A line not to cross

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A few days ago it was reported that Prime Minister Robert Abela had a private meeting with construction tycoon Charles Polidano; just days after the latter was arrested and questioned on suspicion of money laundering and corruption.

In comments to The Times of Malta, which revealed the story on Sunday, the OPM justified the meeting by saying the Prime Minister is invited to meet investors regularly, “to discuss their investment ideas and plans, and of any potential challenges relating to their investment.

“The meeting you refer to, which had been requested by the representatives of the Polidano group a few months ago, is one of them. Representatives of the mentioned business group have also invited the Prime Minister to visit one of their new investments in the coming weeks.

Yet this answer simply misses the wood for the trees. What’s debatable here isn’t so much that the Prime Minister is “meeting businessmen” – although that in itself can sometimes be problematic: as when the same Prime Minister was feted by a consortium of Gozitan developers , on the eve of the last elections – but what is discussed in such meetings; and, in this particular case, the awkwardness of the timing.

For the more pressing question, in this case, is whether or not Prime Minister Abela has also welcomed Polidano’s complaints about his recent troubles with the police. From that perspective, the timing of this meeting was certainly “inappropriate”, to say the least.

The Times reported that the pair discussed “the pressure Polidano faces from a fierce competitor he accuses of tipping off the police.” If that were the case, the Prime Minister would have crossed a line that should never have been crossed. If such questions had indeed been raised by Polidano, Robert Abela should have left this meeting, immediately.

That said, it also stands to reason that Prime Ministers will hold regular meetings with business leaders: among other things, in their attempt to support job creation. And while the same type of ongoing dialogue is expected with other entities – including trade unions and NGOs – maintaining a healthy and frank relationship with leading business groups that employ thousands of people, does not necessarily amount to harmful acts.

Yet, to ensure that nothing unwarranted is discussed, such meetings should always be held in a formal setting, attended by officials, and should always be recorded and kept for posterity. in public records. And there should be severe penalties in cases where these records are omitted or tampered with; or when private communication channels, such as personal email or Whatsapp chats, are used for official government business.

In addition, if individual projects are discussed, it must be ensured that the words exchanged do not translate into commitments that take precedence over other regulatory bodies, in matters such as planning. In fact, it is best to avoid the specifics of individual projects at such meetings: what should instead be an opportunity for the PM to assess the mood of the business community and to bounce off strategic ideas.

This is why it is of crucial importance to introduce a register of transparency: in which all these meetings are recorded in a register which also includes a summary of the issues discussed; and which should be accessible to the public in real time.

Since these meetings may include confidential or sensitive information, one can accept a situation where the information is redacted; or even not disclosed at all. But as the OECD suggests in a report published last week, such decisions should be made by the Standards Commissioner; and not by the government itself.

Moreover, any such waiver should be time-limited, which means that the full minutes of these meetings should always remain in the public archives, even if they are to be consulted at a later date.

But above all, we must get out of a mentality where prime ministers and their closest allies are treated as feudal “lords” and “masters”, who can simply remove all the formalities regulating civic service. Because in each meeting in which he participates, Robert Abela remains Prime Minister: in this position, he is supposed to represent everyone.

And that should mean full accountability and transparency, in all official dealings with the general public: whether or not they involve business tycoons facing criminal charges.

In short, a prime minister is neither a salesman nor a monarch; but a servant of the people. At times, Robert Abela seems to forget this crucial fact.

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