No waivers on ethics

Franco Mercieca should make his plans for the immediate future clear

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Talk of a Cabinet reshuffle and even more talk inside Labour's general conference on the future plans of one junior minister has once again raised the thorny issue of ministers' public and private occupations.

Franco Mercieca is well within his rights to resume his private ophthalmological surgeon's practice. This newspaper views such a specialised set of skills as an asset to the country that, under the burden of a ministerial role, would suffer and leave the national health service wanting. The parliamentary secretary's skills were rightly described as being unique when the Prime Minister justified a 'waiver' from the code of ethics barring private practice, but the public was still left questioning whether such a concession was necessary.

One of the guarantees that a code of ethics gives to citizens and taxpayers is a set of rules that guides public officials and elected legislators on their behaviour and conduct vis-à-vis their private interests. The code is intended at preventing public officials and civil servants from using their inside knowledge of government affairs for their personal benefit.

Malta's questionable record of governance has revealed, thanks to the more intrepid of media workers, numerous ethical breaches and conflicts of interest that elucidated the pitfalls of private interest in public service. A case in point was the sensitive position of Rita Schembri, formerly head of the OPM's internal audit department, who used her office to conduct private business; the more scandalous of revelations was the private oil bunkering interest by a former Enemalta chairman and the MOBC chief, while serving as chiefs of the national oil bunkering corporation; another former Enemalta chairman, enjoyed a business relationship with the Vassallo Builders Group at a time when the latter company was actively pursuing a tender for the construction of a power station extension; such cases of 'revolving doors' continue to manifest themselves with public officials leaving the civil service with inside knowledge of the way government works, to apply it to the private companies that pay far more lucrative salaries.

In the Franco Mercieca case, there is certainly no doubt that the parliamentary secretary's altruism and love for public service in his healthcare field goes beyond the brazen pursuit of private financial interest. Indeed, it would seem apposite for him to continue his practice in the better interest of the general public; but not, and this must be underlined more than once, in contravention of the code of ethics for government ministers.

Mercieca should not occupy a position of ministerial responsibility without ceding his private practice, because the precedent of a 'limited waiver' on the code of ethics for ministers will one day mean that some other minister, whose private practice will be considered equally beneficial to the public, will also be allowed to retain both interests.

Politicians must choose. If they are to choose the public service, they must be altruistic enough to serve the public with an expectation of a fair salary commensurate with their service. In this matter, it is necessary that ministerial salaries and parliamentary honoraria can be adjusted to reflect the expectations of government executives and full-time MPs who would also have to relinquish their private practice.

What they cannot expect is to have the Prime Minister issue a waiver on the code of ethics. Mercieca might argue that it was essential that he retain a window where he could perform his specialised surgery, even to carry out pro bono operations. It is arguable that the public interest is served here. But we ask: wouldn't the public interest be better served by a full-time ophthalmological surgeon dedicating his full attention to his patients? And would not the public interest suffer if the Mercieca precedent would lead to new demands from Cabinet ministers demanding to be able to retain their private practices?

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has already ordered a review of the 19-year-old ministerial code of ethics to make it "more relevant to today's realities". Now that even our MPs are set to debate ethical standards in the new select parliamentary committee, it is apt to remind ministers that upholding high standards of propriety and accountability means ensuring that conflicts of interest do not arise.

Franco Mercieca should also make his plans for the immediate future clear. When rumour is rife that he is about to forgo his parliamentary secretariat to resume his important healthcare duties; when even members of his political staff are known to be moving into new positions, the public is right to ask who the person taking charge of the care of the elderly is: the politician or the surgeon? The public servant or the private specialist?

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