Parliamentary scrutiny of appointments will strengthen Malta's democracy - minister

Justice minister Owen Bonnici said the amendments meant the government was giving up a right that belonged to it to share it with the parliament 

Justice minister Owen Bonnici said the amendments being proposed to the Public Administration Act would serve to strengthen Malta's democracy
Justice minister Owen Bonnici said the amendments being proposed to the Public Administration Act would serve to strengthen Malta's democracy

An amendment to the Public Administration Act, that will see a parliamentary committee scrutinise the future appointments of ambassadors and the heads of various regulatory entities, would be conferring more powers to parliament and in so doing, would also be strengthen the country’s democracy, according to justice minister Owen Bonnici.

The amendments would apply to authorities including the Central Bank, MFSA, Transport Malta, Planning Authority, Malta Tourism Authority, Medicines Authority, Financial Intelligence Unit, as well as a number of others.

Speaking in parliament on Tuesday, during the second reading of the amendments to the Public Administration Act, Bonnici said that it during every legislature, the government of the day passes laws what effectively “change the world we live in”.

Through the proposed amendments, Bonnici said the government was taking a “right that it had, and sharing it with the rest of the house”.

He added that this was not an easy decision to take, but insisted that democracy did not move forward “by coincidence”.

“We don’t want the letter A+ to only be associated with the country’s economic performance and its job creation, but rather we wanted this excellence to spread across how we administer our democracy,” said Bonnici.

Bonnici said he had always wondered when Malta would reach the stage where appointments were opened to public scrutiny.

“Today the wish that people of my generation had, for Malta to continue to become European, will be advanced by this law,” he added.

Bonnici said that the proposed amendments had been considered a step in the right direction by most commentators. On the other hand, he said that those who were against the move, were “missing the wood for the trees”.

He rejected suggestions that the committee was useless because it had no power, noting that all parliamentary committees functioned in this way. He stressed that it was a requirement for committees to reflect the government’s parliamentary majority and that every MP was capable or asking pertinent and important questions, irrespective of whether they were government or opposition MPs  

He also stressed that the proposed changes would allow for the questions asked to be made public and would also allow the committee to make its recommendations to the minister.  

“I wonder which minister would go against the recommendation of a committee,” said Bonnici. “That a committee can give a written recommendation is a big step forward.”

Replying to the minister, Opposition MP and former justice minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici urged the government to accept amendments being put forward by the Opposition since the law in its current format was not good enough.

“[Past Nationalist governments] introduced many measures that stood the test of time because they were right from the start. This step, is a step in the right direction and the Opposition can’t criticise the principle but there are a number of amendments that need to be made to have a truly effective law,” said Mifsud Bonnici.

He said that while it was possible that the questions asked within the committee would be made available to the public, Mifsud Bonnici insisted that the government should go further, and should ensure public hearings.

Using the United States as an example, Mifsud Bonnici pointed out that the country’s democracy was good enough to offer people in Malta the “privilege” of following their committee proceedings.

A public hearing, he said, would also ensure that the minister would be more cautious in selecting a candidate, insisting that any minister who had chosen the best man for the job, should be able to rest assured that that person would be able to get through a public hearing.

“We are either going to have the guts to implement for proper scrutiny or we should not have any scrutiny at all,” he said.

Furthermore, he said there was no need for the final decision to be the minister’s, irrespective of the recommendation made.

“If you say a minister would be crazy to press forward then why does the law allow him to do so,” said Mifsud Bonnici.

He pointed out that the legislative branch should not be placed at the services of the minister, insisting that in addition to scrutinising the appointee, it would also allow the public to scrutinise the minister’s choice.

Moreover, Mifsud Bonnici said that the fact that the committee included three government MPs to the Opposition’s two, ensured that the government could still retain control.

He stressed that a committee was not there to do the government’s bidding, but rather answered to the Speaker of the House.