The Malta Independent 21 May 2024, Tuesday
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Re-election campaign is an ongoing biased process

Emmanuel J. Galea Sunday, 21 April 2024, 08:20 Last update: about 2 months ago

In July 2023, the Nationalist Party (PN) led the Labour Party (PL) in three regions, marking a significant shift in regional support. PN had taken the lead in Gozo by four points, enjoying a 13.8-point lead in the Northern region. PN’s support in Gozo increased by 5.1 points, overturning PL’s previous four-point lead.

Fast forward nine months to March 2024. Now the PN faces significant challenges in Gozo. PL has made substantial gains in Gozo, where it leads PN by 23.8 points and achieved an absolute majority with 50.5% of the vote. Labour finds its strongest support among those earning less than €2,000 a month, while PN’s support base primarily comprises individuals earning between €2,001 and €3,000. Across all age groups, PL leads, with PN only showing increased support among the tertiary educated, despite a general decline in abstention rates, especially among the youth.

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This is the sad prevailing situation, especially in Gozo, where ‘power of incumbency’ is more influential than in Malta. This refers to the advantage government officials have in influencing voters because of their control over resources and policy decisions.

In a homily in Ghajnsielem, Bishop Anton Teuma criticised Gozo’s culture of political nepotism, where many are on the state payroll but don’t work. He called this equivalent to theft, setting a bad example for families. Research by ‘The Shift’ reveals a rise in Gozitans employed by the government, with one-third of workers in Gozo being public sector employees. The present government, through its flawed political practices, has aggravated this situation, where government ministries offer jobs for votes. Now Gozo’s three ministers are in a tense rivalry for votes. The reliance on public sector employment has also led to a dependency on imported cheap labour, with non-Maltese workers in Gozo’s labour market increasing significantly. 

The village of Għasri, with a tiny population, received double the number of state-funded workers compared to Malta’s largest locality, St Paul’s Bay, under the government jobless scheme. This discrepancy highlights a broader pattern where the government favours smaller local councils in Gozo over larger Maltese counterparts in worker allocation. Despite Gozo having only 13 local councils compared to Malta’s 54, both Gozo and Malta received an equal number of workers, reflecting an imbalance in resource distribution. The scheme, intended as job training for the long-term unemployed, has developed into a means of providing permanent government jobs with minimal work requirements, contributing to Gozo’s employment rates. Managed by the General Workers Union, the scheme costs €20 million annually, allowing participants to cease registering as unemployed, artificially lowering national unemployment figures. Gozo Ministry is using this scheme more than a political tool than an employment aid, with the National Audit Office (NAO) questioning its effectiveness beyond reducing unemployment statistics.

This vote securing strategy is more widespread and rewarding. Another NAO investigation revealed that the Gozo Ministry Strategy and Support Division unjustifiably spent nearly a million euros on overtime and allowances in 2021. The claims, often vague, suggested habitual overuse of overtime by its nearly 800 workers, raising concerns about the legitimacy of these expenses. This spending comprised 53% of the ministry’s entire budget for overtime and allowances. Because of the lack of justification and control, there has been ongoing scrutiny, highlighting systemic issues in the management and monitoring of work hours and performance. The NAO, who advised the ministry to tighten controls and tie overtime to specific targets deemed attendance records unreliable. Lack of documentation prevented the NAO from confirming €815,000 in allowances, underscoring the necessity for transparency and accountability in financial management within the division.

Again, a NAO report for 2022 exposed significant misconduct within the Gozo Ministry, implicating the Permanent Secretary (PS) in a series of abuses regarding public fund management, particularly in procurement practices. The appointment of this PS dates back to 2014. He served under three different Labour Ministers. He is now accused of repeatedly bypassing procurement rules by fragmenting substantial contracts into smaller segments to avoid public tenders, a direct violation of his duties. This method allowed the ministry to favour repeatedly the same service providers without competition for various services, including security, cleaning, and research. This goes against the principles of fairness and transparency in public procurement. Instances include issuing 37 direct orders to a single security company, totalling over €200,000, and similar practices in project management and research services. Despite these clear breaches of protocol and misuse of public funds, highlighted both by the NAO and previous reports by ‘The Shift’, the Prime Minister refrained from taking any action against this PS. This underlines further a concerning lack of accountability and a tolerance of corrupt practices at high levels of government, and calling into question the integrity of public institution operations in Malta.

Let’s not forget that now the Minister for Gozo has assumed responsibility for the Planning Authority. In Gozo, sheep and goat farm numbers rose to 633, an impressive figure given its small size and population. Gozo hosts 392 sheep farms and 241 goat farms. Serious concerns show these farms may be a pretext for building residences outside development zones because of lax regulations. Officially, these farms have registered nearly 4,400 sheep and 1,600 goats. Recent trends show a slight shift in farm registrations, with sheep farms decreasing by 11 and goat farms increasing by 18. Most new farm applications, especially for sheep, are stirring criticism over potential misuse of agricultural applications for unrelated development. This issue echoes broader concerns about exploiting regulatory loopholes for obtaining development permits, such as those for horse stables, prompting an investigation by the Ombudsman Environment Commissioner. 

Government projects in Gozo are always late, and with budget overruns. The Gozo Ministry’s ambitious project to open a multi-million euro Olympic-sized swimming pool and sports complex faces significant delays marking it as the latest in a series of troubled infrastructure endeavours. Initially mentioned in 2012 and with construction beginning in 2017, the project’s cost has soared from an estimated €9 million to potentially nearing €20 million, more than double the original budget. Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri, who took over the project in 2020 from the former minister Justyne Caruana, has set and missed multiple completion deadlines, with the latest promise for opening set for “later this year,” marking the fifth deadline change under his tenure. Despite these repeated assurances, the complex has yet to be completed, leaving local athletes without facilities for seven years. 

These tactics, while potentially boosting short-term political fortunes, raise concerns about the integrity of electoral processes and the fair treatment of all political parties. The misuse of incumbency power underscores the challenges of ensuring fair competition and the need for comprehensive electoral reform.

The future of Maltese politics will undoubtedly continue to be shaped by the dynamics of incumbency power. It is imperative for the PN and policymakers to engage in ongoing dialogue and reform efforts to ensure that this power serves the interests of democratic governance and fosters a political environment where in Gozo innovation, competition, and diversity thrive.

 

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