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Raphael Vassallo

Resigned to absurdity

Ministerial culpability and a culture of resignations cannot and should not be regulated at law.

Raphael Vassallo
20 February 2012, 12:00am
Professor Kevin Aquilina, who heads the Faculty of Law, has just submitted a list of proposals for a Constitutional ‘blueprint’ to govern how ‘ministerial responsibility’ should be regulated.

That’s right, folks… we are now going to pass laws to regulate how, when and to what degree a minister should shoulder responsibility for his or her actions.

Honestly, this country just never ceases to amaze me. The very idea is so utterly absurd and outlandish that I scarce know where to begin. It’s like debating a law to regulate ‘politeness’ or ‘table manners’. You know, making it a crime not to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’, or to talk with your mouth full, etc.

How can such matters possibly be subject to the law? They are merely external trappings of an inherent culture that exists (or fails to exist) independently of such things as ‘national jurisdictions’. If you were brought up in a certain way, you would mind your Ps and Qs, most often without even realizing it. If not, you wouldn’t… also without realizing it, though the omission will certainly be noticed by others.

You will notice that ‘law’ does not come into the equation at all; and if ever did, well, that’s when serious people will start seriously thinking of emigrating. For the moment it becomes LAW to thank people for a kindness – or to offer your seat to others on a bus, or to be in any way polite –the entire point will have been thrown irretrievably out of the window. Politeness will no longer be considered a virtue. It would become just another imposition.

So in itself, the fact that we are even discussing a law to decide when public office holders should or should not acknowledge personal culpability only reveals how very, very distant we still are from understanding the basics of these and other issues.

But to be honest, that was an admittedly exasperated aside on my part. There is something else that worries me about this particular exercise.

According to Prof. Aquilina, there are six ‘levels of ministerial responsibility’ to be legally addressed. Let’s have a look at them one by one, shall we? [NB They are all prefixed the same way: ‘A minister can shoulder responsibility by…’]

1) ‘…redirecting questions to the relevant minister’

Two small problems with this: a) It is what already happens… ALL THE TIME. If you don’t believe me, consult the parliamentary questions website and have a look at a few of the ‘answers’;

b) Since when does ‘redirecting questions to other people’ translate into ‘shouldering ministerial responsibility? It does nothing of the kind. On the contrary, by redirecting the question the minister will be transferring responsibility to third parties. There is an expression for this: it’s called ‘passing the buck’, and by definition it is the precise OPPOSITE of shouldering responsibility (which, come to think of it, also explains why it happens so very often).

2) ‘…Providing all the relevant information and explanations’.

How odd. You see, I was under this vague impression that ministers were already legally obliged to provide relevant information and explanations when required to do so by Parliament. It’s called a ‘Parliamentary Question’, and failing to provide the information (or providing the wrong information) is theoretically a crime.

Naturally, it is a fact (easily verified by following my advice, above) that local ministers routinely ignore this legal obligation … and they do so precisely by ‘redirecting the question to the relevant minister’.

But even if correct information was always supplied when requested… what has it got to do with the issue at hand? ‘Providing information’ is not synonymous with ‘shouldering responsibility’, you know. The two things are in fact totally unrelated. To put it simply: I can provide information that suggests I am responsible for any given issue… and still go on to disclaim all responsibility.

3) ‘…taking remedial action’.

Gee, so now we need a Constitutional amendment to ensure that remedial action is taken when a minister cocks up. Fantastic, I must say. But again, rectifying a mistake is not the same thing as acknowledging the mistake as your own. (And in any case, not all such ‘mistakes’ can even be rectified).

Let’s take a practical example of a recent resignation matter that was allowed to stand. There was clear evidence of collusion between prospective bidders and government officials in the Delimara power station tendering process (I won’t go over the details again – suffice to say even the Auditor General described the contract as vitiated.) As a result, our CO2 emission levels were raised to accommodate a technology that would otherwise have been inadmissible; we settled for an oil-using technology in clear defiance of the government’s declared policy to transfer to gas within a fixed time-frame, and so on and so forth.

Naturally the minister concerned denied all responsibility: and he did so in all the ways Prof. Aquilina now suggests we should entrench in the Constitution. He redirected questions to other authorities; he provided information and explanations which failed to either discredit the allegations, or justify his own modus operandi… and he went on to survive a vote of no confidence (albeit by the skin of his teeth).

Personally, in such circumstances I would have thought resignation was a sine qua non BEFORE even beginning to talk about ‘remedial action’… and with good reason, for what sense does it make to entrust the remedy for any given situation to the same person who screwed up that situation in the first place?

But then, I am clearly from another planet, so let’s move on.

4) ‘… accepting personal culpability but not necessary resigning’

Hmmm. To be honest I’m still trying to figure this one out. So a minister accepts personal culpability, but then, pays no form of price whatsoever for the shortcoming? In what way would responsibility have been shouldered? And more to the point: what message would be sent out to the general public?

This is the message my antennae are currently picking up: “Look at me, all you stupid tax-payers. I am free to screw up as much as I please (with your money, by the way), and can even openly admit screwing up to all your faces… and there’s absolutely nothing any of you can actually do about it! So there, too! Nyah-nya-nya-nyah…”

I don’t know. In the absence of any form of penalty… what’s the difference between ‘admitting culpability’ and ‘boasting about one’s immunity to justice’? And what impetus is there to actually ensure that things are done correctly?

None that can see myself.

6. ‘Resignation could be tied to a situation where the minister loses the confidence of parliament, or the confidence of the prime minister.’

Really? You don’t say! So if a minister loses a confidence vote in Parliament, he would be expected to… resign? Honestly, who would have ever guessed…

And yet, even in our own seriously screwed-up political system, a minister who has lost confidence of the House would go on to lose his job as a matter of procedure. Resignation doesn’t come into it at all… except in other countries, where most ministers caught in that situation would spare their PM the embarrassment of sacking them by offering to resign.

With or without the resignation, however, their position as minister would very emphatically be over. That is already the state of play in Malta. So why bother entrenching it in the Constitution?

The same applies to losing the PM’s confidence; only in this case no parliamentary vote is even required. If a Prime Minister decides he is not happy with any given minister’s performance, there is nothing to stop him from demoting that minister and appointing someone else in his place. I admit it doesn’t happen very often in the local context, but it is hardly unheard of either (Lawrence Gatt being one example I remember myself, but there may be others).

Given all these considerations… why, exactly, do we even need a Constitutional proviso to entrench what is already standard practice in this country, which has always been in our parliamentary system?

Personally I can suggest a few possibilities… and needless to add ‘ministerial accountability’ has nothing to do with any of them. 

George Busuttil
@alex. Moral standards is a virtue which is frequently quoted but never practiced by our politicians. That is basically why Professor Aquilina wants to have it on paper to ensure that whenever the minister’s conscience is found lacking then one can resort to law enforcement. The hitches in this scenario is 1) whether the political parties will agree to less self regulation and abide to stricter laws & 2) who will eventually enforce the law.
Alphonse Grech
political responsibility shouldn't be enforced by law...but by moral standards!
One phrase to rule them all: FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT!
Carm Cachia
Prof. Aquilina is a positivist. For him nothing exists unless it is written. I'm not surprised his views are influencing the administration. He's a good man really but like the article points out there are some things in life that exist and should be followed out of respect for the unwritten conventions of what is decent. Also note - the most recent example of a resignation following individual ministerial responsibility was that of Dr Charles Mangion in the Sant administration. Parliament and the Executive would do well to look at the Sant administration as the benchmark of ethics and correctness.
Loredana Galea
Mahruq mhux b'dak li kiteb Ralph Vassallo jew issuggerrixxa l-Professur Kevin Aquilina dwar ir-responsabbilta' ta' Ministru u x'ghandu jwasslu biex jirrizenja. Mahruq ghaliex l-webmaster ma jridx jispecifika kemm ghandna hin allottjat ghal post..u ghadni kemm tlift il-post orginali. LIl Vassallo nafu bhala eks kritiku tal-films u kittieb b'satira fina li verament nammira. Ma naqbilx mieghu li ma jsir xejn, ghaliex kull Amministrazzjoni ppermettiet li certi Ministri jaqbzu l-eccess. B'gustizzja nghid kien biss Alfred Sant li talab lin-Nutar Charles Mangion jirrizenja meta fi zmien Gvern Laburista tal-1996-98 inqabad f'nasba li minghalija appogga mahfra presidenzjali f'sitwazzjoni li kienet delikata. Kien hemm Ministri li rrizenjaw ghal nuqqas ta' qbil mal-Prim Ministru, imma ma jidhirlix li Ministru kien xi darba sfiducjat, ghaliex dejjem isib fiducja ta' li Speaker. Mela Sur Vassallo mhux ahjar tard milli qatt li ssir xi haga serja u tidhol fil-Kostituzzjoni. U l-Ministru li jitnehha jibqa' responsabbli ta' ghemilu u mhux ifarfar la darba jkun sfiducjat jew imnehhi mill-Prim Ministru. U ebda Ministru li jirriplesjah m'ghandu jiret il-htija tal-Ministru sfiducjat jew imnehhi. Profs. Aquilina kompli ppersisti bil-proposti tieghek u hadt gost li l-lejla fil-kumitat tal-kamra kien hemm ambjent pozittiv meta ddiskuta dan kollu. (Not corrected not to lose the comment).
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