A hotbed of conflicts of interest

To date, our national approach to this has always been to ignore the laws and conventions that make such situations unacceptable; in so doing, we have created a hot-bed for precisely the sort of conflict of interest the Standards Commissioner found to be rife in Maltese politics today

It was perhaps expected that the Standards Commissioner would highlight the ongoing anomaly, whereby – contrary to all established procedures - backbenchers are routinely given government jobs and consultancies in Malta.

In his report, Commissioner George Hyzler concluded that the practice possibly goes against article 110 of the Constitution – raising questions about its legality – but also that it “dilutes Parliament’s role of scrutinising the Executive; goes against the underlying principles of the Constitution; goes against the Code of Ethics of Public Employees and Board Members; places MPs in a position of financial dependence on the Executive; discriminates between Government and Opposition MPs; overly politicises statutory bodies and distorts their independence from Government; exacerbates the questionable practice of appointment of persons of trust; and creates unnecessary jobs, or else fills genuine vacancies with persons who are not necessarily best suited for that job, against principles of transparency and meritocracy…”

Moreover, the engagement of MPs as persons of trust “possibly constitutes a breach of article 55(1)(g) of the Constitution.”

And yet, despite all these weighty arguments against the appointment of MPs to government jobs… it has been unchallenged as ‘standard practice’ in this country for decades. In the course of his investigations, the Commissioner found that all backbench members of Parliament on the government side have been employed or engaged with the government, directly or indirectly, and some opposition MPs are regular employees of government departments or agencies.

In most cases, MPs were employed or engaged with the government after being elected to Parliament.

Such MPs hold appointments as ‘persons of trust’ or on ‘contracts of service’ in government ministries, or as chairpersons or members of the boards of directors of public authorities; or else they have been given consultancy contracts with ministries or public authorities.

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

The Commissioner also noted that “giving backbench MPs jobs with government is widely perceived as a means of appeasing those who are not appointed as ministers or parliamentary secretaries, or as a means of compensating them for their low salaries as MPs.”

There is an abundance of evidence of this, from the extraordinary rise in ‘person of trust’ appointed by the present government; to past governments’ efforts at containing imminent ‘backbencher revolts’ (Gonzi’s attempts at placating Franco Debono, Jesmond Mugliett, Jeffery Pullicino Orlando and others, all spring to mind).

Inevitably, his forces us to turn our attention to the fact that an unsavoury (and clearly political unsound) practice has come to be perceived as ‘business as usual’ in Maltese politics.

Once again, the Commissioner’s report points towards at least one possible reason: shorn of such ancillary ‘benefits’, the position of a backbencher MP is simply too poorly remunerated to be considered worth the bother. So one must either create alternative ‘mechanisms’ to compensate for the low salary… or resign oneself to the fact that politics will remain an unattractive option to people who might enjoy lucrative careers elsewhere.

From this perspective, one solution immediately presents itself: improve the remuneration and working conditions of Maltese MPs, so that there is no further need to ‘sugar-coat the pill’, as it were.

But while this makes eminent sense, from a purely practical angle… politically, it remains all but a ‘no-go area’ (indeed, Joseph Muscat had ruled out the possibility before even becoming Prime Minister in 2013).

Muscat’s reaction to the report serves as a reminder of precisely why, too. Regarding the commissioner’s recommendation for the issue to be addressed by increasing MPs wages, Muscat insisted this couldn’t be taken lightly, pointing to the controversy which had erupted when the last Nationalist administration agreed to increase their honoraria “behind the people’s back”.

“I am definitely not going to go in that direction. There must be a public discussion and a legal analysis of these things,” he said.

Muscat is right that the PN government’s attempts to address this situation only made matters considerably worse… but it must be stressed that it was Gonzi’s handling of the honoraria exercise – and not the aims of the exercise, in itself – that were questionable at the time.

As this newspaper editorially pointed out in 2011/11, the fact that a past government mishandled the situation is no excuse to sweep it under the carpet today. One cannot expect worthy candidates to be attracted to politics, when the financial package is so abysmal, and – unlike virtually any other career – no means of supplementing income is ever considered acceptable.

To date, our national approach to this has always been to ignore the laws and conventions that make such situations unacceptable; in so doing, we have created a hot-bed for precisely the sort of conflict of interest the Standards Commissioner found to be rife in Maltese politics today.

Faced with this situation, Muscat must either backtrack on his earlier commitment not to raise MPs’ salaries – which sounded like the right thing to say, in 2011; but which will only perpetuate the problem – or continue accepting a situation which is clearly unacceptable by all other standards.

No doubt, he will be criticised for the U-turn. But far, far better to be criticised for inconsistency… than for allowing Parliament to persist as a breeding ground for conflicts of interest. 

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