Public roles should not serve private interests

Even if their motives are honest, it is unacceptable that a serving government MP should also be cast into the role of supervising his or her own government, at any level

Public appointments have long been a cause for controversy, in a small island where everyone seems to know everyone else.

Yet the problem has, to date, been notoriously difficult to solve.

It was, in part, to address this very issue, that the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life has proposed changes to the Constitution to strengthen the independence of Parliament and the judiciary, and reinforce the principle of merit in appointments within public administration.

George Hyzler’s proposals are set out in a 138-page report which he presented to the President of Malta in response to the President’s call for submissions on constitutional reform.

Among other things, Malta’s parliamentary standards czar has recommended that Members of Parliament should be disqualified from the House of Representatives if they accept contracts of any kind from the government or public entities.

Similarly, MPs should not be allowed to accept appointments as persons of trust or as members of government boards and committees, George Hyzler said.

The report proposes that judges and magistrates should be selected on merit, following public calls for expressions of interest to fill specific vacancies in the judiciary. “This would ensure that the best person for each vacancy is appointed. The government should retain its current power to overrule the selection process in exceptional instances, but it should publicise and justify any such cases.”

The present system of judicial appointments was reformed in 2016 to allow members of the bar to express interest in becoming magistrates and be vetted by a judicial selection committee. But their selection is still dependent on the executive, something that gives the government of the day too much discretion. “Even worse, from the point of view of judicial independence, promotions within the judiciary – from magistrate to judge and from judge to Chief Justice – remain entirely at the discretion of the government.”

The report also proposes that the Constitution should permit appointments on trust, but only in ministers’ secretariats. “Appointments elsewhere in public administration should, as a general rule, be made on merit. The Public Service Commission should be empowered to enforce the merit principle throughout public administration, not only in the Public Service as is currently the case.”

As a newspaper that has long called for a reform in the way public positions are conferred, MaltaToday can only welcome the Standards Commissioner’s overdue proposals.

The need to regulate this area has long been felt in Malta. Indeed, all these considerations have already been flagged in the past, both by the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (Greco) report, and more recently by the CoE’s Venice Commission report: both of which found serious systemic shortcomings within Malta’s power-structures.

Nonetheless, it would be simplistic to dismiss the reasons for the present situation: apart from the obvious concern with cronyism, there is also the question of whether an MP’s remuneration is sufficient to warrant giving up all other private practices or jobs.

Before Joseph Muscat came to power, Lawrence Gonzi had already tried to address this by creating a system of parliamentary assistants to have MPs shadow ministers and earn a higher honorarium.

Controversially, he gave ministers their parliamentary honorarium, creating the impression of a ‘double salary’ that allowed Muscat to translate popular anger into a successful crusade for himself.

Muscat was elected in 2013 in part on a ‘meritocracy’ platform. But while the new government scrapped the previous system, Muscat postponed any meaningful reform on parliamentary and ministerial salaries. Instead of parliamentary roles, the Prime Minister gave his MPs jobs with the State – chairmanships, positions of trust, and well-paid directorships.

In some ways, this is arguably worse than Gonzi’s honoraria fiasco. For Muscat’s methods have also cemented the impression that MPs may be abusing their roles by using public platforms to serve private interests.

An MP who is also chairman of a government board or authority may give rise to unnecessary conflicts of interest. Moreover, it calls into question the functionality of the public role itself.

Apart from obvious considerations – e.g., anyone appointed to any public office must be a person of integrity – it is imperative that our institutions are seen to be functioning, regardless of the individual who occupies the post.

It’s no good having all the best reforms and legislation in the world… if the people appointed do not carry out the duties mandated. We need public officers who will see through any investigation/action as necessary, and not falter at the first challenge.

Even if their motives are honest, it is unacceptable that a serving government MP should also be cast into the role of supervising his or her own government, at any level.

As Hyzler – himself a former Nationalist MP and minister – perceptively put it: “Democratic principles require that Parliament should be capable of holding the government to account, but Parliament cannot fulfil this role effectively if backbench MPs are financially dependent on the government.”

Yet disqualifying MPs from those roles, in itself, does not address the underlying issue. So, while agreeing with the Standards Commissioner’s recommendations, this newspaper reiterates that any such reform should also address the issue of substandard remuneration and work conditions for MPs.