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Editorial | Sunday, 07 December 2008

Paul’s damning epistle

Now that the infamous email that Paul Borg Olivier inadvertently sent to Labour’s secretary-general Jason Micallef has been finally published, the facts of the story are out there for everyone to read and discern. Whatever the Nationalist Party’s secretary-general says in his bid to defend himself, what he wrote, black on white, cannot be erased.
The first point that has to be made is that were it not for this newspaper, we would, in all probability, never have known about this “data sharing” between government and the PN as requested by Borg Olivier himself. The fact that it took Labour three weeks to publish this damning email, and only after MaltaToday reported that it was sent to Jason Micallef, shows that the Opposition intended to get it out only when it felt it could be politically useful. That kind of reasoning can only keep eroding the Labour Party’s credibility, which tends to treat such scandals as if they were a television soap opera, releasing pieces of information bit by bit. It’s an infantile approach that Joseph Muscat has inherited from his predecessor.
Upon reading the first sentence of Borg Olivier’s email, it is immediately clear that the distinction between party and government has been dumped for good.
The secretary-general speaks of a meeting held at PN headquarters between party officials, ministers’ customer care officials and officials from the Office of the Prime Minister. Among the people who attended the meeting, Borg Olivier refers to Ivan Falzon, Karol Aquilina and Charles Demicoli as those who were “involved in the process prior to the election” from the PN.
The way Borg Olivier writes also shows that he is captaining this process of “synergising” and “integrating” government’s customer care. He might deny it with all his force, but the very fact that he wrote the email and even urged ministers to “stimulate” their customer care officials to cooperate and take “ownership” indicates that he is coordinating it. It is also clear that he is referring to one process of data gathering and sharing, integrating government and party information onto one database. This is further betrayed through his use of the first person plural. The idea, he writes, is “for us to identify” pockets of weakness, and “for us to have an indication of trends” of complaints. His ultimate give-away, however, is his assertion that he wants to turn “a pre-electoral process” into “a process spanning the whole legislature”.
Even more suspicious is Borg Olivier’s instruction to ministers and customer care officials to use a template provided by Charmaine Gerada, from OPM, to input the personal data of all people making complaints over the last eight months.
The questions this gives rise to are endless. Since when are ministers and public servants answerable to the PN’s secretary-general? Why did they have to meet at PN headquarters? What makes Borg Olivier part of the government’s customer care exercise? By what remit does he summon public servants on behalf of the government?
Even if, as he claims, no information is forwarded to the PN in the process, what gives government the right to share such personal data? Why should an individual’s complaint with, say, the Finance Ministry, reach the OPM? Data controllers in every government department are clearly meant to abide by data protection rules in safeguarding their data subjects’ privacy. Borg Olivier’s call is effectively an incitement to break the law. In any case, why should Borg Olivier be informed of the nature and trends of complaints lodged with the government?
If such information is lawfully collected, it is either made available to the public indiscriminately or to nobody. Borg Olivier has no special right to such information. The very fact that the prime minister’s head of secretariat, Edgar Galea Curmi, replied to his email in a damage control exercise (after realising Jason Micallef had received the email), practically reminding ministers not to break the law, is further indication that Borg Olivier’s request verged on illegality.
Tragically, the lightness with which government treats data protection is confirmed through the delay in appionting a new data protection commissioner since Paul Mifsud Cremona passed away last August. Now that government and opposition have agreed on a new one, we expect the new appointee to rush to his new office and start investigating the data sharing procedures between government and the PN, and to visibly safeguard every citizen’s privacy rights.


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