An indictment of the entire political system

It is, in a nutshell, patently unacceptable for government to keep pointing towards the failures of the Nationalist Party – which has now been in opposition for almost a decade – as an excuse to sidestep its own, pressing responsibilities today

The latest GRECO compliance report, published on 24 May, goes some distance towards illustrating the time-honoured expression: ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same.’ 

It will be remembered that Malta joined the Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption more than 20 years ago, in 2001. Since then, the country has been subject to three rounds of evaluation: in December 2002, July 2005, and October 2009 respectively. 

Collectively, these evaluation reports identified no fewer than 23 key areas, where Malta needed to introduce serious reforms to ward against corruption and maladministration. And as this newspaper has variously noted, over the years: some of these recommendations focused on the same systemic problems that have meanwhile contributed so much to the blackening of Malta’s international reputation.  

These include issues such as ‘impunity’; ‘persons of trust’; the lack (or ineffectiveness) of proper anti-corruption structures; insufficient party-financing laws; the need to maintain a proper distance, between the State’s legislative and enforcement arms... in a nutshell, all the major shortcomings that were separately identified by the public inquiry into the 2017 murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. 

Moreover, GRECO’s recommendations must also be viewed in light of Malta’s recent greylisting by the Financial Action Task Force:  for reasons that are entirely analogous with the structural deficiencies – including the lack of proper anti-money laundering infrastructure – identified separately by GRECO. 

And yet, the latest report reveals that – a full 20 years after the first evaluation – only two of the 23 recommendations (from the last round of investigations) have so far been ‘satisfactorily implemented’; and of the rest, twelve have been ‘partly implemented’; while nine have not been implemented at all. 

In fact, the report itself barely conceals the Council’s frustration at the way the current government is so clearly dragging its feet. As recently as 2019, for instance, GRECO had warned that: “Malta clearly lacks an overall strategy and coherent risk-based approach when it comes to integrity standards for government officials. 

”Last month’s report states that: “As already underlined in the evaluation report, Malta needs an overarching anti-corruption strategy, which would serve as key policy guidance towards improving action against corruption. GRECO urges the authorities to proceed with the development of such [a] strategy based on proper risk assessments without any further delay.” 

On the subject of ‘persons of trust’, it further notes that: “at this stage, there are no rules or legislation to regulate contacts between the Persons entrusted with Top Executive Functions (PTEFs) and lobbyists/third parties in place, not even at the drafting level. It follows that GRECO cannot consider this recommendation to be implemented, even partly.” 

But perhaps the most disappointing aspect about the GRECO report, is not the conclusions themselves – damning though they were – but rather, the way in which the Maltese government has so far chosen to respond.  

Incredibly, Justice Minister Jonathan Attard even tried to ‘exploit’ these findings, to score cheap political points over his Parliamentary adversaries. “The fact that the report has confirmed government has started to carry out the recommendations, is in itself positive”, he told Parliament last week. “The last time a report was received under the PN legislature, the conclusions read that not one of the recommendations was carried out...” 

Needless to say, this is unacceptable on a wide variety of levels. In the first place, the ‘last time a report was received under the PN legislature’ was actually in 2009 – almost 14 years ago. And while it is true that the Nationalist administration of the time had likewise failed to take the necessary action – and also, that “We would only hear about the GRECO when former MP Franco Debono had criticised his own government on the financing of political parties” – the fact remains that Labour has been in power, uninterruptedly, for almost all the intervening years. 

In fact, former PM Joseph Muscat had inherited those same recommendations from Lawrence Gonzi, all the way back in 2013. So it simply beggars belief, that today’s justice minister would still be ‘hiding behind the inaction of the PN government’, to justify his own government’s inaction 10 years later. 

Moreover, the childish taunt only provoked an entirely legitimate retort from Nationalist MP Mark Anthony Sammut, who aptly noted that: “Under a PN administration, the GRECO had only criticised the government on party financing; while today’s report criticises government on rule of law, corruption, low standards and organised crime.”  

Sammut may, admittedly, be exaggerating slightly, there. Certainly, the 2009 GRECO report complained about more than just ‘party financing’ – there was also the issue of the appointment of judges – but nonetheless, his overall point clearly remains valid. 

Times have changed, since 2009. So has the government of Malta; and so, too, has the urgency with which these reforms now have to be undertaken. 

It is, in a nutshell, patently unacceptable for government to keep pointing towards the failures of the Nationalist Party – which has now been in opposition for almost a decade – as an excuse to sidestep its own, pressing responsibilities today. 

This has, in truth, gone on long enough. After 20 years, surely the time has come to finally start treating these reforms, with the seriousness they deserve.