The Malta Independent 19 September 2020, Saturday

TMID Editorial: Malta’s political class - Clientelism

Tuesday, 4 August 2020, 08:49 Last update: about 3 months ago

How often have we heard stories about people needing a job for their children approaching politicians to ask for one, or allegations of developers getting too cosy with the political class thus shedding doubts on whether there was a backroom deal? Too often.

Malta is a small country, which in itself has its positives. Firstly, you’re never too far away from the nearest beach, never too far away from family and friends, and it makes it hard to keep wrongdoing hidden for too long.

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But there are also downsides. Everyone knows each other, thus meaning that it is very hard for the political class to keep separate from big business, and is even harder for politicians to create a barrier between them and their constituents. Abroad politicians would be judged on their policies by the public, not on how well they know them personally, or how high the chance they have of obtaining a favour. Yes that still happens, but the consequence in terms of the actual voter-base is smaller. How many times have politicians been elected who don’t really earn their seat, but are simply their because of their closeness to the constituents in their district and do near to nothing except sit pretty?

But Malta’s political class has other flaws, some caused by the bi-partisan culture in the country, where for a large section of the population, a politician from their party can almost never do wrong. This means that effectively those who are loyal to the party can get ahead not based solely on their ideas or their vision, but on their blind loyalty alone.

So what possible alternatives could there be? Some would say that tweaks to the electoral system itself could be an option, others recommend reducing the number of MPs in Malta to eliminate those elected just because they are close to their particular section of constituents, as with fewer MPs, more people will have to vote in favour of them to be elected, thus meaning more people with vision would make it to Parliament.

There are many points for discussion in this regard, but perhaps what is most needed is a change in mentality. People shouldn’t feel the need to approach politicians asking for a job for them or their children. This reliance needs to be abolished, but in order to do so politicians must collectively agree to outright condemn such requests.

In terms of politicians being too close to business, this is a whole other problem. The Commissioner for Standards in Public Life has recently put forward a revised code of ethics for MPs and ministers to be debated by the politicians themselves. He proposes the introduction of such things like the introduction of a Register for Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality, as well as requirements for ministers to be subject to employment restrictions for a period of three years after leaving office for example, and the requirement for ministers to record all relevant communications with lobbyists in a Transparency Register.

All steps in the right direction in terms of ensuring that favours to big business are not being exchanged.

Another factor that needs to be considered is the current wages of ministers and MPs. The country should attract the best and brightest into the political class, ones who are above reproach and cannot be corrupted. Yet how can we ensure that this is the case when  the wage they receive is nowhere near what top people in business, industry or professions earn? This is a question that of course requires much debate, since perhaps this would need to be tied with the concept of full-time MPs who cannot continue working in their profession, and with the other side of the argument being that public finances could possibly be better spent.

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