Towards higher ethical standards

It is fitting that Parliament is currently debating a bill to scrutinise the ethical behaviour of MPs, people of trust and government advisors and consultants

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Given the backdrop of the Panama papers, and other governance-related issues, it is perhaps fitting that Parliament is currently debating a bill to scrutinise the ethical behaviour of MPs, people of trust and government advisors and consultants.

However, it is also a little ironic. The debate itself was foreshadowed by the failure of two leading public figures – the Energy Minister, and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff – to shoulder responsibility for their involvement in setting up financial vehicles in disreputable tax havens. To this day, both disgraced officials enjoy the full support and backing of their party and its leader. Both have had parliamentary confidence officially restored in separate votes in the House; and one (Konrad Mizzi) was even given a hero’s welcomed at a recent political event.

It would not be incongruous, therefore, to ask whether a government which has endorsed and defended the opposite of good governance, is ideally positioned to lay down rules and regulations concerning governance in this country.

Nor is it not just the dubious financial interests of Mizzi and Schembri to have graphically underscored the urgent need for such regulations. Among the core aims of the Standards in Public Life Bill are to ensure ‘accountability and transparency’; yet the government debating this bill has consistently refused to publish all its public contracts since coming to power three years ago… specifically, on a promise of greater transparency and meritocracy.

Again, one can question how the government intends to regulate transparency issues through this bill. Will the resulting legislation force the government to do what it has so far steadfastly refused to do, and publish its energy contracts? If not, we may be forced to conclude that the objective was to cement the status quo, rather than to eradicate it.

Be that as it may, the debate in itself is to be welcomed; and at a cursory glance, the bill before the House does seem to represent a good foundation for this much-needed law.

The Standards in Public Life proposes to establish a commissioner and parliamentary committee for the upholding of standards, ethics and ‘proper behaviour in public life’. The commissioner will be appointed for a single five-year tenure, and must be approved by two-thirds of MPs, so as to ensure the appointee’s impartiality. 

She or he will have the power to summon witnesses, administer oaths to them, and demand they give relevant evidence and provide documents in their custody. Those who refuse to turn up or to provide documentation will be subjected to a €2,500 fine or a three-month prison term. 

This all looks promising, but the Devil is in the detail. In its present form, the bill does not envisage executive powers for the newly appointed Commissioner. Instead, she or he will be tasked with drawing up a set of recommendations to a new parliamentary committee for standards in public life – composed of two government MPs, two Opposition MPs, and chaired by the Speaker. 

If investigations indicate criminal offence or corruption, the commissioner will be obliged to refer his findings to the police commissioner or to the Permanent Commission Against Corruption. In the event of a minor ethical breach, the Commissioner may grant the person investigated a time limit to rectify the breach.

On paper, there is always justification for leaving the executive arm of this legislation in the hands of elected MPs: it is, in fact, the basis of our representative democracy. In this specific instance, however, it translates into a situation where MPs will be sitting in judgment over themselves. Without questioning the merits of the individual MPs appointed to the committee, the structure itself appears to violate a basic legal principle. One cannot be a judge in one’s own court. 

Clearly, there is room for fine-tuning on the implementation of the proposed institutions. Moreover, the Bill contains references to ‘exemptions’ when it comes to transparency, citing the time-honoured ‘national interest’ proviso: “Documents that the Prime Minister deems to harm national security, the economy or international relations, or those that disclose Cabinet proceedings, will be exempt from disclosure.”

In its present wording, this is far too vague and all-encompassing to guarantee adequate levels of transparency in matters of public documents. That certain exemptions can be made is beyond question; but genuine national security risks cannot extend to include protecting the government from public scrutiny of transactions conducted in the people’s name, using taxpayers’ money.

On a separate note, the Standards in Public Life Bill is also an opportunity to tighten control on electoral expenses (in conjunction with the Electoral Commission), and to implement a declaration of assets procedure which is (unlike the present system) compulsory for MPs, spouses and politically-exposed relatives. This is crucial, if public faith in politics is to be restored. A declaration of assets should be the equivalent of a sworn statement, and the penalties concomitant with perjury. 

In brief, the new law must be sufficiently specific to commit the government to a higher standard of accountability. Otherwise, it would defeat its entire purpose. It is now up to our MPs to live up to their promises, and see to it that the country gets the governance standards it deserves.