It’s no surprise either that Abela hasn’t been made to refund the €7,000 he was found to have misused.
Thing is, while George Hyzler was asked by Repubblika to investigate the ethics of one particular ad, Abela is far from being the only minister to promote themselves through public funds.
Take this ad by Economy Minister Silvio Schembri to promote a MITA scheme.
Hyzler’s argument against Abela’s ad was that it contained a large photograph of the minister and no information of value to the general public about his ministry’s work.
As such, it amounted to self-promotion of an MP seeking to keep his ministerial post rather than promotion of the ministry’s work to keep the public informed. Therefore, it should have been paid from the minister’s personal savings and not the public coffers.
However, the exact same argument could apply to Schembri’s ad… the Economy Minister was just lucky that Repubblika didn’t pounce on it.
And what about this ad by Transport Minister Ian Borg to promote a new national park in Ta’ Qali?
The minister’s photo is smaller but the ad also includes an uplifting quote from the minister so it might well have fallen foul of Hyzler’s gaze too had he been informed of it.
The problem is widespread and it has been for a while.
It doesn’t only revolve around newspaper ads either. Ministers often send their constituents leaflets promoting their own work and funded by their ministry – this is even more blatant self-promotion of an MP than newspaper ads because they’re specifically targeted at constituents.
But why is this even a problem, some may ask. Isn’t this just nitpicking and an attempt to stop ministers from informing the public what they’ve done?
Absolutely not. The root of the problem is that ministers are both ministers and candidates; if they want to retain their seats (and by extension their Cabinet jobs), they must compete against other politicians, from the same political party and others.
With only a few seats up for grabs per district, the battle for public attention is huge. Name recognition is crucial in politics – if people don’t know who you are and what you’re going to do for them, there’s no way they’re going to vote for you.
Direct contact with voters is always best, but with so many constituents per district, politicians must also find ways of reaching them indirectly, through canvassing and advertising.
Ministers have a huge head start already. Not only are they often in the news, therefore boosting their name recognition, but they have the distinct advantage of being able to remind voters what they’ve already done, rather than just try and seduce them with what they plan to do.
It’s the famous power of incumbency, a challenge which may seem so insurmountable that some potential new candidates don’t even bother contesting.
Over and above this power, ministers also have practically free reign over their ability to use public funds to promote themselves.
Ministries are given marketing budgets after all, so why not use this money to promote the work of the ministry and the minister himself?
As Carmelo Abela argued, the minister “is the personification of the ministry” so promoting himself automatically promotes the ministry.
However, this gives them a clear monetary advantage over other candidates which is over and above the power of incumbency they already enjoy.
While a non-minister will have to raise funds or dig into their own pockets to promote themselves and gain some name recognition, ministers can simply utilise public resources, just as they utilise them when they tell public officers to phone their constituents to ask if they need help.
No wonder political parties struggle to find new candidates. Who would want to go up against a minister who can use your own money, that you paid through your taxes, to increase the competitive advantage he already enjoys over you?
It’s completely unfair, and ministers shouldn’t have needed Hyzler to step in and tell them so.
And this is just one problem of the lack of regulation of government advertising.
As it stands, nothing prevents a minister from choosing where to spend their ministry’s marketing budget based on their personal opinions on media houses.
If a newspaper writes something embarrassing about a minister or doesn’t give them the coverage they desire, that minister can simply pull the plug on advertising, as though the money they’re administering was their own and not the public’s.
If ministers want to spend the lion’s share of public funds on their own political party’s TV station, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from doing so. The potential for abusive conditioning is enormous.
Until Hyzler stepped in, following a request from Lovin Malta, ministers could even use their marketing budgets to boost posts and videos on their own personal Facebook pages.
Not only has this money not been reimbursed, and perhaps given to people struggling to make ends meet during the lockdown, but we still don’t know the scale of this theft thanks to a misuse of the Freedom of Information laws.
Prime Minister Robert Abela has finally pledged to introduce clear guidelines to regulate this space but it’s really quite astounding that it took an NGO and the Standards Commissioner to make him realise that there even was a problem to begin with.
It shows how deeply ingrained the culture of treating public funds as personal savings has become among our political class, and it shows how crucial it is to sort it out well ahead of the next general election.