A political pension bombshell

The Bill, which would have allowed MPs to claim a parliamentary pension after serving just one legislature seemed to confirm popular suspicions that both sides of the House always seize the opportunity to improve their own lot before all other considerations

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

There are valuable lessons to be learnt by all sides, in the Parliamentary debacle that saw Government sheepishly withdraw a proposed Bill on MPs’ pensions.

The Bill would have allowed MPs to claim a parliamentary pension after serving just one legislature instead of two five-year terms.

It was a misguided initiative: not so much because the reform itself is excessive or particularly unreasonable, but because the Bill seemed to confirm popular suspicions that both sides of the House always seize the opportunity to improve their own lot before all other considerations.

This is a perception that both Government and Opposition should have been well aware of. Joseph Muscat’s Labour Opposition had capitalised on a similar opportunity, when former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi passed legislation to increase MPs’ honoraria.

It is in fact incongruous that Muscat would make such a similar mistake so soon afterwards. The lesson was already there from the previous incident: the public reacts badly to such initiatives... especially when it perceives them to be taken behind its back.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the honoraria controversy marked the beginning of the turn-around in Gonzi’s political fortunes. Muscat should be mindful not to emulate his predecessor in that respect, too.

Elsewhere, the PN’s U-turn on the issue indicates a shift in leadership styles under Adrian Delia. Gonzi and Busuttil – and even more so, Eddie Fenech Adami – were known never to be persuaded to change their minds once they took a decision. In withdrawing the PN’s support after gauging public opinion, Delia displayed awareness of the extent of his own power. That suggests a willingness to listen to the remonstrations of the electorate: a useful quality to have, if the objective is to win elections.

But there is a flipside to that argument. Part of the reason popularly ascribed to the PN’s downward electoral trajectory, is a gradual loss of the decisiveness that characterised the Fenech Adami era. Traditionally, Malta looks up to strongman politics: and even if the Bill was deeply unpopular, Delia runs the risk of projecting an image of indecision.

This impression may be reinforced by the circumstances of the change of heart. Another way of interpreting events is that, once again, the PN missed the boat: it had to be the Democratic Party to bring the issue to public attention and to protest against the decision... even going as far as to launch an online petition on the parliament’s own website.

The PN must surely realise that, as the larger coalition partner in Opposition – it should have been the one to oppose the proposal, just as Labour had done in the case of the €500 emoluments for MPs.

From this perspective, this case once again resulted in a missed opportunity for the PN to take the lead in a protest against a government decision: an opportunity which, in other matters, it very rarely turns down.

Prime Minister Muscat, too, had the option to stick to his guns... as well as an ample parliamentary majority... though he also had a lot less to gain by doing so. Clearly, it was the right decision to withdraw the law, once the PN withdrew its support. In so doing, Muscat took the wind out of the sails of anything the PN could say to criticise Government on the matter. He demonstrated that Government was seeking House support on the matter, and was not ready to bulldoze the proposal through on its own.

All the same, we are left with a situation in which the central issue remains unresolved. As with the honoraria issue under Lawrence Gonzi, the political aspect of the debate has overshadowed the underlying reality. Clearly, fast-tracking pension reform for parliamentarians is not the right way to go about it... but there is an urgent need for a solution with regards to MPs’ salaries, allowances, and the need for full-time MPs.

One of the reasons is that a part-time Parliament leaves our MPs too reliant on additional sources of revenue, and this creates additional (up to a point unavoidable) conflicts of interest.

One must also be realistic: the hours of work for an MP may be ‘part-time’, but the job itself is – or should be – ‘full-time’ in nature. A country cannot expect the highest standard of Parliamentary work – or, for that matter, conduct – when the role of an MP is something relegated to ‘after-work’ hours.

It is therefore not merely reasonable, but also imperative that we do allow for the possibility of salary increases for MPs. But this must be counterbalanced by an enforceable code of ethics, with strict rules on involvement in the private sector – directorships, company ownership, trusts, etc. – a functional revolving door policy, and other considerations that also go into discussion on Parliamentary reform.

This is not a discussion that started yesterday. Much has been said and suggested over the years, but no concrete discussion has taken place, and no set timeframes have as yet been proposed for any reform.

Naturally, Parliament hasn’t aided its own cause by (once again) getting the discussion off on the wrong foot. But the discussion is needed all the same.

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