The Malta Independent 12 May 2021, Wednesday

TMID Editorial: Standards Commission - More powers to the Commissioner

Monday, 19 April 2021, 09:14 Last update: about 22 days ago

The past week saw Parliament’s Standards Commissioner George Hyzler find that a government minister – Carmelo Abela – had breached parliamentary ethics by using public funds to pay for an advert which was deemed to be intended on boosting his own political profile rather than providing any information of value to the public.

The report did not come without undue hassle: the government members of the Standards Committee – which discusses all the reports drafted up by Hyzler and determines whether they agree and what sanctions must be levelled if a breach is found – boycotted a meeting to discuss the report, claiming it had been leaked to the media beforehand.

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Hyzler himself retorted through a statement that no such leak had taken place, something which he said can be discerned from the article in question itself, and also came out swinging in saying that he feels that discretion on whether to publish a report or not should be in his hands rather than in the Committee’s hands.

The office of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life was established in October 2018, and it has since published reports on varying topics – and persons – all relating to public life.

The debate over the current report has once again raised cause for concern over how much power the Standards Commissioner can actually wield.

Procedurally – the Standards Commissioner cannot, as per an April 2019 agreement, decide on his own whether to publish a report into an individual; the Commissioner cannot make a final declaration on whether a politician has breached ethics or not; and the Commissioner cannot investigate cases from before 30 October 2018.

All of these powers are in the hands of Parliament’s standing committee for Standards in Public Life.  The committee is made up of two government members, two Opposition members, and is then chaired by Speaker Anglu Farrugia.

A case can certainly be made for the granting of more powers to Hyzler and his office.

Hyzler’s point on the decision on the publication or non-publication of a report should return to his discretion is – firstly – entirely justified. 

Furthermore, what is the point of having an independent office to investigate complaints when, in truth, the final decision on any report published is still in the hands of the whims of the politician?

It should be noted that the committee, thus far, has not gone against Hyzler’s recommendations – but the “thus far” is the key part of that sentence.

Another point of debate is on whether the power should be given for sanctions to be handed to former MPs who are found in breach of ethics.  No doubt the most prominent such case is when former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was found to have breached parliamentary ethics – however could not ultimately be sanctioned because he was no longer an MP.

It doesn’t make sense to have an office to hold MPs accountable for what they do, which then cannot by law sanction the same MP if he has resigned before a breach of ethics is found.

That’s not sending the message of “don’t commit ethics breaches” – it’s sending the message of “you can do as you please as long as you’re not caught while you’re still an MP”.  Hardly the message one wants to be sending.

The reforms – introduced by this Labour Government – to create Hyzler’s office were no doubt a big step forward for upholding good and proper standards in our politicians.  But no reform is infallible – introducing tweaks to address the aforementioned issues can only build on the positive effects that the existence of this office has already created.

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