Those positions of trust may be breaking the law
A few days ago, the Ombudsman presented to Parliament a copy of his plan – called (and this is embarrassing), the Ombudsplan – for next year.
It includes some very interesting information about the highly controversial practice of appointing favourites to ‘positions of trust’, which are state-paid jobs or sinecures. The Nationalists in government had a very strict rule on appointing people on a ‘trust’ basis. Very few were permitted; the ministers who wished to appoint them had to seek clearance from higher powers in the public service, and if the answer was no, then it was no. At most, a Cabinet minister might have been permitted a personal assistant and a communications assistant appointed from outside the public service on a trust basis. But more frequently, these trusted people were picked out from among those who were employed in the public service already, and merely moved to the minister’s office, at no extra expense to the public purse.
The incoming Labour government changed all that starting from March 2013. Despite Muscat’s campaign promise to choose appointees to state companies and organisations by an open call, the very opposite happened. The distribution of sinecures under the guise of ‘trust positions’ began in earnest from Day One. It has continued unabated and, at this point, it has become almost impossible to keep track of the abuse. Every person who worked for the Labour Party’s television and radio stations back in 2013 appears to have been put on the state payroll since then, along with the party’s campaign aides and activists. Then there are the party henchmen and cronies, given ‘positions of trust’ large and small, but mainly large. The past four-and-a-half years have been an exercise in what is, effectively, the distribution of the spoils of war. It is an old-fashioned as it comes: the equivalent of what used to happen when an invading monarch handed out parcels of newly conquered territory to the knights and barons who rode into battle with him. And the Labour Party is supposed to be liberal and progressive.
Now the Ombudsman is set to challenge all this, saying in his report that he has received “authoritative advice” that these so-called positions of trust are “irregular”. I am glad that he has decided to take up the matter, because the situation is nothing short of appalling. The ‘position of trust’ appellation is now being used as a trapdoor through which the Labour Party, using the government, is putting armies of people on the state payroll, from cleaners to dog-handlers all the way up to chief executive officers put in charge of significant state bodies without an open call for applications or a proper review and interview process.
Yet the Constitution of Malta clearly regulates how people from outside the public service should be recruited into it. Anthony Mifsud, the Ombudsman, points out in his report that the Constitution lays down how any recruitment from outside the public service should not discriminate between people based on their political beliefs. A ‘position of trust’ is the antithesis of this, because the very justification for it is that certain positions can only be filled by individuals who are trusted precisely because of their political beliefs. If a Cabinet minister selects his personal assistant from within the public service based on political beliefs that are shared with his, that is not anti-constitutional. But if the Cabinet minister picks his personal assistant from outside the public service because of his political beliefs, then that most certainly is anticonstitutional. Those last three statements are not quoted from the Ombudsman’s report, but are my own interpretation.
The Ombudsman also reminds Parliament in his report that any such recruitment from outside the public service has to be made “in the general interest of the public service”. This would definitely eliminate all those appointments of former Super One TV staff. That successive governments have filled ‘positions of trust’ from outside the public service does not make the practice legitimate, the Ombudsman says, because the Constitution does not provide for the employment of people from outside the public service on a position-of-trust basis, and no other piece of legislation can supersede the Constitution in this regard. In other words, Parliament cannot legislate to allow for position-oftrust recruitment from outside the public service.
Anthony Mifsud is not the first Ombudsman to bring this up. Joseph Said Pullicino, his immediate predecessor, had called for a parliamentary debate about it. Nothing has been done because it suits the government to do nothing about it. Putting people on the state payroll is one of the ways it has won votes and its large electoral majority. So, what about the Opposition? Unfortunately, I now get the idea that the Opposition doesn’t wish to do anything about it either, because it has seen that the tool could be just as useful to it as it now is to Labour. Perhaps Adrian Delia could take up the matter on one of his first forays in Parliament? After all, he is such a man of integrity and doubtless will not be thinking of giving Censu l-Iswed a position of trust if ever he gets to walk up those fabled steps as prime minister.
The Ombudsman, Anthony C. Mifsud