We reap what we sow

These are very capable individuals who are yet placed in a contentious scenario where a parliamentary commissioner such as this one has to deal with both sides of a tribal political divide, which means any political baggage of said advisors could be weaponised as a sign of mistrust

Standards Commissioner George Hyzler
Standards Commissioner George Hyzler

When Joseph Muscat came up with the idea of appointing the lawyer and former PN parliamentary secretary George Hyzler as Standards Commissioner, he knew exactly what he was doing.

In his usual, imperfect game of political chessm he knew that appointing a former Nationalist MP and parliamentary secretary  would not be vetoed by the Opposition, and seen favourably by the public as an act of political inclusion.

He had the knack for doing as much, in a bid to create chaos with his adversaries. His decision to anoint Lou Bondi a consultant in 2013, one of his most fiery critics before his election, and appoint John Bundy, a former NET TV broadcaster as TVM CEO, is perhaps proof of this. The list is endless.

So omnipotent and absolute was Muscat, that no Labourite dared question the choice.  Indeed everyone applauded the appointment of George Hyzler.

But Hyzler had another ‘virtue” that was recognised by Muscat. He was definitely a Nationalist, yet one that had been brutally attacked by Daphne Caruana Galizia in one of her takedowns. Indeed in a comment he had written on her blog (and published by Caruana Galizia), Hyzler had rebuked her in no uncertain terms: “Unfortunately this sad excuse for a columnist will continue to enjoy readership because although feeding Christians to the lions is no longer fashionable people still love to see others suffer. Human nature is like that, and Daphne has made a living out of it.”

With her dislike of the De Marco family, it was expected then that Caruana Galizia would also take aim at Hyzler, the husband of Gianella De Marco, who also endured some degree of vilification, much like her brother.

Like all politicians and lawyers, Hyzler has had a plethora of skeletons in the cupboard – nothing criminal – that could potentially embarrass him. As all of us have the same problem I guess. As a leading lawyer he represented clients such as convicted US felon Bradley Birkenfeld, who sought Maltese residency. Like most other lawyers, without any distinction, that was part of his job.

In a country like Malta, Hyzler could have been slightly more sensitive on his choice of advisers for his new office, especially given that the choice was made without any public call for interest (considering that his office is expected to pass rightful judgement on the way elected politicians act).

By his own admission, his choice of advisers was his decision, without any such public call. But as the going gets tough – and in the Maltese political world, politicians always have a dim view of independent officers – this choice would have definitely ruffled feathers. Two names obviously have rankled Labour MPs: former Attorney General Anthony Borg Barthet, as well as former Malta Independent editor Rachel Attard. Nothing wrong about their appointment, except for those MPs who would question whether such names are ideal for this delicate role.

For these are very capable individuals who are yet placed in a contentious scenario where a parliamentary commissioner such as this one has to deal with both sides of a tribal political divide, which means any political baggage of said advisors could be weaponised as a sign of mistrust.

21 years ago, in 2000, the Nationalist government had then been in power for already over 12 years and George Grech, the commissioner of police and simultaenously head of the security services, was being investigated by a magistrate. That magistrate was Miriam Hayman, who was investigating Grech on sufficient prima facie evidence over attempted rape, misuse of public funds, misuse of the telephone system and threats of blackmail.

Well guess what: Hayman was torn to shreds by the fourth estate of yesteryear for having had the audacity to investigate a Commissioner of Police.

Borg Barthet, then Attorney General and naturally politically close to the Nationalist administration, having also been appointed by the same government, applied the controversial nolle prosequi – a procedure by the AG to spike a prosecution, an appalling weapon in the hands of a prosecutor to ensure no investigation takes place on alleged wrongdoing. Any criminal action meets its end there and then, with no prosecution taking place.

Commissioner Grech did not only find the tacit support of the AG’s office. He was defended by Daphne Caruana Galizia, who attacked the victim, Isabelle Azzopardi, by describing her in salacious terms. Classic victim-blaming from the 1990s. As it happens, then TVM presenter and concurrently the PN’s information officer Lou Bondì (years before he became the partner of Rachel Attard), invited Grech to his programme BondiCini for some cushioning. Co-presenter Simone Cini quite the programme as a result of this episode. Other columnists who favoured the powers that be, such as Andrew Borg Cardona, joined in the melée on the magistrate and the victim.

It was not the only nolle prosequi Borg Barthet had served: many others meant that very serious criminal cases were never followed up with a prosecution.

For his sterling services to the State, Borg Barthet was appointed judge in the European Court of Justice in 2003 and then reappointed in 2006 and 2012. His term came to an end in 2018.

There is little doubt in my mind that we need serious political standards and more importantly address the way parliamentarians and ministers operate and act, through a well-resourced parliamentary officer. But surely, we cannot simply detach ourselves from the polarised political environment that exists in our political system or ignore the historical perspective that we live in.

George Hyzler is by all means a competent person, but his choice of people perhaps betrays a certain partality which could be, understandably, be ingrained in his own political phenotype.

Muscat’s ‘error’ was to appoint someone like Hyzler to suggest, in some Macchiavellian manner, that such officers could be appointed on merits of competence and not on political colour... to neutralise opposition hecklers.

But Labour must learn to live with George Hyzler, whose political mettle allows him to cut and thrust through the cant of errant ministers and their backbencher sycophants. In the long run, Muscat’s politics of tokenism cannot work. Such parliamentary officers should not have any political baggage, or at least, their advisors could be cut from a different cloth.