Anti-deadlock mechanism for standards commissioner appointment passes second reading

A legal mechanism allowing for the appointment of a standards commissioner through a simple majority vote after two voting rounds has passed through its second reading in parliament

An anti-deadlock legal mechanism to appoint a standards commissioner has passed through its second reading in parliament.

The mechanism allows for a simple majority vote for the appointment of standards commissioner if a two-thirds majority cannot be reached after two voting rounds.

It passed through parliament with 39 votes in favour and 33 against.

Parliamentary discussions on the mechanism concluded on Wednesday, with Opposition leader Bernard Grech making a last effort to block the mechanism.

He accused the Prime Minister of leaking the nominations to the press before talks on the standards commissioner were finalised, saying he acted in bad faith.

“This is a last act for a complete takeover of this institution,” he said.

Grech added that Abela was too dead-set on having a particular person for this role, a reference to former chief justice Joseph Azzopardi, who is the formal nominee for the position.

He also accused Abela of pushing George Hyzler, the former standards commissioner, for a place on the European Court of Auditors in order to ‘get rid of him’.

“[Abela] dismisses the people who he doesn’t agree with, or who he doesn’t feel comfortable with, and replaces them with people he agrees with.”

The final vote on the law will take place on 30 January after the House Business Committee convenes. After this, parliament will be able to vote on the nomination for a new standards commissioner.

The law setting up the standards commissioner is an ordinary law and so government only requires a simple majority to change it. The post was set up in 2018 and the commissioner is tasked with investigating claims of ethical breaches by MPs and persons of trust.

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

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.

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.

In the wake of the impasse, Abela put forward legal changes to introduce an anti-deadlock mechanism when no consensus can be reached on the appointment of the standards commissioner. The move was criticised as autocratic by the PN.