The Malta Independent 19 September 2020, Saturday

A dysfunctional democracy

Peter Agius Wednesday, 5 August 2020, 07:49 Last update: about 3 months ago

While campaigning for the European elections with the PN, I used to cross paths quite regularly with labour candidates, be it at one of the tv or radio interviews or at some popular feast where any candidate’s presence is a must. All would be in chosen company. One thing that struck me back then was how most of the labour candidates had full time support from people who happen to work in public offices.

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For me and my colleagues on the opposition side or with the smaller parties, campaigning meant out of pocket expenses and unpaid personal leave. This was probably not necessary for those on the wagon of the ruling party. I am not saying the above in regret or recrimination. My point here is rather that our precepts of fair and open democratic competition between political choices, arguably a foundation stone of our society, may not be working as they should.

The help of assistants on the government’s payroll is indeed just the starter in a series of subtle or gross imbalances putting the ruling party at a systemic advantage all the way. Another gross anomaly relates to the exercise of elected mandate from the opposition benches. While on the government side you have an army of paid officials and assistants ready to help in formal and informal capacities. Meanwhile, the exercise of the role of a representative of the people from the opposition benches lacks even the basic support of a clerical assistant. And yet our MPs, no matter their sitting, are meant to scrutinise and contribute to draft legislation at national level, with hundreds of bye-laws submitted for amendments and approval in parliamentary committees. Our MPs are now also meant to carefully analyse the effects of EU legislation on our islands with a view to using the tools of parliamentary reserves on proposals by the European Commission. This is a tool introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon which now empowers national chambers to pull an emergency brake on proposals going beyond EU powers.

Now, imagine the limits to your contribution as an MP when your energy for Parliament starts after a long day of other full-time work without any assistants or any office of any sort to ease and prepare your political decisions. Unsurprisingly, Malta is becoming accustomed to copy-paste implementation of EU legislation lock stock and barrel leading to often perverse and sometimes ridiculous outcomes like a proposed bill on navigation of internal waterways. Fancy navigating the Chadwick lakes? Read the Maltese law first!

MPs in all other European democracies are full-timers with a dedicated office and a team of specialised officials at their disposal. From Luxembourg to Italy, no one expects the representatives of the people to do their duties with a part-time assignment in isolation from any professional support.

It seems to me that the Maltese situation is the product of generations of inertia, possibly fuelled by the parameters of a legal profession where you would need mornings for court and afternoons for office. Parliament can therefore only start at 20:00. No wonder we stand at the 154th place in the world ranking of women in politics.  

Back to the symptoms of a dysfunctional democracy. This week I managed to speak to Facebook Europe about the abuse of public funds by labour ministers for their personal promotion of social media. Most of us followed with incredulity the Standards Commissioner’s findings that labour ministers are regularly using public funded productions to promote themselves on their personal facebook pages. Even more seriously, some of them have been caught red handed promoting personal posts ad nauseam on our walls over and over again, paid from public funds. You and me have paid for personal facebook promotions selling us the mantra of their knight-like support to Joseph Muscat’s Camelot. How sick does that make you?

We cannot accept this any longer. In their hunger to control every aspect of society, from village band committees and pseudo intellectuals with person of trust contracts, to households with vouchers and well timed hand-outs, labour is now intent on dominating one of the last remaining bastions of free expression where likes and shares, as misplaced as they might be, rule and dictate popularity.

Extending the pervasion of politics on facebook is not making Malta a better place, all the more when done clandestinely from our own taxes. On the contrary, all this combined is reducing us into a dysfunctional democracy where we think people rule when they don’t even get the right for a decent balance of information. Equality of arms between political voices is not simply a principle inspiring every modern democracy, it translates into concrete legal obligations for anyone in power. I will step up the fight for that equality of arms, firstly by upping my political engagement. They can try to shout more by misappropriating public funds, but they cannot keep up if more of us muster the courage to expose their lies. Secondly, I join the courageous efforts of those fighting the abuse of public money in court. We want our money back, we want a proper democracy running on the confrontation of ideas on an equal platform. We need to go the full way on this. 

Peter Agius, EU expert and MEP candidate

[email protected]

 

 

 

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