Time to start taking Parliamentary ethics seriously

If nothing else, then, the Azzopardi case should at least serve as a spring-board for a serious discussion leading to a revised Code of Ethics for MPs. Anything less would mean that the lessons from this unfortunate incident have not yet been learnt

That ‘trading in influence’ is part of everyday life in Malta, at all levels of society, is a sad but undeniable fact.

Nonetheless, this excuse cannot be used to simply gloss over examples of the practice, on the rare occasions when they do become visible to the public eye.

Cases such as the one involving Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi – who has admitted to having accepted a gift, in the form of free hotel accommodation, from the Tumas Group in March 2017 – may not be immediately comparable to the much worse examples we have seen recently.

But this doesn’t change the fact that Azzopardi’s behaviour was, in fact, a blatant breach of the Code of Ethics governing MPs: not to mention that it was also foolish of the Shadow Justice Minister to so naively expose himself to potential blackmail, just a few weeks before an election.

The Code of Ethics exists for a purpose: and that purpose extends beyond the mere fact – which should, in any case, be taken for granted – that politicians ‘should be guided by a stricter moral compass’.

The reality is that what politicians do, in their private lives, may also affect their duties in Parliament: and in this case in particular – where Azzopardi also doubles up as the lawyer representing the Caruana Galizia family, in their bid for justice – in their professional duties, too.

From this perspective, Azzopardi’s faux pas cannot be said to be ‘inconsequential’. It has also cast a shadow on his dual role as Shadow Justice Minister, and lawyer appearing in parte civile in an ongoing murder case.

Above all, however, it merely cements the impression of a political class that is deeply intertwined with business interests. And it is precisely this impression – which is only too grounded in fact – that the Nationalist Party had fought so hard to overturn, under Simon Busuttil, in the run-up to the 2017 election itself.

Effectively, Azzopardi’s acceptance of that paid-up trip to Israel came at a time when his own party was excoriating the Muscat administration over the Electrogas deal: in which Yorgen Fenech (i.e., Azzopardi’s benefactor) was a major shareholder.

So even if the misdemeanour itself remains rather mild, compared to other instances, it still amounts to a betrayal of the PN’s simultaneous crusade against maladministration.

All the same, however, it has also provided Opposition leader Bernard Grech with an opportunity to show some leadership material; and it must be said that, so far, he has not disappointed.

Grech certainly had a point when he argued that that the PN has shown political maturity, in accepting Azzopardi’s decision to suspend himself pending an investigation through the party’s ethics committee. This is a claim that the Labour government cannot really make, with regard to its previous decision to retain and protect Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, following the (much more damning) Panama revelations in 2016.

But Grech also admitted that: “We cannot be naive about the fact that people often invite MPs to dinners to discuss issues, and then pay for the dinner themselves.” And it is this unwholesome relationship, between politics and business, that lies at the heart of the wider problem.

As such, the malaise runs far deeper than the Azzopardi incident alone. What can be done to scotch this hideous serpent, once and for all?

Clearly, the current Parliamentary Code of Ethics – originally drafted in 1994 – is insufficient. In his proposed revision, Standards Commissioner George Hyzler suggests taking existing measures a step further: not only precluding any gifts which place ministers and MPs “under an obligation”, but also proposing a transparent system through which other legitimate gifts are registered.

According to the proposed code, MPs would have to register gifts with a value of over €250; as well as register multiple benefits from the same source, if - taken together - these have a value of more than €250 in a period of twelve months.

Whatever the case, however a stricter code of ethics is certainly called for: and it would have to extend to serious disciplinary measures, if it is to be effective.

For if MPs - in government or opposition – will not voluntarily hold themselves to the lofty standards they so often demand from their adversaries… they will have to be held to those standards, against their will, one way or another.

If nothing else, then, the Azzopardi case should at least serve as a spring-board for a serious discussion leading to a revised Code of Ethics for MPs. Anything less would mean that the lessons from this unfortunate incident have not yet been learnt.

More in Editorial