No checks, no balances: why a whole system needs rethinking

We need radical changes in Malta’s executive and legislative structures – even more than in our judiciary, about which some people seem to be obsessed

“How can the members on the government side of the House of Representatives, who are being paid in this manner, honestly contemplate voting against the government when their standard of living depends on the PM’s pleasure?''
“How can the members on the government side of the House of Representatives, who are being paid in this manner, honestly contemplate voting against the government when their standard of living depends on the PM’s pleasure?''

In a cutting report published last week, the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, George Hyzler, said that he found the practice of government giving jobs to its own MPs as ‘fundamentally wrong’ since it ‘dilutes’ Parliament’s role of scrutinising the government.

Our Constitution is said to follow the principle of each of the separate branches of the states – the executive, the legislative and the judiciary – being empowered to check the other branches, the principle of ‘checks and balances’ that is primarily applied in constitutional governments.

The architects of the US Constitution went the whole hog, with distinct and separate powers being given to the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. They saw this principle as essential for the security of liberty. Even so, when the party of the President also enjoys the majority of both the Senate and the House of Representatives – as was the case during the first half of the Trump administration – these checks and balances seem to whither away.

In Malta, we have an executive consisting of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet – almost half the MPs of the majority party – plus the added custom that has been found fundamentally wrong by the Standards Commissioner.

With our system, it is already very difficult for Parliament to check any abuse of the Executive branch (the Cabinet). This is something that becomes impractical – if not impossible – when the other MPs forming the majority are given extra responsibilities at the pleasure of the Prime Minister.

As George Hyzler put it: “How can the members on the government side of the House of Representatives, who are being paid in this manner, honestly contemplate voting against the government when their standard of living depends on the PM’s pleasure? By this practice MPs lose their independence and Parliament is emasculated.”

The Commissioner also pointed out that this practice gave these MPs the opportunity to dish out favours through access to public resources, bolstering the system of political patronage and clientelism.

This is not something new, invented by Joseph Muscat.

Dom Mintoff used this method to ensure that the income of all government MPs is equal – by giving backbenchers other appointments such as chairmanship of banks or of parastatal companies from which they were paid the difference between a minister’s salary and that of an MP. In Mintoff’s mind, avoiding jealousy between his MPs was one way of avoiding a restless backbench and, hence, avoiding ‘unwanted’ rebellions.

Ironically, this situation – that was followed to some extent by the Alfred Sant administration – did not stop Dom Mintoff from rebelling and voting the government out in 1998.

Similar efforts to keep backbenchers ‘happy’ were also made during the second Lawrence Gonzi administration. But, again, these efforts did not stop Franco Debono from voting against government in the December 2012 budget vote – a vote that could only be interpreted as a vote of no-confidence in the government.

So, when push came to shove, this bastardisation of the system did not really save the government of the day.

Today we have MPs receiving a separate salary as chairpersons of official state entities or as consultants to ministries.

Whether the system is a direct breach of the Constitution is a legally moot point. But there should be no doubt that it weakens the possibility of the legislative arm of the State checking the executive arm of the same State – a situation that puts additional pressure on the Opposition as it becomes the sole body with the function of monitoring and checking the government.

In a tiny country like Malta, currently passing through an unfortunate phase during which many Opposition MPs dedicate more time on short-sighted internal squabbles than on checking the government of the day, this monitoring function is becoming weaker and weaker.

This does not bode well for Maltese democracy.

The Commissioner’s solution is to abolish the practice and raise the honorarium of MPs.

This is hardly enough. I totally agree that the practice of giving government jobs to government backbenchers is fundamentally wrong, but stopping this practice will only be a very small step. Moreover, political patronage and clientelism will still remain the main characteristic of Malta’s political scene.

We need radical changes in Malta’s executive and legislative structures – even more than in our judiciary, about which some people seem to be obsessed; such as the possibility of appointing unelected technocrat members in the Cabinet, as well as the possibility of changing our electoral system based on votes for individual candidates. This system, originally imposed by the British, has been utterly corrupted in aid of the vagaries of cronyism and should top the list of needed reforms.

Removing a small blemish, when the whole system needs serious rethinking, is not even a cosmetic change.

Jumping the gun?

I was intrigued by the opinion piece written by the deputy Prime Minister, Chris Fearne, in The Times on Friday July 5.

The article expounds on the ideological tenets that make Fearne tick. He particularly emphasised the need to take care of the social needs of some – those who were left behind, in spite of the current economic boom.

Consider this piece: “Let me be blunt. Poverty and deprivation have not only survived in today’s orchard of affluence, adequate social services, more education, connectivity and job opportunities, but – in pockets of our society – they are actually thriving like weed.”

This looks like a personal manifesto enshrining the need of those who were left behind in Joseph Muscat’s economically driven rush towards the best of times – l-aqwa żmien. It is also an admonition pointing out where current government policies are in desperate need of tweaking – an indirect and subtle criticism of Muscat’s achievements.

Presumably, when the article was written, the possibility of Joseph Muscat being given a top job in the EU set-up was real. This would have led to a no-holds-barred internal struggle within the Labour Party in its quest to appoint Joseph Muscat’s successor.

The publication of this piece at this point of time would have made sense if Muscat’s EU job materialised, putting Fearne among the front-runners in the race to succeed him.

This did not happen... making me suspect that Chris Fearne jumped the gun!

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