A fabricated abuse

The minister should have been given some advice. Instead, apparently, the permanent secretary just obliged

Education Minister Justyne Caruana
Education Minister Justyne Caruana

The recent fall of the Labour minister responsible for education, Justyne Caruana, is a sad story. The woman had a promising political career in front of her when she had to throw out her husband for the sake of her career and her integrity, losing her ministerial position in the process.

Making a political comeback by being reappointed minister, she then went on to abuse of her new position and award, via a direct order, a fake contract to a male friend – former footballer Daniel Bogdanovic – who was ‘neither qualified nor competent enough’ to carry out the job.

When the Standards Commissioner, George Hyzler, gained limited access to the former footballer’s government emails, it resulted that a ministry consultant – Paul Debattista – had actually written the report. All along, copies of all e-mails between the two ‘consultants’ had been sent to the minister.

In ‘awarding’ this contract Justyne Caruana was helped by those who should have known better and stopped her. Instead they stupidly thought that to kow-tow to her foolish wishes was the best way to serve her. It was not.

The teachers’ unions were flabbergasted. The Union of Professional Educators pointed out that several competent teachers could have carried out Bogdanovic’s job, which was to visit government schools and draft recommendations on how to improve the national sports school’s ability to produce elite athletes. They added that the award of the contract meant that a person with zero expertise in the education sector was going to conduct research to influence the way teachers work

The union said that the ministry’s permanent secretary who signed the contract, Dr Frank Fabri, should be investigated for allegedly breaching the Education Act but warned that it cannot exactly report him to the Council for the Teaching Profession because the permanent secretary appointed the board himself, adding “We expect someone to wake up and for Dr Fabri to be taken up to the Public Service Commission to answer for his actions.”

In my mind a different question arises. Who is the more foolish of the two: Justyne Caruana or Frank Fabri?

There is only one person who can take action against Fabri: the Principal Permanent Secretary and Secretary to Cabinet, Mario Cutajar. Will he do it?

Mario Cutajar recently paid a visit to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Anġlu Farrugia, who was presented with the latest publication from the Public Service, ‘Governance Action on the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s Annual Report 2020’.

On that occasion, Cutajar explained that the Public Service is putting forward several recommendations so that entities that oversee government operations do so to the highest standards. With these recommendations, these entities, including the Ombudsman’s Office and the Auditor General’s Office, would lead by example and follow the same levels of transparency and governance as they demand from the public administration.

Were these just empty words? Or a veiled attack to ‘defend’ government’s several transgressions that these entities find in the way government does things?

Ministry Permanent Secretaries provide the vital link between the political minister and the civil service responsibility in the various departments under the ministry’s umbrella.

This is an important function and this job should not be taken to be just the responsibility of making the minister’s dreams and fantasies come true, whatever the cost.

When permanent secretaries think that their minister is going to take a false step, their first duty is to advise the minister of the possible consequences of the decisions they want to take. And to frankly advise the minister to refrain from taking what they feel is the wrong step.

In my experience as minister many moons ago, I always asked for the opinion of the permanent secretary before taking a decision – not for the political direction but to ensure that such decisions will not end up facing the nitty gritty of financial regulations or of trade union niceties, as well as to see how the different responsibilities in the civil service structure could be affected.

I would have expected that in this case a frank exchange between Justyne Caruana and her permanent secretary had to take place. The minister should have been given some advice. Instead, apparently, the permanent secretary just obliged.

This is a more serious issue than Justyne Caruana’s foolishness.

Malta in the news

Malta was again in the international press this week – not because of our financial muddles, but because Malta became the first country in the European Union to formally legalise the use and cultivation of marijuana for recreational purposes.

In fact, similar forms of decriminalisation exist in other European countries, such as the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, but in those cases, possession of small amounts of cannabis can still be a civil offence and coffee shops or cannabis social clubs are ‘tolerated’ or only ‘de facto’ allowed by court decisions.

In December 2020, the United Nations removed marijuana from a list of the most dangerous drugs, and several countries are now moving toward a more liberal approach. This year, the 500,000 signatures necessary to hold a referendum to legalise marijuana were surpassed in Italy, and the governments of Luxembourg and Germany have announced plans to pass laws decriminalizing the substance.

While the government has said that the new law would not encourage drug consumption, but only protect those who chose to use the drug, many disagree.

The decriminalisation of marijuana is a good step but many think that the new law went too far beyond decriminalisation.

The number of NGOs who oppose this step is not small – giving a chance for a possible success of the idea floated by Ivan Grech Mintoff’s Abba. This calls for the collection of signatures for a public referendum to be held on the ‘unwanted Cannabis Act’, with the aim of having the law revoked.

Such a petition must include the signatures of at least 10 per cent of eligible voters to force a referendum. Abba estimates that it will require approximately 36,000 to 38,000 signatures to force the issue.

A referendum about this law is a good idea as such legislation should not be an imposition of the government against the feelings of the majority.