The Malta Independent 10 December 2022, Saturday
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TMIS Editorial: Escaping scrutiny

Sunday, 20 November 2022, 11:00 Last update: about 19 days ago

Last Tuesday, there was some commotion during question time in Parliament. Opposition members wanted to ask Transport and Infrastructure Minister Aaron Farrugia some questions related to his portfolio, including the incident concerning two Transport Malta officers, who were suspended after being caught on camera beating up a person who was lying face down on the ground.

On the day it was Minister Farrugia’s turn to reply to PQs concerning his ministry, but he was not in the chamber when the session started at 4pm. Nationalist MPs had seen him in the building, but when Opposition whip Robert Cutajar asked why Farrugia was not present to answer PQs, the House was told – by both Minister Owen Bonnici and Labour whip Andy Ellul – that he could not make it as he was on official duty elsewhere. This turned out to be untrue because, after all, Farrugia was in the building, but avoided entering the parliamentary chamber.

In the end, as usually happens in this blessed country of ours, the minister walked away without there being any consequences. In a ruling given the next day by the Speaker, Anglu Farrugia, we had a long-winded description of what a minister’s duties are, or should be, towards Parliament and the people. We were told about collective and individual responsibility. But Minister Farrugia was not directly mentioned as being at fault. It was as if he had done nothing wrong.

Just like what happens at school when a whole classroom gets punished because one student misbehaved and that student did not own up. In this case, however, we knew who the culprit was, but there was no punishment at all for Farrugia for the lack of respect he showed to the House and to the public. It was described as a chastisement, but a classroom with an unruly student gets a bigger rebuke, for sure. 

Speaking of schools, Farrugia’s behaviour was like that of a pupil who hides in the toilet so as to miss an exam, or who feigns sickness not to go to school in the first place.

Elsewhere, in countries where accountability and responsibility really exist, what Farrugia did would have been grounds for resignation or dismissal. But, in Malta, if people who are linked with corrupt practices stay in their place and continue to be defended, how can one expect Farrugia to quit or be removed? What he did, although serious, is milder when compared to what others before him have done. So he moves on, yet another example of a culture of impunity that has taken over.

Minister Farrugia did not even have the decency to apologise for his wrongdoing. He has not given an explanation why he behaved the way he did which, it must be said, also caused embarrassment to both Bonnici and Ellul who were covering up for him while – to use the way the Nationalist Party described his action – he “hid” somewhere in the Parliament building until question time was over.

If, as the Speaker ruled, Bonnici and Ellul had no intention to mislead the House, which is taken to mean that they did not know Farrugia was in the building, then they should be very unhappy with the way they came across because of their colleague’s behaviour.

NGO Repubblika has now taken Farrugia before the Office of the Commissioner of Standards. No one has as yet been appointed to replace George Hyzler, who was removed from his position a year before his term expired to take up the role of Malta’s representative at the European Court of Auditors. The saga took another twist on Friday after the Prime Minister submitted a parliamentary motion to have former Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi taking on the mantle (and for retired judge Joseph Zammit McKeon to be named as the new Ombudsman). The Opposition has expressed itself against Azzopardi’s appointment and so we await developments in Parliament on the matter.

Having said this, past instances have told us that misbehaving ministers and parliamentary secretaries got away without any repercussions, even when the Standards Commissioner found them guilty of breaches. We know that the Standards Commissioner’s powers are limited and, added to this, the way Parliament’s Standards Committee is set up – with two members from each side of the House, chaired by the Speaker – is not the perfect example of impartiality.

Farrugia’s guilt may also be surmised from the fact that the government and the Labour Party have remained silent. Usually, the Labour propaganda machine is always at the ready to retort when the Nationalist Party points out some deficiency. But, on this occasion, there was no statement from Labour’s end after the PN held a press conference to denounce the minister’s behaviour.

That silence says a lot.

 

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