Full-time MPs? No, thanks!

MPs that are government backbenchers or opposition members have the important role of keeping in touch with the people. Making them full-time employees of the state does not improve their performance in this role. In fact it makes it worse

The report that has been on the shelf of the Prime Minister’s office for over a year after it was drawn up by a government appointed committee – revealed last Sunday in ‘The Malta Independent’ – considers the possibility of trebling the honorarium paid to MPs while converting it into a salary for a full-time job.

I am vehemently against the idea of having full-time MPs for several reasons.

Let’s have a look first at those who are employed with the government. Most of them cannot make it in the real world outside the cosiness of a government job – hence their employment status. Of those who can, most of them are there for the wrong reasons. I need not elaborate, but I have to exclude those of a certain age, as the situation was quite different when they opted for a civil service career. 

The truth is that a job with the government was, in the past, considered as a well-remunerated, safe and secure job. Opportunities in the private sector were less attractive.

Not so today.

Now high flyers have so many opportunities for good jobs that the possibility of a civil service career is probably not considered. Are there any high flyers in the civil service today? Hardly any and the few there are can probably be counted on the fingers of my two hands.

Making being an MP a full-time job would tend to produce the same results. Can you imagine someone who has a good job within the private sector, including exciting possibilities of advances in his or her career, giving all this up for a job with fixed period of a maximum of five years, after which one has to depend on the whims of the electorate? Can you imagine a successful professional with a private office doing the same? The system would tend to discourage these people from standing for election and would therefore attract other people to do so for the wrong reasons.

MPs today are not given a salary but an honorarium. They are not given a ‘salary’ for doing a job and they should remain in this situation. I tend to agree that this honorarium should be increased but that is a different issue. They should remain active in society, meeting people and earning money from other sources that are not connected with the political grindstone. This ensures their independence from undue political pressure.

Can you imagine a situation where an MP has to decide whether to vote in a way that brings the administration down prematurely, with the country having to go for an early election, when to the MP this means losing his or her job even before the ‘statutory’ five-year term with no guarantee of it being renewed by the voter? Is this in the interest of democracy?

I also agree with the recommendation that MPs – other than Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries – should not be given ‘additional’ jobs or responsibilities that makes them directly or indirectly part of the government machinery and hence somehow involved in the executive. Unfortunately we already have a problem with the blurred distinction between the legislative and the executive arms of the state. This problem has become worse since the aftermath of Labour’s  historic electoral landslide victory in March 2013.

Joseph Muscat’s decision to appoint the largest Cabinet in the history of Malta and his decision to give backbenchers additional responsibilities within his administration have exacerbated the distortion between the legislative and the executive. 

The composition of the cabinet is restricted to persons who are members of the House of Representatives. This has not only blurred the distinction between the executive and the legislative arms of the State but has also resulted in the very limited possibility of choice that the Prime Minister has when nominating his cabinet. Ministers, in turn, continually find themselves in the situation of being unwilling hostages of their voters. 

We need not invent the wheel and we should look at what happens in other countries, notably France and Italy, where unelected technocrats are appointed ministers.

Our parliamentary system is based on the Westminster model only up to a point. When Gordon Brown lured Peter Mandelson from Brussels back into the cabinet in October 2008, all Gordon Brown had to do was to appoint Mandelson a member of the House of Lords… and hey presto he became a Member of Parliament and so qualified to become a minister. In the UK this is the manner by which unelected technocrats are appointed ministers.

In Malta we do not have such a luxury and when appointing cabinet members, the Prime Minister’s choice is limited to elected MPs. Rather than making MPs full-time employees of Parliament, it is about time for us Maltese to contemplate changes in the constitution whereby the country’s Prime Minister will be able to appoint technocrats – rather than just elected politicians – as ministers in his or her cabinet. Let’s face it: the pool of people from which ministers can be chosen is incredibly limited, whether we have a Nationalist or a Labour government. 

Besides obviously having a larger pool of competent people from which a Prime Minister can appoint ministers, such a system would also provide for greater separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of the state and even give a potential Prime Minister time to identify potential ministerial appointees well before the results of parliamentary elections are announced.

The number of MPs in our parliament is too big for Malta but too small for the administration to have a healthy backbench; more so as all government MPs seem to have the ambition of being appointed ministers or parliamentary secretaries. That is why the government backbenchers are given ‘additional’ responsibilities.

Mintoff, it used to be said, always gave his backbench MPs such  ‘additional’ responsibilities – that included the chairmanship of state owned banks – in order to ensure that backbenchers were not envious of the income received by their colleagues who were appointed cabinet ministers. Lawrence Gonzi appointed practically all his backbenchers as ‘parliamentary assistants’ – whatever that meant – in a futile attempt to quell dissent about his way of doing things. This is all wrong.

Ministers have often been accused of becoming detached from the people. This has happened under various administrations. Someone recently told me that the Gonzi administration was so unaware of what was happening ‘out there’ that it was practically running an imaginary country that did not exist. MPs that are government backbenchers or opposition members have the important role of keeping in touch with the people. Making them full-time employees of the state does not improve their performance in this role. In fact it makes it worse.

Undoubtedly we should double our efforts to enforce the role of MPs as the people’s elected representatives as distinct from the everyday running of the administration. Making them full-time employees of the state is not a gain in this direction but tends to make matters worse.

More in Blogs