Girgenti: demarcation line between party and state

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Meeting the Chief Electoral Commissioner Mr Joseph Church last Tuesday, together with Arnold Cassola, I raised the issue of the use of the Inquisitor’s Palace at Girgenti by the Labour Party Parliamentary Group for one of its meetings.  Some may consider that Alternattiva Demokratika is splitting hairs when raising the matter. I beg to differ as a basic principle is at stake: the demarcation line separating government from the governing party.

To what extent should the affairs of the government be administered separately from those of the governing party? This is what lies at the core of the complaint submitted by the Greens to the Chief Electoral Commissioner for investigation in terms of the provisions of the Financing of Political Parties Act.

The Act to regulate the financing of political parties was introduced to ensure that party financing was subject to transparency rules. It also establishes no-go areas. Amongst other matters the 2015 legislation provides in its article 34  that political parties should not accept donations from the state. There are no exceptions to this rule.

In terms of the Financing of Political Parties Act, a donation is not just pecuniary in nature. Whenever a political party purchases a product or a service at a reduced price it would be in receipt of a donation. The quantum of the donation would be equivalent to the reduction in price of the product or service received.  On the other hand if a political party acquires a product or a service without paying its commercial price, then, the value of the donation received amounts to the full price of the said product or service.

This is exactly what happened when the Labour Party Parliamentary Group made use of the Prime Minister’s official residence at the Girgenti Inquisitor’s Palace. The Parliamentary Group received the service of a meeting place without payment. Hence its being considered as a donation.

The Prime Minister does not have the authority to make such donations. His actions in this respect are restricted by law which was presented and approved in Parliament by the government he leads and entered in force as on 1 January 2016.  Some have argued that this is not the first time that such meetings were so organised. This may be so. It is precisely for this purpose that the legislation was enacted in order to prevent its reoccurrence. One should not propose such legislation and then be the first to ignore it!

Government and the governing political party should be separate and distinct. When such distinction is not clear, even in the case of minor matters, this would be a very bad indication. It would signal that the resources of the state are not being managed appropriately. It would be wrong to ignore such signals indicating the existence of minor problems as these will, if ignored, subsequently spread to more substantial matters. It would then be too late to act.

The party in Government forms the Government of the day but should be separate and distinct from it at all times.

Hence the need for the Electoral Commission to act immediately. The separation between government and the governing political party is a basic principle in a healthy democracy.

published in The Malta Independent : Thursday 23 February 2017

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