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raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo

How many hats can you wear in politics, anyway?

Try as I might I cannot see any other way out, than to turn Parliament into a full-time profession

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
21 March 2017, 7:35am
I’m more interested in the case for what it reveals about the professional state of politics these days
I’m more interested in the case for what it reveals about the professional state of politics these days
It’s funny how certain professions tend to wander off into grey areas all by themselves from time to time. I know, because my own profession – journalism (or what’s left of it) – is a classic case in point.

What is a journalist, anyway? There don’t seem to be any hard and fast answers any more. The traditional ‘Peter Parker’ image we were all brought up with no longer applies to the vast bulk of journalism in the digital age. And legal definitions don’t help much either: most were devised at a time before the widespread use of even television, let alone the Internet (the Broadcasting Authority, for instance, was originally conceived to regulate Rediffusion in the 1960s). 

Meanwhile, within the already vague and murky stereotype of ‘journalist’ there are divisions and subdivisions. Opinion columnists are now regarded as journalists on par with news reporters... but it wasn’t always the case. Until recently, their proper place was (and, physically within a newspaper, still is) with the ‘letters to the Editor’ section. Not the news.

But then, what constitutes ‘the news’ has also changed. In the past it was by and large limited to official statements, and any questions that might arise thereof. Today, official statements are usually supplied, with varying degrees of panic, in response to news stories... which often as not are broken by bloggers, not by the mainstream media at all.

In all this changing landscape, there are however still a few defining characteristics we can all recognise. A journalist has to put his or her work out there in some form or other: the medium of choice may have changed, but something still has to be ‘published’ in order to fit the definition. Whether we look at the published product and decide it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ journalism (and on whose standards we base that decision), is another question. Though we may have difficulty defining it, we can all at least recognise journalism when we see it. Well, most of the time, anyway. 

In other professions, however, not even that much is clear. I don’t want to do the obvious thing and single out the two most maligned professions known to man, but… oh, what the heck:  Lawyers and politicians. Anyone brave enough to try and come up with a workable definition for either in today’s circumstances?

To be fair, take them individually and it becomes a lot easier. As with journalism, there are certain work practices we can all still associate with both: lawyers represent clients in court (and elsewhere), politicians, um, ‘do politics’ and stuff... we can all see and recognise that with our own eyes.

But put the two together, and what are you even left with? Judging by everything that’s happening right now, I’d say it’s anyone’s guess.

There are at least three ongoing examples of the oddities that arise from this conjunction. One, I’ll admit, is extremely trivial in nature. But I include it all the same, as it is actually the most representative of the three.

It goes like this: today is St Patrick’s Day, the national day of Ireland which (for God only knows what unearthly reason) has now become something of a contender with Isle of MTV for biggest Maltese street party of the year. This year, a minor controversy arose when the St Julian’s local council awarded a contract for an outdoor festival (including music and the sale of alcohol) in competition with the traditional, long-standing neighbourhood bars.

I won’t go into the issue itself – no offence or anything, but I’m not exactly holding my breath for the outcome – but something caught my eye in the news report. The bar owners won their court case; and their lawyer was Labour MP Luciano Busuttil.

Like I said earlier, it’s not an earth-shattering revelation. Many sitting MPs are also practising lawyers, and in that capacity they’re in and out of court all the time. I would not, in brief, count this as one of the problematic examples.

But there are several instances where it could be problematic... indeed, at a certain level the entire arrangement is in itself a problem. The lawyer-client relationship is not the same as that which exists between an elected representative and his or her constituents. Lawyers have obligations towards their clients, that politicians cannot justify sharing. There are confidentiality protocols. A lawyer who holds a client’s brief may find himself in a dilemma if ever questioned by a parliamentary committee about the same client’s activities. 

Admittedly, I can’t think how that might ever arise from Busuttil representing Saddles, Tigullio and Ryan’s Pub... but we don’t know off-hand exactly which interest is being legally represented by which politician, do we? Which also means that, at any moment, we can’t tell whether an MP like Busuttil – and it goes for all other MPs with similar professional commitments – is wearing his lawyer’s hat, or that of a member of parliament. 

I hate to say it, but those hats are not interchangeable. This brings me to the other curious case of the week: the ongoing polemic of Mario de Marco’s legal brief for the db Group. Obviously there are mammoth political implications here, including internal calls for de Marco’s resignation as party deputy leader. But right now I’m more interested in the case for what it reveals about the professional state of politics these days. 

On paper, the actual scenario seems to pick up where the last one left off. Until 2014, Mario de Marco did legal work for the db Group while also doubling up as an MP. As with Busuttil, we do not collectively begrudge MPs who do professional work on the side. They’ve got to live too, we can all see that.

But we can also see that the two hats sit uneasily on the same head. In comments to Saviour Balzan’s television programme Xtra, de Marco said that as db’s legal representative, he had a duty towards his client. He said this very matter-of-factly, as if it were self-evident to everyone. And to be fair, it is: most of the other 70 MPs likewise juggle between two unrelated political and professional hats. 

This is how one online comment captures that particular perception: “Dr. Mario de Marco was representing the db Group as a legal adviser rather than as the NP deputy leader, hence his loyalty is given to the db Group, similar to a lawyer who represents a criminal – whether a murderer, a rapist or a child abuser – doesn’t mean that the lawyer is a criminal.”

It’s a pertinent observation, but it also illustrates the intrinsic difference between the two hats. Yes, we all accept that the right to a defence implies that lawyers can maintain a distance from the individual cases they represent. But we do not extend that exception to politicians. A politician who defends ‘a murderer, a rapist or a child abuser’ (to stick to the same example) can expect to face political fall-out. A lawyer doesn’t have that problem.

From this point on the politician ramifications become important. De Marco argues otherwise, but elements within his own party view his position as conflicting with that of his party. It’s hard to say whether they’re right, because – let’s face it – the situation has now become very messy indeed. On the one hand the PN has been busy forging links between the ‘corrupt’ db Group and its leverage with Labour in the ITS land transfer deal... next it emerges that the PN’s own deputy leader was db’s lawyer at a time when the contract was still being drawn up... and then, just to really confuse everyone, it also transpires that the PN had all along been banging away on db’s doors for financial contributions towards its CEO’s salary.

That last part may seem unrelated to the other two, but it’s not. There’s a reason why MPs in comparable situations to de Marco and Busuttil do not consider their twin roles to conflict; and it’s the same reason a political party like the PN has to rely on donations from large businesses like the db group. It’s also why similar conflicts suddenly start appearing almost everywhere you look.

The next example doesn’t involve a ‘politician’ as such; but it certainly involves ‘politics’. In the wake of the party financing revelations, the Electoral Commission (not without some prodding) decided to investigate whether the PN was in breach of the party financing law.  It has already been pointed out that the Electoral Commission is not exactly well-placed to conduct this investigation: seeing as how half its members were appointed by the PN (which has an interest in the outcome) and the other half by Labour (which, oh look! also has an interest, fancy that...).

But then you look at the commission itself, and the first thing you see is that one of the PN appointees is Dr Joe Zammit Maempel... the PN’s own lawyer. 

Hmmm. Now if the previous example was confusing, this one’s a bit like a triacontahedral Rubik’s cube. How is that supposed to actually work? Let’s say the Commission investigates the matter and (hypothetically) concludes that, yes, there was a breach... and therefore proceedings begin in court. What happens next? One of the investigators suddenly whips out his other hat, and starts defending his client against charges that were brought about as a result of his own investigation?

Now: all the usual provisos apply here. I don’t know Zammit Maempel from Adam, and by all accounts he seems to be a pretty good lawyer, etc. No reason to doubt his integrity that I can see. But still: how can anyone look at that scenario, and not see that something doesn’t add up?

In this case, the ‘something’ is very clearly political in nature. Strangely, we all accept a situation where political parties get to appoint their own investigators. This also means it is fairly straightforward to solve. Just stop bloody accepting it, that’s all...

The other scenarios are however more complex, and simple solutions won’t work. Try as I might I cannot see any other way out, than to turn Parliament into a full-time profession – with attractive salaries/perks, etc. – and preclude MPs from holding down any other professional commitments, of any kind whatsoever.

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