Read this report of a justification, such as it is, that tourism minister Clayton Bartolo gave for going back on the government’s promise of publishing a report into spending by the Malta Film Commission.
Clayton Bartolo departs from the stock excuses the government uses to cover up information. You know the ones: ‘it’s commercially sensitive’, ‘we’re bound by confidentiality’, ‘it’s a diplomatic secret’, ‘it’s a cabinet minute’, ‘it would risk jeopardy to national security’, ‘we lost the file’. There’s a long list of dog-ate-my-homework and check-is-in-the-mail excuses that people whose job it is to inform the public on what their government is really up to have to grapple with all the time.
None of that list would apply in this case. The report was supposed to evaluate what benefit to the economy came back from the Film Commission’s profligate expenditure in lavish entertainment and baroque reveries. There’s no secret in there. On the contrary measuring value for public money spent is a key component of the review of a government’s conduct. We need this information to decide whether at least some of the money could have been better spent elsewhere. If we spent half the money poured into flying A-list actors for photo ops with Robert Abela and diverted that expense into, say, research in precision engineering, what would have been the impact on the Maltese economy?
After all there’s a law of diminishing returns even on caviar and champagne spent on photogenic actors. Has our spending gone beyond that?
Quite beyond who Clayton Bartolo would rather not trust with answers to those questions, those answers are our right because Clayton Bartolo is not buying champagne and caviar with his money. He’s buying it with ours.
In place of the unclaimable bog standard confidentiality or data protection, here’s Bartolo’s innovative excuse: “I don’t trust the Opposition with the full report”. If the opposition is insulted they can speak for themselves. But this is so terribly insulting to the public.
In principle the public has the right to access every document in the government’s possession. That’s your departure point in a democracy that functions and that belongs to this century. Freedom of information is not a gift that is subject to the minister’s discretion. It is a right. That’s why they call it freedom. Information is free in and of itself and no one is waiting for the minister to liberate it.
The question of the publication of a government document is not whether to trust the opposition with the sacred knowledge contained within it. The question is whether to trust the public because that’s the audience of a public document: everyone. If he is worried the Opposition might misinterpret the report, or misreport it in its media, or misrepresent it in its commentary, Clayton Bartolo must deal with that the way anyone doing politics must deal with controversy: by arguing his point of view in the most capable manner possible.
It is deeply insulting for a government minister to cover up a public document and justify that decision by expressing “mistrust” in Members of Parliament. Ministers are supposed to report to Parliament. That is why we have an Opposition in our constitution. His trust in Parliament is irrelevant. His job depends on the trust of Parliament. That’s written in our basic law though Clayton Bartolo appears completely unfamiliar with it.
Sure, he can rely on the support of the majority of MPs – which the Opposition members are not – but that does not give him the right to refuse to give them account of his conduct and the conduct of his department.
Consider that Clayton Bartolo said he sent the full report under secret seal directly to the Auditor General giving the impression that this was some act of heroic transparency. Consider now that the Auditor General reports to Parliament, the institutions which Clayton Bartolo did not trust with the report the Auditor General is now supposed to review.
What’s the Auditor General going to do with information that he’s being told he cannot divulge?
It is deeply insulting for a government minister to assume the public is unable to evaluate the contents of the report against the background of any other evidence available to it, his – the minister’s – defence of his decisions and the actions of his department and the criticism of the Opposition.
It is not the Opposition Clayton Bartolo is mistrusting. He is mistrusting the public. He is not certain they will like what the report says irrespective of what the Opposition do about it.
If they’re hiding something it’s because it’s bad. Clayton Bartolo can trust us to figure out that much at least.