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Limiting the powers of government

This article was published in the MaltaToday on Sunday 13 December 2015

A scandal a day is keeping people away. Away from politics, away from public life, away from civic participation. This is not only unfortunate, but also dangerous. Politics is a force for good if it is built by active civic participation of well-meaning citizens. Worryingly, it is these citizens who are becoming the most disconcerted by the corruption and abuse of power perpetrated by members of government, and the more such citizens stay away from contributing, the more they make way for others who are more self-serving in their intentions. This will lead to corruption and indecency becoming the order of the day, tumbling in a cancerous downward spiral.

The endemic root of the problem in our political system is the "winner-takes-all" mentality ingrained not only in politicians, but also in many sections of the populace. Some still believe that we elect a political party and leader for a five-year monarchical rule, invested with absolute powers over people, authorities, institutions...even the rule of law. Others though, wonder how on earth deals like the Cafe Premier bailout, the Gaffarena property affair and the Zonqor land grab, can be defined as legal, constitutional and acceptable in any normal, civilised democracy.

Over the years we have grown used to reactive bickering between political parties through press releases debating what should be done on a case-by-case basis. Rarely have we seen them engaged in a proper debate on what should be changed at policy, or even constitutional level, not to allow those in power to abuse in the first place.

Luckily though, Simon Busuttil is changing the political game and walking the talk on his promise of a new style of doing politics. The document "Restoring Trust in Politics" published by the Nationalist Party last Sunday highlights the real issues, the roots of these problems, and comes up with no less than 109 proposals to stop this downward spiral of indecency, hidden deals and abuse of power.

More importantly, in a stark contrast to the way Labour is behaving in government, this document is a big step forward in setting more limits on what powers government should have. And it is about time we start to seriously discuss these limits.

Because what is the role of government? Why should we accept to have part of our liberty, including part of our hard-earned income, taken away from us and placed in the trust of others? Why shouldn't we allow the free market and competition to settle our trading relationships and economic prosperity? We accept this "necessary evil" for only two reasons.

The first is that the free market on its own completely disregards the fact that there are vulnerable members of society, be it for social or economic reasons, who can never compete on an equal footing. They therefore need help and protection. The second reason is that there are certain infrastructural investments which serve the common good, which no private entity or individual would take up were it not for government. Simple example would be the road network, and the administration and protection of public property and heritage.

These two reasons are the main scope of government. And its powers should be limited to such.

What we have seen in these two years was the complete opposite. We have seen a government which has done away with its supposedly socialist credo, preferring instead to placate business and speculative interests, and which has used public property to serve private interests rather than the common good. On the other hand, it has used its power to influence and take over all regulators, authorities and institutions which are supposed to be keeping it in check, attempting to bully them where the law has stopped it from overtaking them (as is happening regularly in the case of the Ombudsman). It even went as far as to change to law to have its own MPs chairing such regulators in an obvious conflict of interest.

This document comes as a breath of fresh air in such a low period of our political history. It is courageous in its proposals, amongst which the complete and total autonomy of the Public Broadcasting Service on the same model as the BBC, and bold in its declarations.

Will Joseph Muscat take up the challenge? My hopes are not too high.

Indeed, the first sign that he is not interested in releasing his absolute grip on power was given on Monday, the day after the launch of Busuttil's set of proposals. A smear campaign targeting Busuttil through his driver was staged, based on his 70 euro weekly fuel consumption. Ironically, this came from a Prime Minister who loans his own used car to himself for more than 7,000 euro annually, and who has steadfastly refused to reduce fuel prices to reflect international prices.

This is worrying. Smear campaigns and attacks on the Leader of the Opposition are a common symptom of totalitarian rules. We are now sure, more than ever, that the next election is not simply going to be about two political manifestos. It is going to be about something much more fundamental than that. Something we have taken for granted since 1987.

It is once again going to be about the basics of democracy and liberty. It is going to be about the limits of government's power on our lives. It is going to be about how free we should feel to speak our minds and criticise those in power without suffering repercussions.

And that is the change Simon Busuttil and the Nationalist Party are putting forward for those who want decency, honesty and transparency back at the forefront of politics and public life.

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