A recent Eurobarometer survey has shown a significant loss of trust in the government. When the poll was taken last autumn, six months after the Labour Party’s sweeping general election victory, trust in the government had fallen from 59 per cent to 48 per cent, a drop of almost one fifth. I dare say that if another poll were taken today, the level of trust in the Maltese government would have dropped even further.
The government’s handling of the cash-for-citizenship scheme has been abysmal. It has been a text-book example of how not to introduce a new national policy. It failed either to consider the domestic reaction to the scheme (even the Minister of Finance seemed lukewarm about it) or the potential international repercussions in an area where competition and sensitivities are high.
When it did, it failed to take sufficient action to correct the fundamentally flawed principles of the scheme, hoping that some purely cosmetic changes would carry the day. When these satisfied neither domestic nor international concerns, it found itself hauled before the court of international opinion in the European Parliament where it suffered some of the most ignominious and stinging international rebukes since Dom Mintoff’s ill-judged attempt to hold up signature of the Helsinki Accords in 1975.
The fact that the European Parliament has no power to affect the outcome of the issue – and, indeed, is an institution of minimal importance – is neither here nor there. Its voice will be heard by those who have it in their power to do something to alter the rules of the game to Malta’s detriment.
The issue has been further compounded by the Prime Minister’s brazen efforts to blame it all on the Nationalist Opposition – when the European Parliament delivered an almost unanimous vote condemning the scheme – and to adopt a defiant tone pleading, quite legitimately but to limited effect, that citizenship is technically a matter within the competence of each member state.
The problem is that given the way it has been handled the genie is now out of the bottle. Further changes may be needed in response to international pressure – which is only likely to grow, not abate – as well as to assuage public opinion at home. Confidence and trust have been badly dented.
As a political commentator, I must highlight that not everything about the loss of trust in government should be regarded as bad. To start with, it was deserved in this case, and could therefore prompt a change of course. The information age has allowed scrutiny, including international scrutiny, of governments and institutions that were once protected from sight. It has shifted the balance of power from government to the people. It has also provided the means for citizens to share views and data with each other, producing a better informed society.
This should rightly be seen as a big advance in democracy and a massive step forward for Maltese civil society. The tension which exists between people and politicians reflects an adjustment in which citizens have more power. This is the lesson that a wise, albeit bruised, Maltese government should take to heart. What the government should be doing is looking for the best means of meeting the challenge of a better informed, more open society that Malta has become.
But perhaps the most positive lesson to come out of the trust survey is that while it may become harder to gain and retain trust, it has become much more vital for the government to do so. Trust is at a premium. The temptation is for the government or the institution to start with outright denial – as we saw in the way the Catholic Church handled the clerical sex abuse scandals – by refusing to understand how much has changed in the expectations of their followers.
It then reacts with defensiveness, believing that criticism reflects the malevolence and mal-intent of their critics. The Nationalist Opposition naturally took full advantage of tripping up the government on the passports scheme when presented with an open goal, but so did the government’s own social democratic allies in the European Parliament.
There is a second lesson from the trust survey for the conduct of politics here. A populist turn in Maltese politics, and rampant cronyism and clientelism by both the Nationalist and Labour administrations, has produced a vicious circle in which politicians are expected to meet entirely unrealistic expectations. As the Eurobarometer poll demonstrates, governments are then punished for failing to fulfil them.
In the course of the general election campaign, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat seemed to recognise that the intolerance expressed by both sides of Malta’s tribal divide was a shocking indictment of the country’s political immaturity. He was elected on the admirable platform of breaking down its tribal nature with a determination that individuals in society should be treated solely on what contribution they can offer to Malta.
However, the fact is that in the event he raised expectations which he has demonstrably failed to meet. The poll showing a serious loss of public trust in such a short space of time is a direct reflection of public disappointment at this abject failure, as well as the cack-handed introduction of the cash-for-citizenship scheme.
A society that is constantly at loggerheads cannot enjoy progress. With no basis of trust, there is no prospect of creating prosperity in the face of the difficult challenges that invariably confront Malta. While Muscat promised to tap into people’s feeling that it is in everyone’s interest to work together, he has failed comprehensively to do so on coming into government.
To build and retain trust, the auction of unredeemable promises which has marked Maltese politics should come to an end
But he has got over four years of his mandate remaining. He still has time to break the current cycle of disappointment and growing distrust in his government.
How? First, the Prime Minister must, as an absolute priority, set about restoring domestic and international trust in his government. The need for effective leadership at all levels of government in the face of the cash-for-citizenship debacle is difficult to overstate. Promoting transparency, accountability and openness will be essential.
To build and retain trust, the auction of unredeemable promises which has marked Maltese politics should come to an end. Government should instead seek to win trust by being more limited in its ambitions and more successful in achieving them. It should promise less, but deliver more.
Second, it means treating all citizens (including the Opposition) with respect, listening and proposing reasonable solutions. Dealing with people honestly and impartially builds trust even when they don’t receive the answer they want.
Third, polarisation in society, as we have seen, produces a quagmire in which it becomes impossible for people to have a constructive dialogue. The ability to identify compromise solutions and build consensus should be valued, not condemned.
A judgement on trust in the Prime Minister and his administration will be delivered in four years’ time. His re-election in 2018 will turn on it. It is vital that he overcomes the shaky start of the past 10 months by sending a clear signal about his vision for the rest of this Parliament and his determination to return to the policies, and to deliver on the commitments, which brought him to power in the first place.
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