To trust or not to trust

In the past few weeks there have been several embarrassing (to the government and to the country) revelations and accusations regarding the actions of people enjoying positions of trust within the government. Let us analyse a little what a position of trust means.

The idea of appointing people personally trusted by prime ministers and ministers directly does have some basis in good governance. It seems to be pretty reasonable that a member of cabinet would want to know that those closest to him could be trusted and that discussions overheard would not be leaked to the general public and the press prematurely. It would therefore be just as reasonable that he/she would want to appoint people he/she has known for years and with whom they have a long-standing relationship. Originally positions of trust were understood to be those literally closest to the high ranking official. Namely personal drivers and personal secretaries. As long as the appointments were limited to those in direct contact the system worked very well.

Recently, however, we have seen an explosion of appointees in positions not only not directly in contact with the minister concerned, but with a considerable amount of authority and autonomy. This is where things have gone pear shaped. The civil service runs on career professionals who owe their allegiance, not to ministers, not to a particular political party, but to their employer, the state.

They carry on doing the job they have trained and studied for, no matter who is in government, like all true professionals. And like all true professionals their political allegiance does not affect their performance. As a doctor, I have often come across situations where I have treated people I don’t particularly like, but does that affect my actions? Not at all. They get the best I have to give. This is the same with the civil service.

And this is the crux of the current problem. Appointees of political trust have often been given positions of political, administrative and financial power, not because of their qualifications, as many are not qualified to do the job, but in return for a favour by the minister concerned for past services within their party or on the electoral campaign. And as they are basically political appointees they know that when the government changes they will be thrown out with the political party they support.

The effect of this is two-fold. Firstly, their allegiance lies, not with their country, but with the person and party who appointed them. Their decisions are not taken on the principle of what is right for Malta but on political expediency.

Secondly, a few, and fortunately it is a few, will try to make hay whilst the sun shines. By being given positions where they are able to sign off contracts and purchases of considerable value, human nature being what it is, they are exposed to the temptations of corruption, and do succumb. Having not gone through a proper vetting process, the moral character of these people has not undergone due scrutiny and the result is there for all of us to see.

We need to change the law and limit appointments of positions of trust to those directly in contact with a minister. They should be barred from any position where decisions of national importance are made. They should be nowhere near the decision-making process where contracts and tenders are decided upon. And in the case where they stray from good governance, the person appointing them should know he/she is directly responsible for their actions and must pay for them, as it was they who vouched for them.

Anthony Buttigieg is deputy leader of the Partit Demokratiku