Full-time MPs wanted (the money-oriented need not apply)

People interested in a political career should not have an equal interest in making good money

Parliament is the core of our democracy. Good legislation makes for good economic development and governance. Parliament must be given the tools to do that
Parliament is the core of our democracy. Good legislation makes for good economic development and governance. Parliament must be given the tools to do that

The ‘Nolan principles’ are the basis of the ethical standards expected of public office-holders in the U.K. They were set out by Lord Nolan in 1995 and they are included in the ministerial code. The seven principles, as defined by the ministerial code, of public life are: Selflessness; Integrity; Objectivity; Accountability; Openness; Honesty and Leadership. Holders of public office are expected to act solely in terms of the public interest. 

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s appointment as a newspaper editor at the London Evening Standard sparked outrage. Osborne (pictured right), in addition to his role as a Conservative MP, and now his editorial post at the London newspaper, acts as a private consultant to big firms based in London. In the UK, MPs are not prevented from having second jobs however media reports quoted Lord Brew, chairman of the Committee of standards in public life saying that: 

“We have not ruled out MPs having second jobs, quite deliberately, up until now, but we now have to look again at our rules. We are going to discuss whether our rules on second jobs need to be changed in light of this (Osborne’s appointment at the London Evening Standard). We had something that up to a degree worked. It now seems to be getting into rockier waters.”

Politicians have to choose

In Malta, we have part-time parliamentarians. Parliamentary Secretaries and Ministers are barred from having a second job. Many parliamentarians are lawyers’ doctors and architects. Some are leading in their field. Financially, they are better off in their private practice rather than engaging in full-time politics, with a salary paid for by the state.

In the early days of this legislature, Labour MP Franco Mercieca resigned his post as Parliamentary Secretary for the elderly, following press reports that he was still tending to his patients, despite prevented from doing so as a Cabinet member. Dr Mercieca, a leading eye-surgeon, unsurprisingly, reverted to the backbench – choosing his practice over full-time politics. 

As long as politicians are on a part-time basis, and, locally, paid a pittance, they have no choice but to engage in private practice or seek employment within the private sector. After all, everyone is entitled to earn a living – although this is no excuse to avoid conflicts of interest when they clash with your political duties, and therefore the public interest. 

If they are not prepared to quit their day jobs, then they should steer away from politics. Admittedly, that would automatically exclude leading professionals, and entrepreneurs from contesting general elections. But, for correctness sake, that’s a price we, the people, have to pay. Certainly, MPs on a full-time basis must have decent salaries. That would enable them to focus solely on their tasks without worrying about the financial impact it would have on their families.

MPs should have the administrative infrastructure that makes them more effective. This would be accompanied by a new MPs code of ethics. Those caught breaching them would have to step down – no questions asked. 

Time to act

The Nationalist Party has taken the lead on this matter. It suggested having full-time parliamentarians through a ‘Good Governance’ document published in 2016. The Prime Minister has been far from clear on this matter. However, we must go all the way. Half measures won’t do. An MP must be a full-time politician.

A report commissioned by the government back in 2013, drawn up by the Ombudsman, the Electoral Commissioner and the Auditor General, had recommended full-time parliamentarians, but it had also presented the option for MPs to choose between being part-time or full-time parliamentarians. They also recommended that MPs salaries would increase, from the current € 20,000 a year to a full-time annual salary of €59,000. They would get half of the latter amount if they chose to remain part-time parliamentarians. A decent salary, the report said, would also discourage the temptation of corruption. 

There are, of course, valid counter-arguments against having full-time parliamentarians. Back in January of 2015, Michael Falzon, the former Nationalist Party cabinet minister and a leading columnist, wrote (on MaltaToday) that: “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.” 

Michael’s argument shouldn’t be dismissed, especially coming from someone who spent most of his adult life in politics. And yes, there is no link between time spent working as an MP and the effectiveness with which one does the job. 

Another, valid counter-argument against having full-time parliamentarians is that barring MPs from working in the private sector, the political class would consist solely of career politicians with little industry practice.

Undesirable relationships

However, what is at stake here is the undesirable relationship, and financial reliance that part-time politicians build with and on their clients – often big business. George Osborne tried to dispel claims that he would refrain from publishing damaging stories against his party in government – of which he is a sitting MP, stating that as editor, his sole priority is the public interest. Osborne may insist until he’s red in the face – nobody buys it. Osborne will eventually have to choose, his position at the London Evening Standard, or his seat at Westminster. 

Good governance

Parliament is the core of our democracy. Good legislation makes for good economic development and governance. Parliament must be given the tools to do that. Full-time parliamentarians would be more effective, but most importantly avoid serious allegations of putting their private, financial interests, before the public interest.

Malta’s situation is further exacerbated by its small size, the fact that many people know each other, all contribute to a more complex situation. Having full-time parliamentarians could solve issues arising from the commercial interests of members of Parliament. 

And then, people interested in a political career should not have an equal interest in making good money.

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