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MPs want full-time job but warn of potential pitfalls

Out of the 24 MPs who responded to MaltaToday’s questions, only one expressly opposed the notion of having full-time MPs

jurgen
Jurgen Balzan
21 March 2017, 7:30am
Labour MP Franco Mercieca said salaries must be attractive otherwise ‘politics might attract misfits’
Labour MP Franco Mercieca said salaries must be attractive otherwise ‘politics might attract misfits’
The majority of MPs who responded to MaltaToday on reforming the parliamentary system have agreed with having full-time MPs, but not all concur on whether this should be obligatory.  

They have warned that full-time MPs could discourage people from contesting elections, because they could face financial difficulties once they exit the political scene.

On Thursday, justice minister Owen Bonnici and PN deputy leader Mario de Marco’s replies on TVM’s Xtra on whether they would choose their profession or becoming full-time MPs were somewhat perplexing. While Bonnici said this choice would create a “dilemma”, De Marco said that he would probably choose his legal profession. 

Out of the 24 MPs who responded to MaltaToday’s questions, only one expressly opposed the notion of having full-time MPs. 

Maltese MPs remain the lowest paid lawmakers in the EU, according to a study carried out by Euronews last year, taking home just 1.1 times the country’s average salary. MPs are paid €21,145 a year, compared with the national average salary of €18,744.

MPs retain the right to continue in their profession, but this has at times created blatant conflicts of interest. This was best exposed by De Marco’s involvement in the negotiations between government and his clients db Group, over the controversial transfer of land in St Julian’s to the company.

On the other hand, the taxpayer foots a hefty bill to keep government backbenchers happy: some 39 Labour MPs are costing the taxpayer more than €1.6 million a year with topped-up salaries from chairmanships and other plum posts.

A committee appointed by the government in 2013 recommended a significant pay rise for MPs, with the report proposing that salaries should treble to €59,000 for full-time MPs and €29,500 for those who choose to remain part-timers. 

A full-time parliament would not only address conflicts of interest and the appointment of MPs on government boards and agencies, but it would also give them the tools to fully focus on legislating. However, the counter argument is that full-time MPs could lead to a greater detachment between politicians and the electorate. 

Ministers ‘already made choice’

Ministers cannot have private jobs, so they have certainly already chosen. Education minister Evarist Bartolo unequivocally said he would choose politics over his profession. Others like health minister Chris Fearne and competitiveness minister Manuel Mallia said their choices had been made when they stopped practicing their professions. Junior minister Ian Borg drifted straight into a junior minister’s post after graduating from law in 2012.

Home affairs minister Carmelo Abela pointed out that MPs should be given a choice whether to be full-timers. Finance minister Edward Scicluna has been a full-time politician since his election as MEP in 2009, but the Brussels salary, perks, and support staff budget, far outstrip what a Maltese MP gets.

Scicluna however said that “what is relevant to Malta is not how many hours you work and be paid in Parliament, but what other work or appointments would an MP be allowed to undertake if any. That, and not full-time or part-time, is the issue.”

Full-time job could discourage candidates   

On his part environment minister Jose Herrera warned that “if it were to become mandatory for MPs to be full-timers and be prohibited from doing private work, you could easily face a severe shortage of certain valuable people willing to take the plunge.”

Professionals such as doctors, lawyers, accountants and architects, Herrera said, “might refrain from going into politics since they will suffer financial hardship and disrupt their private practices which would have been built over time.”

Pointing out that politicians have no security of tenure and their stunts as MPs could be short lived, Herrera said if they fail to be reelected “politicians might face financial ruin since they would have to start afresh, something not so easy to do.”

“To encourage serious candidates to aspire to be full time parliamentarians, the position has to be restructured, granting such MPs financial independence and an administrative structure to back them up in their work,” he said. 

MP wages ‘ridiculous’ 

Government backbencher Etienne Grech  disagrees with having full-time MPs
Government backbencher Etienne Grech disagrees with having full-time MPs
Former junior minister Franco Mercieca, who was granted a waiver from the Code of Ethics by the Prime Minister to continue carrying out his private practice, while serving as a Cabinet member, said “the possibility of MPs becoming full timers should be seriously considered but one cannot expect that MPs accept current salary scale.”

“How can a professional earning  €100,000 a year enter politics to earn  €20,000 as a backbencher or €60,000 as a minister?” Mercieca asked, adding “ministers should have the same salary scale as an MEP, while MPs should have at least €100,000.”

“It’s ridiculous for the PM to get €60,000 while appointing a CEO of a government enterprise at €120,000. If the salary is right then a professional would have no qualms to enter politics. Otherwise politics may attract misfits.”

Former junior minister Michael Falzon, who was hand-picked for a €50,000 job at the Grand Harbour Regeneration Corporation after resigning over the Gaffarena expropriation scandal, said that “given today’s demands I believe that the time is more than ripe for MPs to have the opportunity to become full timers; a choice which I would make.”

One of the highest earners on the government backbench, Silvio Schembri, agrees with having full-time MPs, saying that this should be part of a holistic change of the parliamentary system, “including more resources to MPs.”

Schembri earns some €65,000 thanks to his role as consultant to economy minister Chris Cardona and chair of the Parliamentary Economic and Financial Affairs committee.

In comments to MaltaToday the 32-year-old economist said: “I agree that MPs can have the option to decide whether to work as full time or part time, personally I would choose politics.”

Another high earner on the government backbench, Luciano Busuttil, said even on a full-time basis, MPs would still be part of law firms that remain operational during tenure. “We have seen ex-ministers going back to their profession with ease without having lost a client.”

Busuttil, who earns a handsome €44,880 for his role as MP, chairman of the European Affairs committee and his extra-parliamentary job as head of the Malta Sports Council, said: “on the other hand for a professional/self employed who has no support like myself, being a full-time politician would mean that if not re-elected I would find myself jobless as all clients would by then engage another colleague.”

Despite growing calls for stricter revolving doors rules, which sees ministers seeking employment in the same field they had influence, Busuttil points out the difficulty for PEPs to be employed in the private sector after the end of the legislature. “A fair and level-playing field system must be created. It is ridiculous that even ministers have half the pay of some of their CEOs,” he said. 

Labour MP Anthony Agius Decelis, who earns more than some ministers as Commissioner against Bureaucracy, also said MPs should be given a choice to become full-timers or not.

The only dissenting voice on government benches is Etienne Grech, a GP, who thinks Malta actually does not afford up to 71 full-time MPs with higher salaries. He called it “an unnecessary cost to the taxpayer” and instead supports either the status quo, or reducing the number of MPs if made full-time. 

PN MPs want voluntary scheme 

On their part, nine opposition MPs who replied to MaltaToday’s questions sent an identical answer, making reference to the PN’s document proposing the voluntary introduction of full-time MPs. David Agius, Frederick Azzopardi, Jason Azzopardi, Claudette Buttigieg, Robert Cutajar, Mario Galea, Paula Mifsud Bonnici, George Pullicino and Chris Said said: “last week, PN leader Simon Busuttil set up an independent commission led by Giovanni Bonello to propose radical changes in party financing laws, and also the role of parliamentarians.”

Independent MP Marlene Farrugia agreed with having full-time MPs, saying she was at present a de facto full-time politician.

The Democratic Party leader said she would choose to become a full-time MP, adding that at the moment she carries out her job as a dentist to ensure financial security for her family. Politics, she said, “does not pay in currency but only in satisfaction.”

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Jurgen Balzan joined MaltaToday in 2011, specialising in politics, foreig...
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