Legal experts have voiced fears that gender quota proposals aimed at increasing female participation in Parliament are nothing but a “smokescreen” to introduce political party funding by the State “by stealth”.

The proposals, which were presented by Parliamentary Secretary for Reform and Simplification of Administrative Processes, Julia Farrugia Portelli, in March, would see the female gender representation in Parliament increased to 40 per cent through the addition of 12 extra seats. 

However, legal experts have pointed out that the proposed legislative amendments include a provision that appears to have fallen under the radar and that they claim can be used as a backdoor to introduce “the financing of political parties by the State by stealth”.

The proposals make reference to the introduction of “incentives in the form of State funding to political parties in order to support the under-represented sex to contest Maltese general elections”. 

The document goes on to propose a number of  legal amendments for the Financing of Political Parties Act “to open the way for State funds that can be used to recruit, promote and train candidates pertaining to the under-represented sex”.

However, sources within the legal sector have raised the point that State-financing should only be introduced after a widespread consultation process in its own right, and that introducing them in this way is “deeply objectionable”.

Traditionally, the financing of political parties by the State is not viewed in a positive light by voters, with a 2014 poll about the issue by MaltaToday revealing that an overwhelming majority of respondents were against it.

Adding her voice to the chorus of criticism is lawyer Claire Bonello  who, when contacted by this newspaper, insisted that State-funding should be discussed on its own as a comprehensive legislative mechanism if it enjoys electoral support, and not “slipped in as an ancillary thought”.

“What measure of electoral and taxpayer support exists for this State financing? Why is an extra burden being placed on taxpayers without specific, transparent and widespread information as to the cost-benefit analysis of this measure?” the lawyer asked, adding that foreign jurisdictions where State funding has been introduced are often criticised for the lack of transparency brought about by these mechanisms. 

“If introduced in a piecemeal fashion, it risks becoming exorbitant, unnecessarily complex, and discriminating in the levels of funding awarded across the various political groups,” she said.

The lawyer also decried the way the proposals claim to be basing themselves on the Irish funding model, a reference that she described as “deceptive”.

The potential for conflicts of interest is rife

“In Ireland, political parties are sanctioned, by reduction of financial grant receivable, if certain equality measures are not adhered to. However, this obviously presupposes that the principle of State funding is already in operation and agreed to,” Dr Bonello said.

She lamented the fact that in the local scenario, what is being proposed is “slipping in the very contentious issue of State funding by hitching it to the gender-balance bandwagon”, adding that “this is really not on”. 

The proposed amendments have also attracted criticism for their failure to establish a cap on the amounts that can be directed towards this type of funding, as well as for allowing the amounts to be established by a legal notice.

“This is a shocking abuse of the legislative form of delegated legislation, which is usually resorted to for flexibility and for administrative convenience and not on such an important issue,” Dr Bonello said.

Other sources questioned whether any criteria will be laid down for the establishing of such amounts, and whether the publishing of these amounts will be placed within the remit of one ministry.

“The potential for conflicts of interest is rife in circumstances where you have a minister from a government being able to set criteria and amounts of funding for his own party. This will be not be subject to much scrutiny from the Opposition party who would also stand to benefit from the State funding largesse. There needs to be some kind of legislative cap en-trenched in the Constitution and not one that is easily changed by the two major recipients of this funding,” Dr Bonello said.

Another source of concern is the fact that the proposals seemingly fail to provide for independent auditing of these funds. 

The document, in fact, only requires the political party that benefits from the funding to provide an annual report to the Electoral Commission within a year from when the funds are received. 

“The Electoral Commission is made up of members from the main political parties, which will also be benefitting from this proposed funding. There has to be a system of external and independent auditing,” Dr Bonello said, while also confirming that she has already raised all these points through a formal submission on the e-mail address that was provided in order to enable the public to register its opinion in the consultation process.

Meanwhile, asked whether any action was planned in response to these concerns, a government spokesman replied that the proposals were “definitely not a smoke-screen but rather a positive measure via a transparent process to remedy for the gender gap between the two sexes in Parliament,” adding that “any person contrary to the proposed mechanism can formally register their opinion in the consultation process”. 

No negative feedback on the suggested mechanism was registered to date, the spokesman insisted.