The Malta Independent 15 October 2021, Friday

TMIS Editorial: Working for better standards in politics

Sunday, 19 September 2021, 11:00 Last update: about 26 days ago

The Office of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life this week launched a very interesting and much-needed project.

The two-year exercise, which is supported by the European Commission and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), aims to improve standards in politics in a number of ways.

These include strengthening the Standards Commissioner’s office, updating the code of ethics for ministers and Members of Parliament, introducing lobbying transparency systems and raising awareness among politicians as well as the general public.

The setting up of the role of the Commissioner for Standards in Public life – currently occupied by George Hyzler – was a very important step, but time has shown that there is much room for improvement. While Dr Hyzler has carried out sterling work over the past three years, investigating well over a hundred complaints, experience has shown that the powers held by his office are somewhat limited, and the process of holding politicians to account and high standards often falls victim to partisan politics.

One of the issues that needs to be tackled is the commissioner’s inability at law to investigate cases that took place prior to the establishment of his office in October 2018. This is effectively time-barring cases that took place before that time, and we all know that ethics breaches did not start in 2018.

There is also the fact that the Parliamentary ethics committee, which is chaired by the Speaker and thus tips the balance of power in favour of the Labour government, has the final say on whether reports on ethics breaches should be published. There were times, in fact, when the committee voted not to publish certain reports, mainly because it would have been damaging to the Labour Party.

Perhaps the reform should also go into the workings of the Parliamentary committee itself because, as PN MP Therese Comodini Cachia aptly put it during the launch event, the committee should lead by example and rise above partisan politics – something which rarely happens.

We currently have an extraordinarily stupid scenario where one of the government members on the committee, Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis, is refusing to recuse himself in meetings that are discussing an investigation into Rosianne Cutajar in a deal also involving his close friend Yorgen Fenech. Such childish behaviour cannot subsist.

Updating the code of ethics for Cabinet members and MPs is also of vital necessity. As explained during the launch, the code of ethics for MPs was last updated in the 1990s. Times have changed greatly since then, including with the advent of social media. Not only does the code of ethics needs to be updated, but there should be a mechanism in place to ensure that a review is automatically carried out every few years.

The project will also see the publication of a handbook that explains, in simple terms, what a conflict of interest and breach of ethics is. Unfortunately, it seems that many MPs need to have things spelt out for them in very simple terms, because they have so far failed to grasp these two supposedly straightforward concepts.

The introduction of transparency registers for lobbyists is also a very important step if we want to strive for transparency in politics. Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia had been the first to propose a transparency register two years ago, but for various reasons, including the fact that Commissioner Hyzler has since suggested that all ministries should introduce the practice, it has not materialised.

It is important that ministers keep a record of the meetings they have with stakeholders. It leads to greater transparency and scrutiny. Imagine if some mega project were to be approved just days after the people behind it hold a meeting with the planning minister. Of course, this does not only apply to the planning ministry, but to all ministries. It could even apply for the Opposition.

Besides holding politicians to account, such a measure would also ensure that developers and other stakeholders act in a correct manner, because their meetings with the decision-makers would have been logged and made public. There is no reason not to do this. If they have nothing to hide, they should not have a problem in having their meetings recorded.

The project also aims to raise awareness. This is perhaps the most important aspect of them all. Because not only do many politicians seem to be unaware of what is expected of them, but many members of the public also seem to be blissfully ignorant about how politicians should conduct themselves in office.

In fact, many people tend to excuse ministers coming from the political parties they support over any form of misdemeanour, sometimes even crimes. For some people, certain politicians can do no wrong. Take the example of how some out there still glorify Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, despite the countless scandals they were involved in, including the Panama companies, which had Yorgen Fenech’s 17 Black listed as one of their target clients.

The country needs a shift in mentality, and that can only happen through education and awareness.

We cannot keep living in a country where politicians are exalted and exonerated, even when they overstep and cross red lines.

 

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