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Evarist Bartolo calls for new Labour Vigilance board after benefit fraud scandal

Former minister Evarist Bartolo has called on the Labour Party to resurrect itself in the wake of the benefit fraud scandal and set up something similar to the Board of Vigilance and Discipline it formed in the late 1980s.

He also argues in an opinion piece that the next President of Malta, due to be appointed next year, should not be a politician and national regulatory bodies should be under the responsibility of the Office of the President.

The Vigilance and Discipline Board was formed in 1988 in the wake of Labour’s 1987 electoral defeat but had a mixed history, seen by many as being slow to react and largely ineffective. Bartolo himself says any new body needs to be even more effective

A year after its setting up, two top Labour party officials, Toni Abela, president, and Wenzu Mintoff, whip, resigned their posts saying that the party had failed to rid itself of violent and distruptive elements which had cost it its credibility and the election. Ironically, they were referred to the Vigilance Board and expelled from the party. Years later they were welcomed back and later appointed judges by the Labour government.

In March 1990 the board suspended former works minister Lorry Sant from the party, only lifting his suspension when he was on his deathbed.

In June 2008 the board accepted a request by new party leader Joseph Muscat's to grant an amnesty to all those who had been penalised by the board.

In an echo of the Wenzu Mintoff/Toni Abela episode, in 2003 the Board wrote to Alfred Mifsud, former chairman of the party's warning that action would be taken against him unless he stopped "harming" the party through his writings. Mifsud was sometimes critical of his own party and had often provided fuel for the Nationalist media, but he had insisted that he had nothing to hide and that his arguments were constructive.

In his opinion piece, Bartolo says it was a bad idea by the Labour Party to remove that board, because it sent the message that ‘anything goes’.

“We are human beings: weak, imperfect and fragile. As a politician, I felt the need to be protected even from myself, at times. It is important to feel there’s always a spotlight on you. Because let’s face it: sometimes, we slip up even where there is that spotlight… let alone, when there isn’t,” he says.

The presidency and national institutions

In his opinion piece, Batolo also argues that the next President of Malta must not come from the political class, and national institutions should be under the aegis of the Office of the President.

Malta has so far only had one president who was not a former politician – Sir Anthony Mamo, a former chief justice, who was the first holder of the post, appointed in 1974.

“Taking away the appointment of the judiciary from the prime minister was a step in the right direction. We must do the same for all regulatory bodies. To help them function with the required independence from external influences they should be put under the Office of the President,” Bartolo argues.

“As we approach the 50th anniversary of the republic next year and the year of the appointment of the next president, government and opposition should seriously consider appointing a person like our first President of the Republic, Sir Anthony Mamo, who does not come from a life in politics. They should also agree to put our regulatory bodies under the Office of the new President.

“We must ensure a proper and transparent relationship between business and government. We must not allow for the disproportionate influence of well-connected business people over the decisions taken by the government. This produces only the outer shell of a democracy – on the face of it people choose their representatives once every five years – when, in reality, our decisions are disproportionately influenced by unaccountable people in business.

“It is dangerous to have a concentration of power that enmeshes together the business sector, the political sector, the judicial sector, the police, and all the regulatory authorities. The issue goes beyond any one specific individual.

“You can’t say that, once that individual person is no longer in power, the problem itself will be gone. No. Individuals come and go but structures and cultures persist. Apart from devolving power, we need to continue supporting those parts of the local media that carry out serious investigative work and a strong civil society, to keep the people in power on their toes.”