Parliament must be above suspicion

Recent revelations have unfortunately cemented a perception of nepotism and political cronyism having infiltrated even the country’s most sensitive institutions.

With public appointments under increased scrutiny of late, it is becoming evident that Malta needs a thorough root and branch reform of the way such appointments are handled.

Recent revelations have unfortunately cemented a perception of nepotism and political cronyism having infiltrated even the country’s most sensitive institutions. The appointment of the daughter of the Speaker of the House (and former PL deputy leader) to the post of magistrate is one such example… especially given that it followed hard on the heels of two other questionable judicial appointments, both involving persons closely associated with the Labour Party.

Naturally, it is perfectly possible that all these appointments may turn out to be exemplary in the way they fulfil their obligations as public officials. But this is poor consolation for the fact that the present administration seems to have made such dubious appointments a habit. 

Despite a justifiable uproar at the most recent example – and in spite of serious doubts regarding Dr Caroline Farrugia-Frendo’s eligibility to the role – Justice Minister Owen Bonnici has so far resisted calls to subject the nomination to the scrutiny of the Justice Commission.

Bonnici may well be genuine in his confidence that Dr Farrugia Frendo meets all the requirements to justify her appointment as magistrate. Nonetheless, he must concede that the objections to this appointment are also legitimate. 

There is a growing perception that the present administration is deliberately appointing persons close to the Labour Party to sensitive public posts. Nor is it a satisfactory reply that previous Nationalist administrations had been guilty of the same shortcoming in the past. Labour was elected on a specific promise to put an end to such political nepotism. It has so far severely reneged on this promise.

Meanwhile, other questionable appointments have come to light. Speaker of the House Anglu Farrugia has refuted suggestions that the employment of his son-in-law – Dr Farrugia-Frendo’s husband – at the House of Representatives in 2014 was a matter of family affinity.

Eric Frendo, 33, was employed as a librarian at the House of Representatives on 1 January 2014, with a salary set at Scale 13, which pays a maximum €17,000 p.a. “Upon his appointment, he was assigned to library duties, which he is performing with due diligence. The salary tied to this assignment is that of salary scale 13,” Farrugia said of Frendo’s annually renewable contract.

The actual employment conditions are however not the issue here. Farrugia, a former deputy leader of the Labour Party, has confirmed that Frendo was employed in his secretariat on a person-of-trust basis.

Farrugia has denied that “any kinship existed” on the date when Frendo was employed, which was just prior to his marriage to Farrugia’s daughter. This is hardly relevant, however. Kinship ties may not have been formalised through marriage; it would however be futile to deny that a certain proximity existed between the two families.

Ultimately, the problem centres on whether the rules of engagement for such positions (not just this particular example) are being followed to the letter; and whether these rules are sufficient to protect Malta’s institutions from the perception of nepotism.

A cursory glance at other appointments since Labour assumed the reins of government suggest that there is plenty of room for improvement. The Energy and Health Ministry alone, for instance, employed 29 people in the category of ‘persons of trust’ – thereby bypassing ordinary recruitment procedures – between March 2013 and March 2015. Minister Konrad Mizzi refused to supply a list of names when asked to do so in Parliament… limiting his reply only to a list of jobs.

These included an assistant head of nursing services, a chief executive officer, a CEO for procurement and supplies, a chief financial and administration officer, a chief operations officer, a co-ordinating officer, a director of client relations, a director of engineering, a director of human resources and administration, a director of nursing and midwifery services, a director of resourcing, an executive of human resources, a financial controller, a head of administration, communication and business services, a head of nursing and midwifery, a head of nursing services, a health services co-ordinator, a health strategy advisor, a management co-ordinator for St Luke’s Hospital and Mater Dei’s ambulance garages, a health centre manager, a medical director, a messenger/driver, a migration co-ordinator, a ministry programme co-ordinator, a programme director of health reform, a projects director, and a station officer.

It is, of course, possible that all such appointments were justified, and the appointees fully eligible for the posts. Such lack of transparency, however, can only give rise to suspicion that some people are benefitting more than others owing to their closeness with the Labour Party.

Coming back to the appointment of Mr Frendo: it is to say the least worrying that such suspicions can even affect the institution of parliament. If there is one entity – apart, naturally, from the law courts – that should be above any such suspicion, it is surely the seat of Malta’s legislative assembly. 

Above all, the Labour government’s approach to such sensitive matters has to date been disappointing. This is very clearly not what the electorate was led to believe, with the slogan ‘Malta Taghna Lkoll’.

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