When Alfred Sant used to criticise the Nationalists in administration so heavily over their ‘friends of friends’ networks and when Joseph Muscat believed so much in meritocracy that he made it one of his party’s main platforms in two successive election campaigns, the former prime minister’s remark that the ‘friends of friends’ networks are an inevitable way of life in a small society like Malta’s is shocking. 

Going by what Dr Sant used to say when he was Labour Party leader, electors assumed that if elected he would do his best to at least attempt to stop the rampant cronyism that existed under the Nationalist administration. He would not have talked about it had he not believed that he could bring about change, as he had successfully done when he shunned the violent elements within his party. 

Since he had been well aware of the size of the problem, he must have therefore misled the electorate when he gave the impression he could do away with patronage. In an interview with The Sunday Times of Malta, Dr Sant said, when asked if he felt that the ‘friends of friends’ style of government had been eliminated by Labour, that an island like Malta functioned on the basis of such networks. 

He was quoted saying: “It is not a good idea, but that is how it works. I do not like it.  But that is how it works.” 

The situation only works that way because it does not suit the political parties to bring about the kind of root-and-branch change in mentality against patronage they talk so much about before general elections. They may make administrative changes, in some cases only of a cosmetic nature, to give the impression they are working towards bringing about an improvement, or give a few appointments to some of their rivals, but they generally keep hanging on to patronage to preserve their power. 

Joseph Muscat got elected in 2013 on a platform of meritocracy, accountability and transparency. His rallying call was Malta Tagħna Lkoll (Malta belongs to us all). But in no time after his party’s landslide victory, his government set about translating what it meant – handing out jobs for the boys, including many in positions of trust, and dishing out direct orders to friends of friends. 

As to accountability and transparency, these have lost much of their meaning, as shown by the stiff resistance to the publication of contracts of major national interest. Incredibly, in the run-up to the last election, Muscat repeated the meritocracy pledge. He was quoted saying: “We intend to work harder to put this into practice. We realise that we have made a lot of strides forward. We realise we have disappointed some people on this; we have learned from our mistakes and we will make sure we will better deliver.” 

The setting up of judicial and public appointments committees was a step in the right direction, but the whole public structure is now so heavily populated by Labour-leaning appointees that all pre-election pledges have almost become meaningless. 

‘Friends of friends’ networks ought not to be considered as an inevitable way of life. Meritocracy is still a reachable objective if only political parties start considering the national interest first before their inclination to feather their own bed to hold on to power.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial


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