Anti-deadlock standards mechanism voted into law

Robert Abela gets his way as parliament votes in favour of an anti-deadlock mechanism in the appointment of a standards commissioner

An amendment to introduce an anti-deadlock mechanism in the appointment of the standards commissioner has passed through parliament and will become law once the president signs off on the law.

The law passed with 41 votes in favour and 35 against.

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.

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.

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 antideadlock mechanism is in place.

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

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.

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.

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.