Reform needed, but no consensus on path
In 2016, several good governance reforms were introduced; this process, however, was cut short by the early elections in 2017. The electoral campaign provided an opportunity for all political parties to promote further reforms, including an overhaul of the constitution. Talk on the need for institutional reform is widespread, but there is no consensus on how to go about it. The present electoral system does not include a minimum national threshold for a party to send members to parliament. This has enabled the two major political parties to utilize patronage and clientelism to retain their grip on power. Consequently, there is little faith that they will weaken their own political position by reforming the electoral system. Reform through a civil society compact is regarded as unwieldy. A third option is a council of state composed of key stakeholders representing elites. To date, no process has been decided upon. Nevertheless, a public debate on the necessary changes has been ongoing. A piecemeal process to reform may prove to be the way forward. The public debate may generate consensus and provide principles which can be taken up by the government and opposition and implemented through parliament.
Strengthening separation of powers crucial. Part-time MPs blur private-public interests
Whatever process is adopted, there is agreement that the point of departure should be the shoring up of the separation of powers. Such a reform could counter the prevalent political model where a single party government retains a majority in parliament. Parliament has been strengthened by the introduction of the ombuds office and yearly increase of parliamentary committees as well as the empowering of the speaker’s office to draw up reform plans and oversee parliament’s budget. Nonetheless, Malta’s part-time MPs continue to demonstrate a lack of expertise on many policy issues. MPs generally prioritize their private careers over parliamentary business, lowering their contribution to government and the public’s opinion of them. Especially over the last twenty years, this has given rise to a dangerous blurring of lines between many MPs’ private interests and public service. Overall, parliament contributes very little to policymaking in Malta. MPs should be transitioned to full time. Electoral reforms and the introduction of a minimum threshold are sorely needed to facilitate the entry into parliament of political parties representing minority interests. The two-party system has not encouraged a bipartisan approach. Instead, the winner-takes-all approach has bred a destructive politics of division and mutual distrust. A shift from a two-party to a multi-party system may erode this us-against-them polarization.
Judicial reforms must
The government has adopted some recommendations from the Bonello report it commissioned to address shortcomings in the judiciary. These have increased the efficiency of the judiciary. The recent creation of a judicial appointments committee is the first step toward increasing the independence of the judiciary. However, present reforms do not go far enough. A new process is needed for the selection of the chief justice. The role of the Attorney General has also come under scrutiny. The position’s dual role as legal counselor to the government and public prosecutor is no longer suitable and should be wielded separately. Also, the introduction of courses for lawyers pursuing the judicial track is long overdue and the nomination of court experts needs to be formalized.
Oversight agencies should be empowered. Anti-corruption bodies should be strengthened
With regard to the executive and its civil service, the appointment of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, an office approved by parliament in 2016, remains urgently needed. Additionally, the ombuds office should be afforded the same powers as the audit office and given the remit to annually review the efficiency of government ministries and departments. When not implemented by the government, the recommendations of the ombuds office should be placed before parliament for further discussion. The long-standing practice of employing political appointees in the public service must be reviewed as it undermines transparency and accountability. The parliamentary appointments committee, recently established to assist in the selection of ambassadors and commission heads, will strengthen consensual politics, but the procedure needs to be further developed. The recommendation that a council of state, composed of key stakeholders, should be involved in the selection of heads of authorities, commissions and boards should be studied. Auditing the work of the executive and its civil service in procedures such as tendering could be further facilitated by an amelioration of the freedom of information act. There is also a need to establish an independent ethics committee to oversee the various ethics codes that regulate public servants. The Permanent Commission Against Corruption must be better staffed, meet more frequently and ensure that all cases are satisfactorily concluded. The opposition party’s delay tactics in nominating members to the commission does not bode well. While accusations of corruption have been a common method of attacking the government of the day since 1921, it is also evident that accusations made by opposition parties are rarely investigated, suggesting that there is no real commitment to fight corruption.
Better planning, environment links needed
Recent reforms that decoupled the planning and environmental authorities must be reassessed to ensure both authorities fully participate in decisions related to development planning and the protection of Malta’s natural habitats.
critical for stability
critical for stability
Measures to address the integration of migrants have been drawn up and must now be implemented. In an island country the size of Malta, integration is a sine qua non for future stability.
Police force needs
Finally, Malta’s police force must be afforded the necessary competences and resources to fulfill their duty to secure the EU’s most southern border. Malta’s economy is now heavy enmeshed in the international economy and, in consequence, is confronted with levels of international crime unprecedented for the small island country.
A Review of the Constitution of Malta at Fifty; Rectification or Redesign (2014) The Today Public Policy Institute