Different context, same principle

Underlying the Franco Mercieca dilemma is a much more seminal controversy which has never been satisfactorily resolved.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Having made so much political capital from the secretive honoraria increase of 2008, it was unfortunate that the incoming Labour government would so immediately fall into the same trap.

Not unlike the situation in 2008, one of the new government's first decisions was to waive the ministerial Code of Ethics in order to allow a single parliamentary secretary, Dr Franco Mercieca, to retain his lucrative private (and his public) practice as an ophthalmologist.

Obviously, it is ironic that the Nationalist Opposition would kick up such a fuss about this issue, considering its own blanket decision in 2008 to raise its own salaries across the board. Besides, the same PN had openly belittled the significance of the ministerial Code of Ethics when at least one of its former ministers, Tonio Fenech, was found to be repeatedly in breach of its provisions.

The most vividly remembered example remains Fenech's celebrated flight to Spain on a private jet to watch a football match in the company of two entrepreneurs (one of whom had a vested interest in a sensitive sector which Fenech was at the time regulating).

But there were others, including allegedly 'free' home-renovation work done as a favour ('bi pjacir'), as well as the farcical revelation just before the last election that he had also accepted a traditional Maltese clock 'from an admirer' - the sister-in-law to oil trader George Farrugia, who had turned state's evidence on the kickbacks he allegedly paid for Trafigura's supplies of oil to Enemalta.

But while the PN may not exactly be in an ideal position to criticise, Labour's decision to depart from its own script on this issue remains disappointing. Clearly, the new government can't just pick and choose when to apply the provisions of a code of ethics it had itself invoked so authoritatively when still in opposition. On the contrary, having attached so much importance to this code in the last five years, it has little choice now but to bow its head to the provisions therein.

But there is another reason why the government cannot expect to simply take such decisions piecemeal. Underlying the Franco Mercieca dilemma is a much more seminal controversy which has never been satisfactorily resolved. For while the decision to raise MPs' honoraria angered people and shattered public faith in the system, this newspaper nonetheless argued at the time that the idea of a pay rise for MPs should not be dismissed out of hand.

The problem with this decision and what exposed it to criticism was not the pay rise in itself but rather the surreptitious way in which it had been undertaken - without forewarning or explanation, and so soon after winning an election in which the issue of parliamentarians' remuneration had never even been mentioned once.

Nor did it help much that the Gonzi administration raised its own salaries at a time when the global economic outlook was bleak - to the point that electoral promises such as the income-tax-band revision had to be put on the backburner.

The implications this time round may not be as immediately devastating - we are, after all, talking about a one-off here - but the new Labour government's attitude is nonetheless deeply inauspicious.

Now that the PL is in government, it must expect to be held to the same standards it used to criticize the Gonzi administration from the opposition benches. And viewed from this perspective, the Muscat administration can already be seen to have failed its own litmus test.

Besides, even if we close an eye to the exception made in the case of Franco Mercieca, the underlying issue - that MPs are condemned to low salaries, which severely limits the pool of people who otherwise would be interested in public service at this level - remains unaddressed.

The same goes for another, closely related issue, wherein ministers who retain private practices may end up in a situation where their public and private roles are incompatible and fraught with conflicts of interest.

Paradoxically, it has always been the Labour Party that insists on limiting the scope for such conflicts of interest among parliamentarians. Its former leader Alfred Sant once suggested that ministers in his cabinet would have to resign from any previous business interest and would not be allowed to receive any form of remuneration from their previous business or professional activity.

Ultimately, the same concern - albeit viewed from a different angle - was implicit in former Prime Minister Gonzi's remarks to US ambassador Molly Bordonaro (revealed by Wikileaks), in which he complained about the limited available pool of talent from which to choose his ministers.

What we are dealing with here is a consistent concern going back several legislatures, one that is likely to become more pronounced in future, what with the rising cost of living and the increased workload assigned to what is effectively a much larger (and therefore more expensive) cabinet.

Faced with this situation, it would be more helpful to hit upon a permanent solution that addresses the issue for all MPs and not on a piecemeal, case-by-case basis.

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