Public scrutiny long overdue

The announcement of a Public Appointments Act is both timely and highly commendable; questions however remain as to whether the proposal – which is still at draft stage – goes far enough in addressing the transparency and accountability deficit

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

In announcing a new parliamentary committee to scrutinise public appointments, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici made good on part of a promise made before the 2017 election... and arguably before the 2013 election, too.

The battle-cry that first ushered Labour into power four years ago was one of ‘Transparency, Accountability, Meritocracy’. Public scrutiny of appointments, such as regulatory authority chiefs, the judiciary, diplomatic posts, etc, all fall broadly into the same category of concern. And the 2017 manifesto was more explicit still: promising ‘Parliamentary scrutiny’ for all such decisions.

The announcement of a Public Appointments Act is therefore both timely and highly commendable. Questions however remain as to whether the proposal – which is still at draft stage – goes far enough in addressing the transparency and accountability deficit.

This newspaper has always advocated the need for such an initiative. This kind of grilling is already a fact-of-life in many parliaments across Europe, as well as the European Parliament and the US Senate. Such appointments should not only be grilled from the outset to assess suitability of candidates proposed to an important job by the government, but the process should be kept on an annual basis so that performances can regularly be assessed by MPs.

It is partly for this reason that MaltaToday has also – separately – advocated an upgrade of our Parliament from a part-time to a full-time basis... with corresponding salary increases, if necessary. For the role of public scrutiny, over and above the other daily commitments of Parliament, is both arduous and time-consuming. We submit that a parliamentary committee for this purpose, if set up today, would already face a tall order of business carrying out annual reviews of the work of extant politically-appointed, and other, chairpersons and CEOs of public companies and regulatory bodies.

Add to this the grilling of new appointees, and subsequent regular assessments over the years, and it is easy to appreciate the need to have full-time MPs to carry out this particular role of scrutiny.

Without detracting from the government’s credit in pressing ahead with this initiative, we contend that it must be regarded only as a first step... albeit clearly in the right direction.

To function properly in practice, the new committee must also have sufficient resources (not least, time). We shall have to await the publication of the draft law to see whether the spadework has been carried out; suffice it to say, however, that with parliament functioning at its present rate of efficiency, the committee on its own is unlikely to achieve its stated aims.

Moreover, the scant details made public so far raise some worrying questions. The function of public scrutiny goes hand-in-glove with the executive power to veto an appointment. Bonnici’s proposed model seems at a glance to preclude that power. Instead, Cabinet ministers will be compelled to seek the guidance of the new committee... but not to follow any advice that is given.

There is therefore a risk that the committee will prove toothless in practice. Additionally, it is by no means clear if the work of this committee will indeed be conducted in public. The law envisages discretion on this point: the committee itself can decide to retire behind closed doors.

One understands the official explanation: certain appointments (such as, for instance, the Secret Services) are by nature confidential. But such exceptions should be clearly listed beforehand, and private hearings limited strictly to those exceptions. It would defeat the purpose of a ‘public scrutiny exercise’ to go private on a whim with no reason given.

Perhaps the most glaring fly in the ointment is the composition of the committee itself, which will be made up of five members, three from the government and two from the Opposition, “reflecting the make-up of Parliament”, Bonnici said.

This is hardly reassuring. The purpose of this committee is to conduct checks and balances on the government itself... for it is the government, not the Opposition, that makes public appointments. With an automatic, two-seat government majority, the risk that this committee may end up as yet another rubber-stamping tool, wielded by the government for its own benefit, is very real.

For such an exercise to truly acquire legitimacy, a variety of voices is required: the committee should be larger, at least having nine MPs, with five from the government side, and four from the Opposition, which now also includes the PD.

It is also debatable whether the entities listed in Schedule 5 as subject to this grilling are sufficient. Important cultural entities, which fall under the Justice Minister’s remit, are nowhere to be seen: V18, for example, or PBS. Meanwhile, the list of excluded heads is endless.

There seems to be little justification for so many exceptions. The simple truth is that all such appointees should be subjected to annual public grilling, because all such appointees are paid for by the public purse.

Lastly, it must be said that the advisory role of such a body, in itself, requires a more thorough approach. If we are to accept a situation where the government retains the final say, then the committee should welcome a plurality of MPs, conduct its work strictly in public, and provide an ongoing, annual assessment of approved candidates.