MPs should be disqualified from taking government contracts – standards czar

Constitutional proposals call for reinforcement of checks and balances that have allowed Labour administration to turn MPs into government employees

Former ministers Anton Refalo and Manuel Mallia are MPs who also chair public entities, namely Heritage Malta and the OHSA
Former ministers Anton Refalo and Manuel Mallia are MPs who also chair public entities, namely Heritage Malta and the OHSA

Members of Parliament should be disqualified from the House of Representatives if they accept contracts of any kind from the government or public entities, Malta’s parliamentary standards czar has said in a report to the President of the Republic.

Similarly, MPs should not be allowed to accept appointments as persons of trust or as members of government boards and committees, George Hyzler said.

“Democratic principles require that Parliament should be capable of holding the government to account, but Parliament cannot fulfil this role effectively if backbench MPs are financially dependent on the government,” Hyzler, a former Nationalist MP and minister said.

The Commissioner for Standards in Public Life has proposed changes to the Constitution to strengthen the independence of Parliament and the judiciary, and reinforce the principle of merit in appointments within public administration.

The Commissioner’s proposals are set out in a 138-page report which he presented to the President of Malta in response to the President’s call for submissions on constitutional reform. The report was written together with director-general Charles Polidano.

The report proposes that judges and magistrates should be selected on merit following public calls for expressions of interest to fill specific vacancies in the judiciary. “This would ensure that the best person for each vacancy is appointed. The government should retain its current power to overrule the selection process in exceptional instances, but it should publicise and justify any such cases.”

The present system of judicial appointments was reformed in 2016 to allow members of the bar to express interest in becoming magistrates and be vetted by a judicial selection committee. But their selection is still dependent on the executive, something that gives the government of the day too much discretion. “Even worse from the point of view of judicial independence, promotions within the judiciary – from magistrate to judge and from judge to Chief Justice – remain entirely at the discretion of the government.”

The report also proposes that the Constitution should permit appointments on trust, but only in ministers’ secretariats. “Appointments elsewhere in public administration should as a general rule be made on merit. The Public Service Commission should be empowered to enforce the merit principle throughout public administration, not only in the Public Service as is currently the case.”

At present the Auditor General, the Ombudsman and the Commissioner for Standards himself are appointed by the President on the basis of a parliamentary resolution supported by at least two thirds of MPs.

Hyzler said this same mechanism should be used to appoint the chairpersons of the Public Service Commission and other constitutional commissions, as well as the heads of the Armed Forces, the Police and the Security Service.

“Permanent Secretaries, who are the most senior officials in ministries, should be appointed by the President on the basis of merit, but the Prime Minister should have the right to object to any particular appointment. If the President accepts the Prime Minister’s objection another selection process would be held to fill the post in question. This system is based on that used to select top civil servants in the United Kingdom and New Zealand.”

Hyzler said his proposals can strengthen the checks and balances through which Maltese governments are held to account for their actions, without impeding their ability to govern.

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