Prefect of discipline: ‘Whoever gets to do this kind of job, will need a thick skin’

Outgoing standards czar George Hyzler tells his successor they will need a thick hide to take on the Maltese political class

George Hyzler
George Hyzler

An eventful four years have come and gone for George Hyzler, Malta’s first Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, and no political observer can underestimate the quality of the investigations that have allowed us to shed a new light on the way politicians must discharge their duties.

Yet only the gradual bolstering and reinforcement of Malta’s system of checks and balances can serve as an antidote to abuse in governance, Hyzler, now the outgoing standards czar, tells MaltaToday as he readies to take up the post of member of the European Court of Auditors.

He can look back at an intensive four-year experience in which he gave his office the necessary character and spine that makes his act a hard one to follow for his successor.

“The abuse... will not stop without more checks and balances, consequences. That is why my office has commissioned a review of lobbying rules, and amendments to the Standards in Public Life Act, which will be formally presented to the government on 11 July.”

Hyzler’s work has also included revising the current code of ethics for ministers and MPs, as well as proposals to bolster their declaration of interests and assets, a first draft of which will be presented in September.

But it’s not just this kind of legislative work that marked Hyzler’s time in office. Armed with a necessary distance from partisan politics, Hyzler had sparred with errant ministers, their aides and the government MPs who have attempted to spear him during some confrontations in the parliamentary committee for standards.

“Whoever gets to do this kind of job, will need a thick skin,” Hyzler says. “We draw up reports that impact upon people personally, upon their careers. I would have preferred not having to deal with cases which required this kind of action, but for the first time we have an institution that names and shames. And the consequences of that shaming has been witnessed.”

Indeed, many of Hyzler’s successful investigations have led to unequivocal resignations, chiefly among them those of parliamentary secretary Rosianne Cutajar, over her role in the alleged brokering of a property sale for the magnate Yorgen Fenech, now facing charges of masterminding the Caruana Galizia assassination; as well as that of education minister Justyne Caruana, who gifted her partner a €15,000 direct contract with the connivance of the ministry’s permanent secretary, Frank Fabri. Both cases were revealed by the press, chiefly MaltaToday.

“I did not require anyone to resign, because that is not what my office does,” Hyzler says. “What I did was to report, on a prima facie basis, on whether there were any shortcomings on standards. And I offer my recommendations. Had I recommended resignations it would have led to endless debates and comparisons with other countries.”

And while Hyzler’s revelatory reports became sources of embarrassment for the impugned MPs, it also became a problem for the government and party itself. “The other MPs... don’t like having to stick up for you,” he says, characterising the manner in which standards committee MPs have to deliberate on the conclusions of his reports and reprimands. “If an MP or minister does something that has benefited them personally, and amounts to misconduct, then other MPs don’t want to defend them, considering that MPs’ real electoral contests are often between their very own colleagues, especially those from the same district.”

But beyond that kind of bizarre element of Maltese politics, Hyzler hopes he has also set the higher example for MPs to follow. “I do hope something has entered their mindset, in that they are being watched. Indeed, there have been a number of MPs who have checked with us, on an informal basis, certain actions they might had had doubts about.”

Hyzler’s investigations have also produced concrete developments in terms of government protocols: they include the two sets of guidelines on ministers’ and MPs’ personal advertising, and social media usage where ministerial resources were used to promote personal political pages, leading to the creation of official government social media pages.

But as his own investigation in the Caruana-Bogdanovic scandal showed, Malta’s ‘in-built’ system of good governance – the civil service – can often be the culprit when it fails to stop ministers from doing the wrong thing. I point out that in the latest season of Netflix’s Danish political drama Borgen – a world far removed from the kind of power that the Maltese executive arrogates for itself, where ministers take in trusted friends as advisors and ‘chiefs of staff’ – the civil service actively keeps the elected minister in line with the rules set for them. In the ensuing plotline of Season 4, minister Brigitte Nyborg denies knowledge of Russian oil interests in Greenland, during a confidential foreign policy committee meeting with fellow coalition ministers and Opposition members. When the press discovers that Nyborg ‘lied’, she is held to be in breach of the ‘Ministerial Accountability Act’. Not only is it a law that binds ministers to be accountable and truthfully so; but Nyborg’s permanent secretary – who runs her ministry and advises her loyally – informs her it is his duty that she complies with the ministerial accountability act. That is: that she does not lie.

“Permanent secretaries must have the proverbials to say it,” Hyzler observes, when I point out the glaring contradiction even in egregious cases as that of Frank Fabri, who complied with Justyne Caruana’s favour to her lover. “The civil service should be telling the minister not to do something that is patently wrong, to protect that same minister! If a perm-sec does not have the guts to do it, then they must think that the minister will get away with it...”

Hyzler says that it should be permanent secretaries who are also acting as guardians of the code of ethics. And it is in this miasma of political appointments that suddenly, when private secretaries replace civil servants, that persons of trust become part of the phalanx of gatekeepers for ministers’ wrongdoings. “And then who will report these same people... if not someone from the general public, like Arnold Cassola,” Hyzler says, tipping his hat to the indefatigable independent politician, a frequent name in the Standards’ office’s inbox.

Hyzler says a culture change must happen now in Malta, and it is useless to dwell on the past of previous Nationalist administrations. “Today we don’t have a register of gifts, the only restriction being that a minister cannot accept a gift that influences their decisions. We proposed a €250 limit which the OECD said is too high! In truth, our limits must be realistic otherwise these restrictions won’t fly.”

Hyzler only rues that one important piece of unfinished business – ministerial salaries that reflect the gravitas of the job – seems to be something the government will not touch with a bargepole. And the issue of proper salaries is intimately tied with the need to introduce proper rules for gift-giving, lobbying, and a rigorous declaration of assets

“I don’t understand... ministers seem pleased to appoint consultants who get paid more than they do. But that promotes the idea that... well, maybe they’re getting their money from somewhere else. And remember that they also oppose declaring their spouses’ incomes in some cases in their declaration of interests.”

Low salaries are also a problem for backbench MPs, which may be why they are often given government jobs. “The solution is certainly not inventing jobs that don’t exist, which creates an un-level playing field with the Opposition, and also conflicts with the Constitution... that is why we need full-time MPs with support from proper parliamentary assistants.”

The Borgen effect

In the Netflix fiction Borgen, when the press discovers that Danish foreign minister Brigitte Nyborg ‘lied’ to a foreign affairs committee, she is held to be in breach of the ‘Ministerial Accountability Act’. Not only is it a law that binds ministers to be accountable and truthfully so; but Nyborg’s permanent secretary – who runs her ministry and advises her loyally – informs her it is his duty that she complies with the ministerial accountability act. That is: that she does not lie.