The Par­lia­men­tary Om­buds­man

The Om­buds­man has been with us for 20 years and, true to the mis­sion state­ment, it has con­trib­uted to­wards the fos­ter­ing of a pub­lic ser­vice cul­ture based on fair­ness, ded­i­ca­tion, com­mit­ment, open­ness and ac­count­abil­ity.

Malta Independent - - DEBATE & ANALYSIS - Clyde Puli Om­buds­man An­thony C Mif­sud

These principles were ad­vo­cated by the Na­tion­al­ist Party when it orig­i­nally pro­posed the es­tab­lish­ment of the of­fice of the om­buds­man in the early 1980s. Those same principles are still called upon to­day, ev­ery time the Na­tion­al­ist Party de­cries the lack of good gov­er­nance shown by the present Labour Gov­ern­ment – a gov­ern­ment whose bla­tant dis­re­gard for such principles is ex­posed through its han­dling of the nu­mer­ous scan­dals in which it has be­come em­broiled. So it is in times like these that the of­fice of the Om­buds­man gains even greater sig­nif­i­cance and, hope­fully, higher vis­i­bil­ity.

A trusted in­sti­tu­tion

There is no doubt that, over the years, the Om­buds­man has earned a high de­gree of trust and re­gard from the pub­lic – a de­gree to which other in­sti­tu­tions can only as­pire – which is con­firmed by re­cent sur­veys. This should only con­vince and en­cour­age Par­lia­ment to fur­ther em­power this of­fice by build­ing on its suc­cess but, un­for­tu­nately, it seems that the gov­ern­ment does not sub­scribe to this in­cli­na­tion.

Ev­ery year the of­fice of the Om­buds­man is­sues an Om­bud­splan which re­flects the achieve­ments and chal­lenges whilst out­lin­ing the pri­mary ob­jec­tives for the fol­low­ing year. This year’s Om­bud­splan makes some in­ter­est­ing ob­ser­va­tions that merit se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion, namely the ways in which pub­lic in­ves­ti­ga­tions are hin­dered by the pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion, the state’s duty to in­form, the need to reg­u­late lob­by­ing and the strength­en­ing of the Om­buds­man as an ef­fec­tive in­sti­tu­tion.

Four pro­mo­tions in four weeks

In the af­ter­math of the 2013 gen­eral elec­tion, heads started to roll. The top brass of the pub­lic sec­tor was re­placed in a mat­ter of weeks. A wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence and loy­alty was lost in the process and the new ap­point­ments threw mer­i­toc­racy to the dogs.

The Armed Forces of Malta awarded pro­mo­tions that were, to say the least, du­bi­ous. A ma­jor was no­to­ri­ously pro­moted four times in four weeks to reach the rank of brigadier, the num­ber one po­si­tion in the AFM. The con­tro­ver­sial pro­mo­tions soon reached the Om­buds­man for his in­ves­ti­ga­tion. But – won­der of won­ders – ob­jec­tion to the in­ves­ti­ga­tions came not only from the pub­lic ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials but also from the gov­ern­ment min­is­ter.

The Om­buds­man, who was sup­pos­edly de­fend­ing the cit­i­zen’s rights, was brought to a sit­u­a­tion where he first had to de­fend his own rights. He had no al­ter­na­tive but to in­sti­tute a court case against the gov­ern­ment which, in it­self, was a first. Both the first court and the court of ap­peals con­firmed the Om­buds­man’s author­ity to in­ves­ti­gate com­plaints by AFM of­fi­cers about pro­mo­tions, salaries, pen­sion rights and other mat­ters.

Three weeks later and the Om­buds­man is still wait­ing for ac­cess to the files in or­der to carry out an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that is long over­due. The gov­ern­ment’s re­luc­tance to co­op­er­ate with the Om­buds­man shows, once again, its true cre­den­tials when it comes to good gov­er­nance.

A pri­vati­sa­tion process that de­nies cit­i­zens’ rights

The Om­buds­man also warned that the pri­vati­sa­tion of es­sen­tial ser­vices will deny cit­i­zens the right to file com­plaints and seek re­dress from the Om­buds­man’s of­fice when aggrieved, be­cause the Om­buds­man’s re­mit ceases once the gov­ern­ment no longer holds a ma­jor­ity share­hold­ing in a pub­lic en­tity.

The Om­buds­man is now warn­ing that cit­i­zens might also lose their right to com­plain about health and en­ergy is­sues due to their pri­vati­sa­tion. Gov­ern­ment Min­is­ters have ob­jected to such an as­ser­tion, claim­ing that other reg­u­la­tory bod­ies will pro­tect the cit­i­zen in such cases. How­ever, the re­cent fail­ure of the Com­pe­ti­tion and Con­sumer Af­fairs Author­ity to de­fend both the cus­tomer and the owner of a Rabat petrol sta­tion owner, when the lat­ter was forced to re­verse a de­ci­sion to re­duce the price at which he was sell­ing petrol, goes to show that the Om­buds­man’s role may still be re­quired even in such cases. As the Om­buds­man told the Par­lia­men­tary Com­mit­tee, the ser­vice he of­fers the cit­i­zen is of a dif­fer­ent nature from other en­ti­ties.

Strength­en­ing the in­sti­tu­tion of the Om­buds­man

The Om­buds­man has also pre­sented rec­om­men­da­tions in­tended to strengthen the in­sti­tu­tion, in­clud­ing one re­gard­ing the choice of the per­son to serve as Om­buds­man. How­ever, if one stops for a mo­ment to com­pare the re­ac­tion to the re­cent ap­point­ment of the new Om­buds­man with the re­cent ap­point­ments of new mem­bers of the Ju­di­ciary, one soon re­alises that only the Om­buds­man re­ceived wide pop­u­lar ap­proval. The strength and im­me­di­ate ac­cep­tance of this ap­point­ment is due to the fact that the per­son cho­sen per­son to serve as Om­buds­man re­quires a two-thirds par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity. This in it­self re­quires a metic­u­lous choice of per­son and a wide par­lia­men­tary con­sen­sus which, in turn, gen­er­ate the much-needed trust.

So in­stead of sim­ply strength­en­ing this in­sti­tu­tion we should, as sug­gested by the Leader of the Op­po­si­tion, use this model to re­gen­er­ate lost trust in many other pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions and pub­lic of­fi­cials.

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