Deadlocked by political bickering

Clearly, there must be some form of mediation – ideally provided by the President, as well as other parliamentary officers – to impart upon both sides the necessity of appointing someone with similar qualities to the example set by George Hyzler in his term in office

Appointments to sensitive positions – such as the President of the Republic; the Ombudsman; and in the most recent case, the Standards Commissioner – have traditionally been the subject of much controversy.

Until recent legislative changes, all such appointments (including the judiciary) were usually decided upon by the Prime Minister – as a rule, ‘after consultation with the Opposition leader’ – and ratified by means of a simple majority in the House of Representatives.

Given that the government had no legal obligation to follow any advice given by the Opposition, the upshot was that the government of the day could always simply appoint any person of its own choosing: even to positions which are technically supposed to scrutinise government itself.

In theory, this loophole was supposed to have been addressed in the legislation to introduce the Office of the Standards Commissioner: set up in 2018 to investigate claims of ethical breaches by MPs and persons of trust; and where the office-holder must be appointed by a two-thirds majority.

Nonetheless, the post has been vacant since the end of September – when George Hyzler resigned, at the end of his term, to take up his post at the European Court of Auditors – and talks between government and opposition have so far failed to reach consensus regarding his successor.

Prime Minister Robert Abela proposed former chief justice Joseph Azzopardi; but the nomination was rejected by Opposition leader Bernard Grech, who had proposed Judge Joseph Zammit McKeon – the latter was refused by Abela who then proposed he would be Ombudsman if Grech accepts Azzopardi as Standards Commissioner.

Ostensibly, it was to resolve this impasse that Abela took the controversial step of proposing an anti-deadlock mechanism to appoint the Standards Commissioner through a simple majority, if the nomination fails to garner a two-thirds majority in two previous voting rounds (moreover, government requires only a simple majority in the House to change the law appointing the Standards Commissioner: allowing the Prime Minister to effectively steamroll the amendment through Parliament).

A similar situation had developed over the nomination of the new Ombudsman, after incumbent Anthony Mifsud’s term ended in March last year. The Ombudsman, which is a constitutional role, also requires a two-thirds majority; and there is no anti-deadlock mechanism currently in place.

On its part, the government is keen to argue that, under the Opposition’s former leadership in 2015, the anti-deadlock mechanism had been proposed not just for the appointment of the President of the Republic, but even for a swathe of other roles the PN wanted appointed by a two-thirds backing: the Commissioner of Police, the AFM Commander, the head of the civil service, the Central Bank Governor, and various others. 

Beyond the PN’s arbitrary choice of senior government roles that should require the House’s say-so (why not carry out annual scrutineering by MPs in committees, rather than attempt to impugn each single government appointment?), the Standards Commissioner is in itself a ‘special’ role.

Special because, just like the Ombudsman and the Auditor-General, it is an officer of Parliament whose scrutineering and investigative faculties are essential for the health of Maltese democracy. 

It stands to reason that, by using the proposed anti-deadlock mechanism to usher in a new Standards Commissioner, the Labour government could easily undermine the moral authority of someone whose decisions on complaints of impolitic behaviour are necessary for the demands of probity and good governance, and who requires citizens’ utmost confidence in the role.

Just like the PN’s one-time demand for an anti-deadlock mechanism would have easily forced all major appointments into a parliamentary squabble between government and Opposition – for the latter’s convenience to call out the implacability of the government – so too will the Standards Commissioner now be borne of similar circumstances. 

Such an important appointment should be free of this kind of parliamentary feuding, however. The Prime Minister himself should be mindful that, given the overweening power of any party-in-government (Maltese democracy remains unshackled by a rigorous system of checks-and-balances, that is par for the course in advanced EU member states), magnanimity should prevail on the appointment of the Standards Commissioner.

The role is, after all, meant to keep those in power on their toes and accountable for their peccadilloes; and not to apply some conveniently ‘docile’ interpretation of public standards rules. 

Equally, the Opposition should show intellectual honesty in its nominations. George Hyzler, though a former Nationalist member of government, proved to have various qualities necessary for the role: judiciousness; a thorough appreciation of what the law permitted him to do; a sensitivity to the scrupulousness demanded from citizens of MPs; but also imperviousness to the sympathies of party politics.

In the same way that no ‘puppet of the state’ should be expected to be nominated to the role by the Labour government, the Nationalist Party should not opt for a ‘witchfinder-general’ who, in the eyes of the public, might be easily prone to partisanship.

Clearly, there must be some form of mediation – ideally provided by the President, as well as other parliamentary officers – to impart upon both sides the necessity of appointing someone with similar qualities to the example set by Hyzler in his term in office; and with the necessary verve to take the public’s complaints on board with a dispassionate pursuit of truth, integrity and good governance. 

We cannot, in a word, allow political bickering to ‘deadlock’ the system.