Patterns of resistance

The government’s reluctance, verging on recalcitrance, for meaningful reform is palpable.

Not only must the government be badgered into action, but once it does act the entire process (for whatever change is needed) is riddled with half-hearted attempts, rushed processes and failures to adequately consult, resulting in what are, at best, half-baked results, or tick-box exercises.

The announcement of the establishment of a committee of experts on the media as recommended by the board of the public inquiry is the latest example of the government’s overall attitude towards implementing meaningful change.

It took the government six months following the publication of the public inquiry report into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, to put together a committee, whose role ostensibly is to review draft legislative amendments prepared by the government, with two months to submit their comments on laws already sent.

But this is not quite what the panel of judges in the public inquiry recommended. The recommendation (on pages 445 – 446) was to appoint a committee to propose legislation, not to review legislation already penned by the government. And even if the government stated that these amendments were drafted following consultations with key stakeholders, the Opposition, which one would assume to be a key stakeholder, was not included.

International press freedom organisations have stressed that the committee “must be independent, reflect the full range of expertise needed and be chosen through transparent consultation with civil society”.

That is just one aspect of the recommendations put forward by the board of inquiry, and the government already appears to have somehow fudged it.

A few days earlier, when journalists asked Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis about the Bill presented by the Nationalist Party incorporating the major recommendations in the public inquiry, he replied that the government had already made many changes to the law that addressed the fight against organised crime and the way judges were appointed, among others and did not rule out working with the Opposition “if the measures made sense”.

Made sense? They are the recommendations made by the panel of judges – recommendations that Prime Minister Robert Abela declared he accepted.

Did it make sense to surreptitiously introduce Legal Notice 456, which gives the director-general of the court – a State employee who answers directly to the justice ministry – total discretion over whether court judgements are published online? Legal experts did not think so.

And what about Malta’s whistleblower protection law? Malta’s legislation reform was passed just in time to meet the 17 December 2021 deadline for the transposition of the EU Directive on improving whistleblower protection.

However, according to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) Rapporteur, Pieter Omtzigt, the reform did not provide whistleblowers with any real protection and “ignores the directive’s requirements for transparency, including regular monitoring of the legislation’s impact”, Omtzigt said in a statement and adding that the law was “rushed through without any meaningful consultation”.

How about when Zammit Lewis wanted to adopt a Bill that would have allowed penal sanctions to be imposed even by tribunals, many of whom hardly qualify as independent, instead of solely by the courts established under the Constitution?

In his parliamentary address at the time, Zammit Lewis had said that amending the Interpretation Act would allow for the proper functioning of fine-imposing institutions, in turn doing away with the need for these bodies to go to court over administrative fines. Maltese legal experts from all quarters strongly disagreed and eventually, the Bill was defeated in parliament.

Then there were the Bills put to parliament in 2020 (that eventually became law), trumpeted and promoted by the government as a “resounding success” in implementing the Venice Commission’s rule of law reform recommendations, despite the Commission saying the laws were enacted before the government had received the Commission’s final opinion.

The Venice Commission called for the re-examining of those laws for amendments to close loopholes that remain unaddressed. The Venice Commission’s concluding remarks included: “While the submission of the 10 Bills to parliament could have triggered a structured dialogue with all stakeholders, which was recommended by the Commission, the rushed adoption of these important constitutional changes cut short wider consultations in society. Therefore, the Venice Commission cannot but regret that six out of 10 Bills have been adopted before the requested opinion could be finalised.”

Why is this pattern so prevalent when addressing reforms?

Real change is hard. It goes beyond mere platitudes and fancy posturing, and it is likely to impact those who, for too long, may have profited off the status quo in one way or another. Surely, we deserve a public administration that does a little more than simply treat reforms like an annoying school project.

Patterns of resistance