Updated 6.18 pm with PN and PL statements 

The government has published details of a new bill that will allow it to appoint a standards commissioner without the need for a two-thirds majority in parliament.

The anti-deadlock mechanism that the government wants to introduce would allow MPs to appoint a standards commissioner by a simple majority if two initial votes fail to garner a two-thirds majority.

Each of those three votes would have to be held within seven days of the previous one, according to the legal text being proposed by the government. 

The bill to amend the Standards in Public Life Act was published in the government gazette last week

Currently, the standards commissioner, whose job it is to investigate complaints and disciplinary issues concerning MPs, must be elected through a two-thirds majority vote in parliament. 

That two-thirds rule compels the government and opposition to find common ground and appoint a person who enjoy both parties' trust. But it can also lead to stalemates that are nearly impossible to resolve, if both sides are unable to agree on a nominee. 

While both sides had agreed on the nominee to serve as Malta's first standards commissioner, George Hyzler, they have been unable to agree on who will succeed him. 

The government has proposed former chief justice Joseph Azzopardi for that role, with retired judge Joseph Zammit McKeon being appointed ombudsman. 

The Nationalist Party opposition does not want Azzopardi as standards commissioner, reportedly because it has concerns about his efficiency. 

The amendment being proposed by the government.The amendment being proposed by the government.

Prime Minister Robert Abela has however insisted on the nominations, arguing Azzopardi and McKeon are both eminently qualified for their respective proposed roles. 

Times of Malta is also informed that Opposition Leader Bernard Grech has sent the prime minister three new proposed nominees to serve as standards commissioner.

All three were reportedly turned down by Abela.

How would the anti-deadlock mechanism work? 

The proposed bill - which, somewhat ironically, only needs a simple majority to be passed into law - would still set a two-thirds majority vote rule when appointing a new standards commissioner. 

But if, after a second vote held within seven days of the first, two-thirds of MPs are unable to agree on a name, then the appointment could go through with a simple majority on the third vote, held within seven days of the second vote.

The proposed law would also allow new candidates to be nominated between those second and third votes, presumably to increase the odds of MPs finding common ground and securing a two-thirds majority. 

Government critics fear the law will allow Robert Abela to make Joseph Azzopardi standards commissioner, effectively bypassing the two-thirds majority requirement.

This is particularly dangerous in the case of a standards commissioner, critics argue, because the person tasked with the job will be investigating government MPs.

Among those critics are rule of law NGO Repubblika, which on Wednesday implied that the government had sought to quietly table the law during a holiday period when people were distracted by Christmas. 

"This law renders another important office for good governance merely a puppet in the government's hands, where persons of trust are appointed to do what is good for the party and cover dirt," Repubblika said in a statement. 

On the other hand, there is widespread consensus that anti-deadlock mechanisms are needed to ensure parties in opposition cannot block and freeze appointments by refusing to endorse any nominees.

Parliament requires two-thirds majorities when taking decisions of major consequence, such as amending the constitution or appointing a president or a chief justice.

The Council of Europe's Venice Commission, a body of rule of law experts which advised Malta on how to strengthen its democracy through law, had recommended introducing an anti-deadlock mechanism for the appointment of presidents and chief justices. 

It had suggested a mechanism that would function in the same way as that which the government is proposing to introduce for the appointment of standards commissioners.

Prime Minister behaving like a dictator - PN 

In a press release on Wednesday, the Nationalist Party said that Prime Minister Robert Abela is behaving like a dictator and should instead be working towards finding cross-party consensus on who should occupy the role of Standards Commissioner. 

The legal notice, the PN said, is a confirmation of Abela’s “dangerous” politics that he wields in an attempt to control everyone and everything. 

“Robert Abela doesn’t believe that the role of Standards Commissioner should be occupied by a person with investigative skills as well as possess the determination and moral fibre to uncover and put a stop to the abuse,” they said.

They accused Abela of “striking a deal” to appoint a specific person in the role despite them not being the best person for the role. 

Opposition Leader Bernard Grech, the statement added, had proposed to the prime minister the names of three people well known for their integrity and respect and who would have been ideal for the role of Standards Commissioner. 

In a follow-up statement on Wednesday, the Labour party defended the proposed mechanism, saying that it would only come into play only if parliament fails to come to a decision and was similarly proposed by the Opposition in its submissions to the Venice Commission.

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