Commissioner for Standards: An unwarranted impasse

The issue is no longer whether the Government’s nominee is suitable for the post. It is the confirmation of the fact that the PN’s backroom boys adopt negative stances

When a party is in opposition, it has the ‘luxury’ of choosing which battles to pursue and which to ignore. Opposition does not mean it has to oppose everything. In fact the majority of laws are passed with the agreement of both sides.

Apart from disagreements on matters of principle or of public policy, other issues should be tackled with the reaction of the electorate in mind.

The Nationalist Party has ditched any such consideration in opposing vehemently Government’s nomination of the Commissioner of Standards. The problem is that it has not given a satisfactory and reasonable justification of its opposition to the former Chief Justice proposed by the Prime Minister. The Times of Malta reported that PN sources had ‘unofficially’ said that the PN believes he is a slow worker and will cause a lot of backlogs. For many, this seems to be a lame excuse as this sort of stance is not understood by the majority of the electorate.

This means that the PN has opted to oppose the Government on an issue in such a way that it unnecessarily gives the impression to the ordinary voter that its actions are the result of just a short-sighted political pique. This does not help increase the PN’s ratings in the opinion polls!

Following this unwarranted impasse, Prime Minister Robert Abela last Wednesday tabled a motion for the first reading of an amendment to the Act for Standards in Public Life. This indicates that the government has moved ahead with its plans to allow it to appoint a Standards Commissioner with a simple majority in parliament if the Opposition keeps opposing its nominee. The proposed amendment to the law would introduce an anti-deadlock mechanism, allowing the Standards Commissioner to be elected with a simple majority should two consecutive votes taken within seven days of each other fail to yield the two-thirds majority required by law.

The Prime Minister has been given a rare opportunity to play the victim card. He said that ‘common sense’ should mean that the anti-deadlock mechanism will not be required on this occasion, given Grech’s initial agreement with the nomination.

But the harm as a result of this proposed law being enacted is long-term – as in future, efforts for the two sides to reach an agreement will no longer have the significance that they have in the current circumstances.

Even more revealing is the Prime Minister’s claim that the leader of the Opposition had verbally agreed with the Government’s proposal, only to renege on that verbal agreement hours later. This claim has not been denied by Bernard Grech.

The political chit-chat has now been reduced to each side accusing the other of arrogance. The Prime Minister is arrogant because he wants to impose his nomination and the PN is arrogant because it wants to challenge a nomination of the majority when it is a minority.

This attitude undermines the whole idea that the Standards Commissioner should enjoy the trust and approval of both sides of the House of Representatives.

The arguments put forward in the editorial of the GWU’s daily, l-Orizzont, last Tuesday, ignore completely the democratic necessity that certain decisions are subject to a qualified majority – two-thirds – rather than a simple majority.

Once again the political discourse ignores common sense.

It is obvious that the unseen hand that put Bernard Grech in the role of PN leader apparently expects him to follow it rather than actually leading the party. In other words, Bernard Grech has no clout with the PN insiders who pushed him to occupy the position that he now holds.

For me, the issue is no longer whether the Government’s nominee is suitable for the post. It is the confirmation of the fact that the PN’s backroom boys adopt negative stances – undermining Bernard Grech himself – without taking any consideration of how the electorate reacts.

Out there, most of those who are asked to vote every five years do not even know that we have a Commissioner of Standards and what he is expected to do. They dismiss the issue as another piece of biased intrigue that politicians enjoy so much, just for their own ends!


When the local councils were set up, the responsibility of observing the rules and managing the accounts was given to the local council secretary and not to any of the elected councillors. The councils were to take decisions but the responsibility to monitor how these decisions are affected lay with the secretary.

The system seems to have collapsed with some secretaries – who are civil servants – not having enough clout to see that everything is done above board. The set-up seems to have failed.

Stories of clashes between elected mayors and government-appointed secretaries abound. Usually the mayors win by having the government-appointed secretary transferred to another post.

It seems that rather than checking the council’s abuse or breaches in accountabilty, the typical local secretary has shed off all his watchdog essentials and become a faithful pet lapping the hand of their master mayors!

A recent report by the National Audit Office (NAO) laid bare the laissez-faire that dominates the running of these councils with little care for financial accountability.

According to the report, only 30% of local councils submitted their audited accounts this year and there is a lack of financial planning in the way local councils were run, with budgets being overrun or excessive savings being piled up.

Although the NAO noted that certain councils made considerable progress, it pointed out that not all councils gave their full commitment and some failed to collaborate in the best way possible with local government auditors, resulting in substantial delays to finalise their respective audits.

The main weaknesses flagged by the NAO include account errors such as double-postings and omissions, inappropriate fixed asset management, and an improper administration of accounts payable and accounts receivable balances.

To combat this, the NAO recommended that the Local Government Division adopt a stricter stance against defaulting councils, including through use of sanctions against councils that repeatedly fail to fulfil their financial statutory requirements.

Much as I hate unnecessary bureaucracy, I feel it is about time to revisit the law that set up Local Councils and make the necessary amendments to ensure accountability and create a mechanism that is resorted to when there are major disagreements between a Local Council and its Secretary.