Conflicts, bad governance or both?
Any self-respecting public institution or regulator in a democratic country founded on the rule of law, should steer miles away from any type of conflict of interest so as not to erode public trust and fuel negative perceptions. This is why the resignation of the non-executive chairman of the Building Construction Agency, architect Maria Schembri Grima, over demolition works being carried out in Birkirkara, should ring the alarm bells.
In short, an absurd situation cropped up whereby the BCA headed by this architect had to intervene to stop haphazard dangerous demolition which were supervised by none other than the same architect heading the watchdog!
Arguably, this is a specimen case of what constitutes a conflict of interest which is defined as a situation in which an entity or individual becomes unreliable because of a clash between personal (or self-serving) interests and professional duties of responsibilities. In this case, the conflict was there regardless of whom were the other parties involved, whether it was a renowned contractor or just private practice on a smaller scale.
The issue is also one of good governance. A situation whereby somebody at the helm of a regulator has a finger in the pie or has vested interests such as their private practice, makes them untenable from day one. If however, authorities stick their head in the sand, in the hope that such conflict will never come back to haunt them they are making themselves liable to being an accomplice in public mistrust of such institutions.
This particular conflict of interest had been flagged two years ago by Shift News. Let us not forget that the BCA was established in the aftermath of a series of accidents, some of which were fatal like that of Miriam Pace in Hamrun, which fuelled a public outcry to crackdown on some ‘cowboys’ within the construction industry. It turned out that government’s course of action was flawed from day one due to this blatant conflict of interest. At the time Schembri Grima had reportedly downplayed the issue, insisting she did not felt her position was untenable as she was “non-executive chairman” of the BCA. Two years down the line, however, it turned out that she was wrong or to say the least had made a spectacular error of judgment when deciding to take the post without renouncing to her private practice.
From a wider perspective, this controversy fuels serious questions on the level of good governance in Malta. Government cannot justify itself of not being aware of such conflict, given it had been publicly flagged in 2021. Even if that was the case, questions would then be raised on the due diligence in place for scrutinising candidates for public posts. This is why no media campaign be it on the State broadcaster or through other publicly-funded channels will make sense as long the same ‘mistakes’ will be repeated. This issues at stake revolves not only on conflicts of interests, but also on our level of governance, if not both.