Urgent need for a transparency registry

For as a country, we also need to learn that democracy and transparency also come at a cost: which is worth paying to avoid a downward spiral into a corporate dictatorship dominated by secretive cabals

One of the most problematic aspects of governance, on a global level, is that public authorities are often perceived as lubricants for private gain; rather than as guardians of public interests.

The underlying - and often justified - suspicion is that corporations can literally get their way, by cosying up to top politicians with a view to twisting rules and regulations in their favour.   

This is not just a Maltese problem. A leaked trove of over 100,000 documents has revealed how ride-hailing giant Uber used its secret relationship with top European politicians - including French president Emmanuel Macron, when he was serving as the country’s economy minister; and even Former EU Digital Commissioner Neelie Kroes – for its aggressive global expansion.

Yet the problem in Malta is amplified not just by the dangerous notion that politicians should be ‘close to the people’; but also by the complete absence of regulations on lobbying.  As the Organisation for Economic and Social Development (OECD) has noted in a report issued on Monday, lobbying in Malta remains “unregulated and opaque”.

It is even more striking that government has failed to address this situation despite the ramifications of the various spin offs of the Panama Papers, and the Caruana Galizia murder plot: which even included embarrassing WhatsApp chats exposing the over-familiarity between Ministers and top officials with Yorgen Fenech, the alleged mastermind of the assassination.     

And, once again thanks to the inertia of the government, it had to be an international body – the OECD - to jolt us out of our slumber.  This is regrettable, as it confirms that our politicians only act when hard-pressed by reputable international organisations like GRECO, the Venice Commission and, in this case, the OECD.  But shouldn’t Maltese politicians be the ones to protect their voters from the undue influence of corporate actors?

Above all, however, it is their failure to ever introduce a transparency registry – as proposed by Standards Commissioner George Hyzler two years ago – that deepens suspicions. Moreover, a law regulating lobbying, proposed by the opposition, was likewise shot down, along with other anti-corruption laws, earlier this year.

It is certainly no coincidence, that government would be reluctant to enact such legislation. For with a transparency registry in place, all government officials - including Ministers and Prime Ministers - would have had to log all the meetings in relation to scandalous deals such as the transfer of ODZ land in Zonqor to the Sadeen group; the sale of public hospitals to Vitals; or the decision to include Mriehel in the high-rise zone, after the conclusion of the public consultation period.

In the absence of any record of such meetings, the lurking suspicion remains that over-familiarity between politicians and businessmen is skewing the democratic process.    

This results in a sorry state of affairs, where regulations and permits are often designed in a way which enriches the few, whilst often impoverishing entire communities.  A case in point is the overdevelopment taking place in every nook and cranny of the country; or ludicrous decisions like allowing Valletta establishment to play load music after 11 pm.

Of course, one may argue that devious politicians will always find a way around such obligations. That is why the OECD also proposes sanctions, for those who breach the Regulation of Lobbying Act.  (In short: if politicians risk jail time, they might be less eager to play around with the rules.)   

Another of the OECD’s proposals is to oblige government to publish a legislative footprint, that indicates the lobbyists consulted in the development of any legislative initiatives.  In this way, all meetings preceding the issue of new regulations would be recorded, and could be followed by the public in real time.    

Equally relevant is the OECD proposal to preclude former politicians from lobbying on behalf of the private sector, immediately after the end of their political career. The recent appointment of Joseph Muscat in an organisation which represents top tier football clubs – effectively becoming a lobbyist himself, three years after resigning from office – Is a case in point.   

Another example was how the Malta Developers Association had recruited Marthese Portelli, the Opposition’s former spokesperson for planning; and also Deborah Schembri, a former parliamentary secretary responsible for planning under Labour.  The employment of former PN politicians by the DB Group is yet another indication of the cosy relationship between the political class and business lobbyists.

The lack of enthusiasm for reform in this sector may well reflect the self-interest of politicians who thrive in a system of patronage and who actually invest in their own retirement by courting business connections during their term in office.

Politicians can only prove us wrong by supporting laws which set up the much-needed firewall between big business and the political class.  This should obviously be accompanied by a holistic reform : including higher salaries for full-time parliamentarians, as well as transparent mechanisms to ease the transition from politics to the labour market.

For as a country, we also need to learn that democracy and transparency also come at a cost: which is worth paying to avoid a downward spiral into a corporate dictatorship dominated by secretive cabals.