Despite being able to rely on the biggest parliamentary majority in post-Independence history, the Prime Minister recently announced that he would like to offer certain executive roles in government to Opposition MPs.
If Joseph Muscat wants to put his money where his mouth is, he should reinstate the Opposition Nominees Act
I have publicly stated that the Opposition should not take up this offer and I would like to explain why.
A functioning democracy is built on three pillars: Parliament, with a legislative role, the Government, with an executive role, and the judiciary. All of these operate a system of checks and balances on each other.
Apart from acting as a law-enacting body, Parliament also keeps the Government under scrutiny and holds it to account. The Government, under the authority of the Prime Minister, has the responsibility to govern the country for its five-year mandate.
In our case, the Government is already supported by a large Labour majority in Parliament. In contrast, the Nationalist Party is in Opposition for the simple reason that it was not elected to govern and, therefore, its function is to serve in Opposition.
So it falls on the PN Opposition to carry out the role of contrasting the Government and to keep it in check. This is an important function because, without a vigilant Opposition, the Government can escape scrutiny and bulldoze its way through. That is not at all healthy in a democracy.
The PN has not been asked to join Labour in a coalition government. Its place, therefore, is in Opposition and it has an important task to perform from the Opposition benches.
So the mind boggles at the Prime Minister’s announcement that he wants to appoint certain Opposition MPs to executive roles.
It is not entirely clear whether he wants to appoint them to join his Cabinet or to join some ministries or to be part of some public boards and entities. And it seems like the Prime Minister wants to reserve the right to personally pick and choose the Opposition MPs he wants to appoint, just like he was picking ministers out of his own parliamentary group.
Now, at best, Opposition MPs may be involved in bodies that operate at arms’ length from the Government. For instance, the law already provides that the Opposition may appoint one of its MPs to sit on the Mepa board and that is fine because it is defined by law. My colleague MP, Ryan Callus, has been appointed to that position on behalf of the Opposition.
However, executive roles proper are for the Government and not for the Opposition.
The role of the Opposition, in the interests of democracy, is not to govern but to act as a watchdog on the Government. This is basic stuff in a democracy. And if we start blurring the lines between the Government and the Opposition we would start sliding down a slippery slope towards a one-party system on the lines operated in some African countries. And with that we would begin to dismantle our democracy.
So I urge the Prime Minister to reconsider his position if he truly believes in accountability, good governance and democracy. Alternatively, he may wish to give it a more coherent form. I have two suggestions in this regard.
Firstly, he may offer specific roles and functions to be carried out by Opposition MPs in Parliament. Although these would be parliamentary not executive roles, they are more adapt for Opposition MPs. There is a whole range of roles in Parliament itself that the Government may wish to offer to the Opposition if it wanted to be benevolent.
But, so far, the Prime Minister has done the opposite and, at the first opportunity, just last Saturday, he dipped out of Parliament to select its highest officer, the Speaker of the House. The Government did not offer this role to the Opposition.
Secondly, if the Government really wanted to involve the Opposition in public bodies and corporations then it should do this in the right manner.
In 1996, the PN Government had enacted the Opposition Nominees Act, giving the Opposition the right to nominate its own representative on certain government entities. Note that the right lay in the hands of the Leader of the Opposition to choose the Opposition nominees and not in the hands of the Prime Minister to pick and choose as Joseph Muscat wants it to be.
This law covered State entities such as Malta Enterprise (then known as the Malta Development Corporation), the Central Bank, the Housing Authority, Enemalta, the Malta Financial Services Authority, the Transport Authority, the Employment Training Corporation and the Water Services Corporation.
As it happened, the Labour Government, under Prime Minister Alfred Sant, had thrown this law out of the window and repealed it soon after it was elected to office in 1996.
Now if Muscat wants to put his money where his mouth is, he should reinstate this law and offer the Opposition the right to appoint its representative on the boards of these public agencies. Then, and only then, will we know whether the Prime Minister’s stated declaration that he wants to extend his hand of cooperation to the Opposition is well-intentioned.
Simon Busuttil is Nationalist Party deputy leader.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us