Halloween may be associated with trick-or-treating, but it was the spectre of simple “treating” that raised its head again over the weekend.
As PL MPs Rosianne Cutajar and Silvio Schembri handed out goody bags to children, some people criticised them for using treats in an attempt to win their parents’ votes.
It’s a bit of a stretch to assume that someone’s vote will be swayed by free food, but less so to argue that these gestures will make voters think of those politicians more fondly when the moment of truth comes.
For example, a person may have made his mind up to vote Labour but may still be unsure of the order he will rank PL candidates on the ballot sheet.
Faced with a list of ten PL candidates, the voter’s eyes may fall on Silvio Schembri’s name and immediately remember how he had knocked on their door to give his daughter sweets on Halloween.
“It was very decent of him,” the voter may think. “I think I’ll give him a three instead of a four.”
While there are many factors at play when people decide which party they want in government, personal experiences are absolutely crucial when it comes to voting for a candidate. Politicians know this, which is why they go on so many house visits, attend community events and activities and yes, sometimes even give out treats.
It’s a tricky issue for legislators to handle. On the one hand, politics will become a farce if it degenerates into a battle between candidates over who can dish out more free goodies.
On the other hand, overly rigid rules on gift-giving will result in excess state interference that could infiltrate beyond politics.
If all acts of “treating” are banned, will it also apply to people who haven’t yet been officially approved as candidates?
If so, where will the line be drawn between politicians and the general public, and if not, won’t it be discriminatory against MPs?
Treating, the act of providing food, drink, entertainment or goods for the purpose of corruptly influencing people’s votes is illegal by Maltese law.
However, as Standards Commissioner George Hyzler clarified in a recent report, the law specifies that treating only becomes illegal the moment a general election has been called.
And here lies the rub.
As it stands, the Prime Minister is fully empowered to call an election whenever he pleases. Joseph Muscat called an election a year early in 2017, catching the Opposition completely off guard.
Robert Abela too was certainly toying with the idea of calling an early election before he recently confirmed that it will actually be held next year.
This full discretion gives members of the ruling party who are close to the Prime Minister an unfair advantage in terms of gearing up for the next election, including inside knowledge on when they will be able to start and stop treating.
The solution isn’t to clamp down harder on treating but to end the discretionary power that the Prime Minister currently enjoys on when to call an election.
Malta should look closely at the United Kingdom, which in 2011 introduced the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, setting a default five-year term for a legislature.
Under this law, an early election can only be called in the event of a no confidence vote in the government or if Parliament specifically votes in favour of a snap election with a two-thirds majority, as it did in 2017.
If Malta goes down this route, it won’t only make ‘treating’ fairer but will end politicking over election dates at the expense of nation once and for all.
Abela recently accused the PN of creating economic uncertainty by spreading rumours that he was going for a November election. However, he had refused to dismiss the rumours when questioned by journalists multiple times, which, by his logic, would imply he was creating economic uncertainty himself.
From shifting responsibility for judicial appointments to the President to giving Parliament the power to choose the Chief Justice, Abela has already shown he is willing to remove some of his powers for the sake of democracy.
Setting fixed election dates should be his next move.
Do you agree with this proposal?