Politicians champion the citizen’s ‘right to know’. Yet, ministers fear the public knowing too much when this right is exercised. So, ministers and senior civil servants now run the government on a nod and a wink, with informal processes and practices that are never documented.
The benefits racket opened a can of worms about how the country is run. Rather than becoming more open and transparent, the government seems darker, closed, opaque, more secretive, and hidden. Decisions are taken in the dark corridors of power, with the top echelons practising nods-and-winks politics that condone the corrupt practices of senior civil servants, persons of trust, including ‘customer care’ officials, and rogue professionals.
Politicians and key government officials often operate a ‘verbal’ system rather than strictly following formal instructions manuals on processes that must be followed when taxpayers’ money is dispensed, or lucrative permits granted. When investigative journalists let the cat out of the bag by revealing abuse of power, the government shifts responsibility for taking remedial action on the criminal courts and the police.
Social Policy Minister Michael Falzon says he sees no reason to resign. He appointed an ‘independent’ board to investigate the benefits fraud racket. This happened two years after the prime minister became aware of the alleged corrupt practices by civil servants, persons of trust in the OPM, and a doctor who was also a politician.
This board is unlikely to find a smoking gun that identifies the masterminds behind the benefits racket. Hopefully, they will at least not endorse Falzon’s claim that effective abuse-detection systems were in place. The scale of the abuse indicate that the claims process has loopholes through which one could drive a bus.
One hopes the inquiry will also look into the role the medical board that approved fraudsters’ benefit applications plays. Doctors who sit on the board argue that they had no reason to suspect documents given to them were fraudulent.
If the board’s job is simply to rubber-stamp applications, then is it even needed? Do we really need 20 medical professionals formally appointed to a board to tick application boxes?
However, if the board’s job is simply to rubber-stamp applications, then is it even needed? Do we really need 20 medical professionals formally appointed to a board to tick application boxes?
Prime Minister Robert Abela will continue to claim that he took sufficient political and administrative action to address this scandal. He ignores the corrosive effects that corruption and political inaction have on the public’s faith in the government.
He also ignores the many incongruencies in the way this issue was handled. Abela says he sacked Silvio Grixti as an MP because of the suspected racket, but does not explain why his office then hired him as a consultant.
He has not explained why it took two years and a media exposé for his government to review benefit procedures. Nor has he reacted to the alarming claim by fraud beneficiaries that they were guided to the racket by people in his own party or office.
This sorry story shows, if further proof was needed, that the best way to tackle political corruption is to provide the media and the public with better information on how taxpayers’ money is spent. In that context, it is especially concerning to see authorities ignore media questions, hold ministerial events without press calls and consistently battle Freedom of Information requests.
Well over 100 years ago, a US judge noted that sunlight is the best disinfectant. It is high time for local politicians, starting from Abela, to open the windows within the halls of power, overcome their fear of transparency and make a genuine push for open government.