Transparency still lacking in asset declarations

A closer look at the declarations themselves seems to raise more questions, than answers

Last Monday, after much prodding and pushing by the Opposition, government MPs finally tabled their declarations of assets for 2021 (some of them backdated to the 30 March 2022 deadline.)

While belated, this overdue compliance with Parliamentary regulations is certainly to be welcomed. Nonetheless, a closer look at the declarations themselves seems to raise more questions, than answers.

For instance: no fewer than eight government MPs – including two ministers and six parliamentary secretaries – failed to declare any income whatsoever for 2021. These include elderly care secretary Jo-Etienne Abela, a medical consultant, who gave no details at all of his 2021 salary, or credit situation.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister declared his €65,000 salary, and revealed €374,000 in bank savings: but declined to submit any detailed account of his rental revenue; declaring that the information had been duly supplied with his tax returns (where it remains to this day, beyond the reach of public scrutiny).

Elsewhere, certain curious discrepancies also appear: which – although somewhat minor, in themselves – also add to the general aura of implausibility. Government whip Andy Ellul, for example, raised eyebrows by declaring his ‘co-ownership of a cabin cruiser’: becoming, in the process, one of the very few MPs who listed anything other than immovable property.

Robert Abela, on the other hand, stopped short of declaring his (widely-known) ownership of a private boat; and the same could be said for other MPs, who likewise omitted immovable property of their own. 

There is, admittedly, no legal obligation for MPs to declare such possessions; but then again, that is part of the entire problem to begin with.

As this newspaper has consistently pointed out, over the years: there is simply not enough, in the way of checks and balances, to even verify such declarations: still less, to ensure that they match the actual assets owned by MPs. 

This remains true to this day: even though the Standards Commission has been established in the meantime; and entrusted with the responsibility of “reviewing interest declarations submitted by MPs, ministers and parliamentary secretaries, which until 2018 were only scrutinised by the press.”

Despite these 2018 reforms, however, the wording of the regulations is still too vague to be properly effective: allowing MPs to withhold certain information, without actually falling foul of the rules.

The case of Jo-Etienne Abela, mentioned above, is a good example. Abela justified his failure to declare any private income, on the grounds that he was not yet an MP in 2021.

Technically, he is correct to state that there is no obligation, at law, to declare earnings prior to one’s political appointment. But that only points towards a shortcoming in the current regulations: which has long been identified – and rectified – in other European jurisdictions.

In France, for instance, a law passed in 1988 obliges all elected officials to ‘declare their assets before entering their [current] position’.

Additionally, 2013 legislation established France’s ‘High Authority for the Transparency of Public Life’: an independent administrative authority, responsible for ‘collecting and verifying the interests and assets declarations made by [elected officials].’

In Malta, on the other hand, the regulations provide no distinction between ‘interests’ and ‘assets’; no obligation to list immovable property; no requirement to declare previous earnings; and above all, no real punitive measures that can be taken, in cases where MPs make false or misleading declarations. 

All this could easily be resolved, by simply implementing the recommendations of the last OECD report: inter alia, that “good practice from other jurisdictions can be used as a basis for Malta to define a wide set of proportionate sanctions, as well as the aggravating and mitigating factors that could be used to analyse specific cases...”

So far, however, government has shown no willingness to heed this advice; even if, in the end, it may be in its own interest to do so. 

If nothing else, this lack of transparency also gives the general public further reason to simply mistrust their elected representatives; and to treat their declarations of assets with open, undisguised scepticism.

As long ago as 2013, a survey conducted by this newspaper had revealed that a staggering 64% did not believe the declarations of assets submitted by Cabinet members. According to these readers, ‘there was no way of knowing whether some declarations were an accurate reflection of the actual assets held’.

Not much seems to have changed, in practice, over the past nine years. Indeed, the situation could even be said to have worsened: for while there is still no way of ascertaining the accuracy of the 2021 declarations… we can all see, with our own eyes, that some of them – including those eight MPs who declared nothing whatsoever – are clearly not ‘accurate’ at all.

On the plus side, however: there has at least been some improvement, since the days when certain MPs used to make an open mockery of their own declarations – among other things, by declaring their ‘household pets’ as ‘assets’. 

All the same, however, there are loopholes which must clearly be closed: and it is in the government’s own interest to close them – unless, that is, it wishes to see its own public trust ratings decline further.