a check on government. Likewise, government and parliament are there to ensure that our justice system functions as it should. What Judge Bonello said last Sunday is basically that this system of checks and balances is not working; that our judicial system is aiding and abetting the government of the day rather than keeping it in check. He also said that, with the appointments meted out by this government to its cronies, this faulty system is going to deteriorate further in the next 50 years.

In other words, Joseph Muscat's legacy as a result of this crass nepotism will equate to 50 years of a dysfunctional system, a flawed democracy.

Judge Bonello's comments have to be viewed within a wider context. One of the very first pieces of legislation enacted by Joseph Muscat's government way back in 2013 was to remove the legal restrictions for sitting Members of Parliament to sit on government boards. Prior to 2013, government members of parliament were barred from sitting on government boards precisely because Parliament is meant to supervise the executive arm of government. Joseph Muscat removed this restriction in part to increase the remuneration of his backbench, but more importantly to remove the effective scrutiny of parliament over government. This is an important observation to make. With all these cases of nepotism, the biggest benefit is not going to those who were given an appointment of sort. The biggest beneficiary was Joseph Muscat who cemented greater freedom to act without supervision. At the opposite end, the biggest loser was democracy in Malta.

This is effectively what the Ombudsman said in his report about the sham promotions exercise carried out by the Army a few months after Labour won the 2013 election. The promotion exercise was slammed in the most absolute manner by the Ombudsman. In one of the letters he wrote to the Home Affairs Minister, the Ombudsman makes the point that the way the Ministry was dishing out Army promotions to cronies instead of those who most deserving "weakened democracy".

The same arguments put forward by the Ombudsman can be used with respect to the police force. Within hours of being appointed, Joseph Muscat removed John Rizzo, a Commissioner of high standing who would not have accepted political interference. He was replaced by a string of Commissioners who excelled in their inability to stand their ground against political pressure in police work. We know the net result of this interference. Ongoing investigations were stopped. Investigations that should have been carried out were not carried out. The police dragged its feet and continues to drag its feet on important cases. Again, Joseph Muscat, his government and close associates ended up with unrestricted power to go and do as they please.

The story, unfortunately, does not stop there. This system of appointing political appointees was extended to all government entities and authorities, including the MFSA, where appointments were approved by the Office of the Prime Minister on a case-by-case basis - as stated by the International Monetary Fund in a report published last month. The MFSA is the authority that issues bank licences and supervises bank operations. Enough said. The people who head our citizenship department today are government cronies.

There is a song by Daniel Merriweather "you took something perfect and painted it red". Malta was not perfect prior to 2013, but it was a functioning democracy. After 2013 we can no longer say that our democratic credentials are strong. We cannot say that Malta is still a flamboyant democracy. That is the key message coming from the Ombudsman, Judge Giovanni Bonello, the Venice Commission, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and other organisations. Let us act now to stop this rot. This country is going down a slippery and dangerous route.

The Nationalist Party in Opposition remains the champion when it comes to proposing solutions to strengthen good governance and the rule of law. Not only did we legislate, when in government, to achieve our vision of a  dynamicdemocracy, but we have also been steadfast in our commitment from the Opposition benches. The least this government can do is to heed our constant calls to respect the rule of law. We continue to urge the government to adhere to and adopt the recommendations made by the Venice Commission without further delay. We are also adamant when it comes to pushing for further amendments to the Constitution to improve our democratic process, once the Convention takes off after five years of bickering by this government during which it has availed itself of all the possible seats of power it could lay its hands on.     

 

Dr Adrian Delia is Leader of the Opposition and the Nationalist Party and Shadow Minister for Justice and Good Governance

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