The Malta Independent 18 January 2020, Saturday

How to fix our democracy for good

Kevin Cassar Saturday, 28 December 2019, 10:07 Last update: about 21 days ago

There is only one sure way to fix our democracy. Only good men should be eligible to contest party leadership posts. That would guarantee a good person as our prime minister - and preserve our democracy. As Kin Hubbard put it, the problem is “We’d all love to vote for the best man, but he’s never a candidate”. Those who lack the integrity, honesty and courage required for this vocation should be excluded from even being considered for any position of power.

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In his book ‘Politics’ Aristotle stated that only those who are most virtuous should have the strongest claim to rule. The only legitimate use of political power ought to be to achieve good and worthwhile ends that serve the best interests of the country. That is not what has happened to Malta.

One thing we can all agree on is that Joseph Muscat repeatedly failed the “good man” test. He failed the test when he removed the obligation of politicians to include their spouse’s assets in their declaration of assets, when he recruited as advisors those accused or found guilty of serious crimes.

He failed when he defended those he knew were involved in corruption - Konrad MIzzi, Keith Schembri, when he conspired with Kalin and Owen Bonnici to ruin a journalist through SLAPP lawsuits, when he recruited offensive and divisive individuals such as Josef Caruana and Bedingfield to do his dirty work.

He continues to fail the test as he clings on to power and uses his victory tour as a platform to sow hatred in his inflammatory speeches against protesters. He failed the test when he encouraged the systematic lies about private citizens by his TV and radio station, when he appointed to the bench unqualified individuals simply because of their political allegiance or to silence their relative and when he used his personal e-mail to hide his dealings with Henley and Partners and Cafe Premier.

He failed repeatedly when he promised the electorate meritocracy only to directly appoint unqualified and incompetent party stalwarts to key positions. He failed the test when he planned a project for promotion of investment between China and Malta that would be controlled by an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands. He failed the test when he systematically dismantled the institutions. He has failed the “good man” test by bringing the whole country into disrepute and end up suffering a devastating vote in the European Parliament condemning him for failing to step down.

The main protagonist in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall expressed a common view about politicians: “You know the ethics those guys have. It’s like a notch below child molester”. In Malta it’s not a joke. We’ve gone one step further - organized criminals and murderers.

All sorts of measures are now being proposed to protect our democracy from again being hijacked by “a gang”, as the President put it. The constitution should be revised, additional safeguards put in place, key positions filled through a two thirds majority. Ironically, even Adrian Delia has presented 15 proposals for good governance.

The truth of the matter is that the dire need for such measures has only come about because unscrupulous, self-serving egoists have been abusing power for the last 6 years. As long as we had decent honest men at the helm such changes were not felt necessary. Civility and fair play, honesty and integrity, respect and basic decency were enough. We had the peace of mind that whether we agreed or not with the politics of the prime minister our democracy was protected. We took moral rectitude, basic civility and honest decency for granted. Until we got Joseph Muscat.

The measures needed are those that will stop us getting another Joseph. His recipe and his values are examples of worst practice. Indeed they ought to be discarded and condemned and not “obeyed”, as his spouse advised.

No amount of safeguards, changes to the constitution or proposals will save us from another Joseph. Any safeguard can be circumvented. The way to prevent it is to never allow reprehensible, egotistical, amoral individuals anywhere near the levers of power again.

What needs to change is the statutes of the major political parties. A detailed, thorough and honest ethical evaluation of candidates for party leadership and other positions should be mandatory. The members of ethics boards entrusted with this role should be upstanding, incorruptible, respected individuals from outside the political field. They should be given the final say about whether a candidate should enter the political realm.

The evaluation should not be a one-off exercise but should be an annual review looking at attitudes, statements and actions of those in politics. Where politicians fail to reach the high standards the same ethics board should be empowered to take action - from warnings, to sanctioning to expulsion from the party. Even the prime minister would need to step down when his actions are deemed unacceptable.

We cannot rely on the public or the members of the political parties themselves to weed out rotten apples. We have seen, time and time again, overtly corrupt individuals being elected to power –often with a bigger count after their worst excesses were committed.

The exercise conducted by the Nationalist Party after Busuttil stepped down is an example of how this should not be done. Delia failed to explain to the Ethics committee the existence of a Jersey account, its use and the legality of funds transferred through it. There were other concerns that were not considered by the committee including his financial situation, outstanding tax arrears, his handling of the B’Kara goalkeeper drama, outstanding accusations of misappropriation of funds from Boris Arcidiacono. 

The administrative council simply recommended that he reconsider his candidacy rather than excluding him outright as they should have. The administrative council assumed it was dealing with an honest decent individual who would simply accept its recommendation. Somebody who should have been weeded out as being evidently unfit for the post of party leader, let alone prime minister simply ploughed on was elected leader. Those who fail the standards of an ethics committee cannot be expected to behave ethically - and Delia was no exception.

As Max Weber put it in his famous lecture ‘Politics as a Vocation’ “No Summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness, no matter which group may triumph externally now”.

The country depends on the political parties to avert the polar night of icy darkness. It depends on them to take the drastic steps required. If every party had rigorous processes in place to vet candidates and exclude those unfit we should never have to worry about the threat to democracy. We would not worry about checks and balances because we would know that our leaders would never be corrupted, never put their own party interests above those of the state, never use politics to divide the nation, never seek their own personal interests and those of their friends, never abuse their power. On the contrary our leaders would be a shining example of moral rectitude, intellectual honesty, credibility, civility and trustworthiness. They would respect their political opponents, promote transparency and see beyond the next election cycle. The time of choosing the least worst option should be over. The country needs it for its own survival.

 

Prof Kevin Cassar is consultant vascular surgeon at Mater Dei Hospital and Professor of Surgery at the University of Malta

 

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