Anti-deadlock for Standards czar will create ‘state puppet’, says Repubblika

Anti-corruption NGO says anti-deadlock mechanism to resolve disagreement on next Standards Commissioner will lead to ‘person of trust’ appointee for MPs’ scrutineer

The government has proposed former Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi as the next Standards Commissioner
The government has proposed former Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi as the next Standards Commissioner

An anti-deadlock mechanism for the appointment of the standards commissioner is being taken to task by anti-corruption NGO Repubblika, which claims the proposed legal amendment weakens parliamentary autonomy.

The amendment Bill was published two days after Christmas, after the Prime Minister presented the First Reading in parliament on 19 December.

The proposal allows the standards commissioner to be appointed by parliament through a simple majority vote if the nomination fails to garner a two-thirds majority in two previous voting rounds.

Repubblika said the Bill, presenting right in the middle of the Christmas lull, would “hollow out Maltese democracy, reduce government transparency, trample on parliamentary autonomy and remove the Standards Commissioner’s moral authority.”

Repubblika president Robert Aquilina said the government was planning to undermine the few parliamentary officers that are actively scrutinising the standards of people in public life, particularly those in government.

“This anti-deadlock mechanism is meant to unblock situations where government and the Opposition are in disagreement with the choice for Standards Commissioner. Government will in this nominate people close to the administration, to force the Opposition to object to the nomination right up to the point where the government will then have the power to appoint whoever it wishes.”

Aquilina said the law could turn an office that had so far pursued good governance maxims, into another ‘state puppet’ for persons of trust selected by the party-in-government.

Parliamentary process

The government will require only a simple majority in the House to change the law appointing the Standards Commissioner, a parliamentary officer set up in 2018 to investigate claims of ethical breaches by MPs and persons of trust.

The post has been vacant since the end of September when George Hyzler resigned at the end of his maximum term, to take up his post at the European Court of Auditors.

The legal text states that a two-thirds majority is required in the first vote. If the majority is not achieved, a second vote is taken seven days later. This will also require a two-thirds majority. If no consensus is reached, a third and final vote will be take seven days later and only a simple majority will be required at that point.

The Bill also states that new nominations can be introduced before the second and third votes.

Talks between Prime Minister Robert Abela and Opposition leader Bernard Grech failed to reach consensus on Hyzler’s replacement.

Abela proposed former chief justice Joseph Azzopardi but the nomination was rejected by Grech. Given that the appointment requires a two-thirds majority in parliament, the Opposition’s refusal to play ball led to an impasse.

A similar situation had developed over the nomination of the new Ombudsman after incumbent Anthony Mifsud’s term ended in March last year. The Ombudsman, which is a constitutional role, also requires a two-thirds majority and no anti-deadlock mechanism is in place.

However, eventually consensus prevailed on the nomination of former judge Joseph Zammit McKeon.

Feuding over successor

Abela has accused Grech of first agreeing to both names only to recant on Azzopardi’s nomination after internal pressure. Grech has refuted the claim, insisting he never assented to Azzopardi’s nomination for standards commissioner.

Abela’s move to present an anti-deadlock mechanism when no consensus can be reached on the appointment of the standards commissioner has been criticised as autocratic by the PN.

This type of anti-deadlock mechanism had been proposed by former Nationalist Party leader Simon Busuttil in 2015 as a safeguard when consensus on key constitutional roles could not be reached.

Introducing an anti-deadlock mechanism for the appointment of the Ombudsman and the President of the Republic will however prove to be trickier given that they require changes to the Constitution, which in turn would need a two-thirds majority to be amended.