Hyzler wrangles with government MPs over advert rules: 'If you don’t like them, change them'

The Standards Commissioner had identified ethics breaches in government adverts that featured ministers in the photos

Outgoing Standards Commissioner George Hyzler
Outgoing Standards Commissioner George Hyzler

Standards Commissioner George Hyzler had a tussle with government MPs sitting in parliament’s Standards Committee over ethics guidelines on use of public funds for advertising.

Hyzler testified before the committee on Thursday to discuss an ethics report drafted by his office that found 18 ministers breached ethics after using public funds to finance adverts that promoted their political work in a supplement published by the Labour Party newspaper KullĦadd.

Government MPs Jonathan Attard and Andy Ellul pointed out that the photos of ministers that featured in the advert were either very small or showed those ministers in a certain context, such as signing agreements or visiting works and projects.

But Hyzler consistently argued that the ethics guidelines governing such advertising is clear in saying that the minister’s name or face should not appear on government-funded adverts. “The money of the ministry isn’t the money of the minister or party,” he said.

Attard asked whether the guidelines were being too restrictive in prohibiting names and faces, in whatever size, to be used in ministerial adverts. Ellul went through several pages of the newspaper supplement and questioned whether it was really so unethical to have politicians appearing, even slightly, in photos that advertise government projects.

Hyzler pointed out that ministers, in their role as politicians have other means to promote their work at a personal level.

But ultimately, it’s the guidelines that govern whether an advert breached ethics. Hyzler insisted heavily that when he drafted the guidelines and passed them to MPs for consultation, there was no reaction nor feedback from any of the MPs in question.

The guidelines were aimed to clarify how his office would be interpreting ethics cases on misuse of funds in government advertising.

“If you don’t like the guidelines, change them,” Hyzler said time and time again when questioned on whether his ethics verdict was too harsh.

Hyzler added that there were at least two instances in the past when government ministers actively contacted his office to ask whether a specific advert planned for publishing was in line with ethics rules.

He said one of them was blatant propaganda, and so he advised the minister that he’d be free to publish it using personal means, but not ministerial funds. In the second instance, the minister was planning an informative advert related to the yearly Budget. Hyzler found no problem with this advert.

Ethics advisors

In September, Hyzler will be replacing Leo Brincat as Malta’s appointment to the European Court of Auditors. He had been nominated by the Maltese government earlier this year.

Hyzler briefly remarked on Thursday that he wanted to leave behind a small legacy as Standards Commissioner, namely by introducing ethics advisors in ministries or government institutions.

This person would advise public officials on matters of ethics to avoid having politicians go directly to the Office of the Commissioner for Standards whenever they are unsure about a line of action.