Rising above partisan interests and personal legacies | Marisa Xuereb

It is in the interest of a healthy and competitive economy that lobbying occurs transparently and ethically, focusing on policy and not favours, ensuring that MPs as well as business representatives are held accountable for the meetings that are held and the outcomes thereof

File photo
File photo

By Marisa Xuereb - President of The Malta Chamber, Enterprise and Industry. Chris Vassallo Cesareo - Deputy President, Liz Barbaro Sant – Vice President Nick Xuereb – Vice President and Marthese Portelli - CEO

This week, the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry published a document entitled “A Strong Transparency, Accountability and Ethical Governance Framework for Members of Parliament”, authored by David Spiteri Gingell.

This is the first in a series of four planned reports intended to provide tangible recommendations for the strengthening of Malta’s highest institution: Parliament. This first document makes a number of bold recommendations that could transform the relationship between MPs and the general public by instilling a newfound sense of trust and credibility, built on the corresponding guarantees of transparency and accountability within an ethical framework.

At the Malta Chamber, we pride ourselves on being the voice of ethical business, and it is for this reason that one of the main topics covered in the report is the issue of lobbying. Lobbying is a necessary function in a democracy; it is simply the manner in which stakeholders, interest groups and individuals bring to the attention of Government concerns that may affect them. The Malta Chamber itself is a lobbyist organisation, representing around 75% of private sector employment and exports. It is our duty to raise the concerns of the sectors we represent in the interest of maintaining a healthy economy conducive to business investment. However, it is also in the interest of a healthy and competitive economy that lobbying occurs transparently and ethically, focusing on policy and not favours, ensuring that MPs as well as business representatives are held accountable for the meetings that are held and the outcomes thereof.

The Malta Chamber is therefore endorsing calls for a Lobby Register which would require MPs to declare any such meetings within 24 hours of their occurrence and upload the minutes of the meeting for public scrutiny within five days.

The report also speaks in detail about the requirement for MPs to disclose their assets in a transparent and public manner, a duty which the Office of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life should be able to enforce through automatic sanctions. This should also include the Commissioner monitoring the private declaration of assets of MPs’ family members to bring to light any proven wrongdoing.

However, the need for transparency should not be a passive requirement to be satisfied through annual declarations; it should be a principle that actively guides MPs in their daily work. In this respect, the report calls for declaration of real or perceived conflicts of interest upon receipt of the day’s agenda, or once such a conflict of interest arises.

Furthermore, MPs should be prohibited from taking second jobs which could lead to conflicts of interest, particularly positions within Ministries and Parliamentary Secretariats or on Government Boards. This occurrence, which has become a norm in our current system, undermines the role of MPs as checks upon Government, completely subverting the separation of powers which should characterise the interactions between Government and the legislature.

All of these reforms hinge upon the strengthening of the Office of the Commissioner for Standards. The current Commissioner will be vacating his position soon and his replacement must also command national respect and be able to rise above partisan politics. The Commissioner, together with the corresponding Parliamentary Committee for Standards, should have the ability to enforce the changes being called for, with the Commissioner having the right and duty to publish all investigative reports in the public domain. Furthermore, it essential that any Chair of the aforementioned Committee acts in a non-partisan manner. This could be ascertained through the appointment of a former member of the judiciary to the position.

Yet the duty of reforming our parliamentary system into one characterised by transparency, accountability and ethical governance cannot lay solely on the shoulders of the Commissioner and the Committee for Standards. We believe that it is of the utmost importance to instil a culture of integrity and professionalism amongst those who select to pursue a political vocation by making available public funding to parties to train candidates in ethics and ethical behaviour. This training should be repeated for MPs on an annual basis, with the option of confidential counselling on accountability, transparency, and ethical matters.

This vision for good governance permeating the foundations of our democratic institutions will be fleshed out through the publication of additional reports on the size and composition of Parliament; the resourcing and working conditions of MPs; and the party financing system. Through this first report, the Malta Chamber is seeking to stimulate the discussion on the way forward, as after all there is space for a diversity of opinions on how to improve our current system.

What we should not accept is that the fundamental issue of ethics in governance remains one that is treated as being divisive or partisan.

Neither should we accept that our yardstick for good standards remains the one of precedents. Due public discussion on such a serious matter of national importance as is Parliament and our representatives in Parliament calls for a politically mature, well-researched, objective and reasoned approach that is free from personal biases and legacy interests.

Such a factual discussion will also resonate with those who have become too disillusioned to even bother participating in the democratic process. It is in the public interest that present and future MPs and Ministers of all political parties recognise the importance of carrying out their roles in a transparent, accountable and ethical manner.