The Malta Independent 15 May 2021, Saturday

TMIS Editorial - Making a mockery out of ethics

Sunday, 11 April 2021, 11:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

Once more, the two government representatives on Parliament’s ethics committee have torpedoed the work that same committee was meant to carry out and have effectively stopped an important discussion on an apparent serious breach of ethics by a Cabinet member.

Sections of the media reported this week that Standards Czar George Hyzler had found a breach of ethics by OPM Minister Carmelo Abela, who allegedly used public funds to pay for newspaper adverts promoting himself. 

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It seems that no media house has a copy of the actual report – ergo the document was not leaked to newsrooms. But the simple fact that the report is passed on by Hyzler to Speaker Anglu Farrugia, who chairs the ethics committee, means that a breach of ethics has been found.

Enter the two government MPs – Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and MP Glenn Bedingfield – who decided to boycott Friday’s scheduled committee meeting because, according to them, the report had been leaked and their attendance at the sitting had become “superfluous.”

Oh what a convenient excuse this was when the committee was set to discuss and decide whether to publish a report that purportedly identified a wrongdoing by one of their Labour buddies.

Whether the report was leaked or not is not the issue here, but even if it had, this does not excuse the committee members from discussing it, admonishing the minister involved and publishing the report.

In so doing, the committee would have shown that it functions as it should.

It has become a Labour thing, it seems, to decry the leak of information and try to make people forget what the leak is actually about.

This was, of course, not the first time that the government members tried to undermine the work of the Standards in Public Life Committee. This has happened time and time again, including when George Hyzler found breaches of ethics by former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat (on matters such as when Konrad Mizzi was given an €80k job at the MTA after being fired as minister, and a certain party involving Petrus wine), and when the Office of the Prime Minister was found to have breached ethics by locking up journalists at Castille.

The Labour Party boasts of having created the role of Standards Commissioner – who is there to ensure that our politicians adhere to the highest standards of behaviour – but is then the first to try and undermine that same office and the work it carries out.

In a statement on Friday, Hyzler also pointed out that the decision to grant the power to publish or withhold his reports to the same committee makes no sense. His office should have that discretion, he argued.

We cannot agree more. It is pointless to appoint a Standards Commissioner if he does not have a say on whether the conclusions of his investigations should be made public. And besides, why should the public not have access to reports, drafted by an officially appointed Commissioner who is, after all, approved by Parliament, into the wrongdoings of our elected MPs?

How can we, the public, hold our politicians to account and to high standards when the government can simply decide to keep these reports under lock and key?

There are other issues with the law governing the office of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life. These include the fact that he cannot investigate alleged wrongdoings that took place before his office was established, i.e., before October 2018.

This means that if an MP did something wrong in September 2018, he or she are not answerable to anyone.

Another big problem is the fact that the Standards Committee, according to a ruling given by Speaker Farrugia, has no remit to probe or chastise former MPs. This happened in the case of Joseph Muscat (on the Mizzi consultancy), with Farrugia ruling that the committee could not sanction the former PM because he had since resigned from Parliament and the law makes no reference to former MPs.

This is ludicrous. The government that boasts so much about having removed time-barring on political corruption cases has created a law where politicians become untouchable, at least as far at the Standards Committee goes, after they resign their seat in the House.

If the government truly believes in the rule of law, then it should immediately start working on a number of amendments to give the Standards Commissioner and the ethics committee greater powers.

Former MPs should not be afforded immunity. The Commissioner should have the remit to investigate cases that took place even before his office was established. And he should have full discretion as to whether his reports should be made public or not.

Only then will the two entities be able to fulfil the role they were supposedly designed for.

Anything less will not cut it.

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