The year 2019 was a year of turmoil that brought about drastic changes in civil society, public administration and the government, according to the ombudsman.

These changes are bound to have a lasting impact on the country’s way of life, how it is administered, citizens' empowerment and hopefully, strengthening the checks and balances required to secure rule of law and curb abuse of power, Anthony Mifsud said in his annual report. 

Last year was the year when civil society “became more organised, galvanised, vociferous and proactive”, spurred on by dramatic events that “exposed the negative corruptive ties between big business and the public administration”. 

He said that this and other factors, “eventually brought about the downfall in disgrace of an administration that enjoyed the backing of a sizeable majority of the electorate through implementing successful, economic policies.” 

Mifsud expressed concern over the fragility of the country’s institutions that seemed “unable to cope with the added need to secure transparency and accountability of the public administration”. 

He said authorities and institutions that have the specific function to keep the public administration under close scrutiny to curb abuse and transgression, and to enforce the rule of law, have been found to be lacking in various respects. 

“What is more worrying is that some of these investigations and reports by authoritative international institutions were made even before the morbid details of the sinister connections between big business and the public administration at its highest level, that are today known to have been the backdrop behind the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, became known."

Laws strengthening rule of law 'neutralised'

In his report the ombudsman added that positive laws strengthening the rule of law, like the Whistle Blower Act, the law removing the prescriptive period for crimes of corruption by holders of public office and the setting up the Office of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, were completely neutralised by “an arrogant and obsessive culture of impunity enjoyed by people flaunting the right friendships and connections and having substantial financial clout to influence the decisions of the public administration”. 

“When these people act in cahoots or with the connivance of politicians and public authorities, and when those who have the duty to monitor, control and check abuse are either cowed into silence, or prone to turn a blind eye to tolerate, if not condone, abuse and violation of laws and regulations, the situation becomes dangerous," he said.

Mifsud added that there will always be isolated cases of corruption in a public administration.

However, when corruption became a way of life, when all were "convinced that fat cats would by hook or by crook, get whatever they wanted, even if that breached laws and regulations applicable to all, if sanctioning of blatant irregularities that should normally lead to criminal prosecution and administrative penalties becomes the norm, the rule of law would be seriously prejudiced”. 

'Urgent measures to stop the rot'

The ombudsman said there was a general consensus that “urgent measures had to be taken to stop the rot”.

This led to dramatic resignations and a change in government, with a new Prime Minister who promised to make the necessary changes while stressing continuity that would bring about stability.

These were drastic measures, considered by some as a damage limitation exercise but which manifested a "stark awareness and admission that the reins of good governance had gone out of hand and that serious shortcomings had to be remedied".

Government ministers had admitted that timely action should have been taken to stem corruption in government circles and to secure the rule of law while sanctioning trespassers. "It was famously admitted that ‘in the country there were laws for gods and laws for animals’,” the ombudsman added. 

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