The report by the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life on the alleged misuse of public funds by minister Carmelo Abela was discussed by the Standing Parliamentary Committee for Standards.
According to law, the commissioner is appointed by mutual consent of both parties in parliament: a resolution appointing him requires the support of at least two-thirds of all members of the House of Representatives.
In the final session of the discussion, the committee voted on whether to adopt the commissioner’s report, which found that Abela was responsible for a breach of the code of ethics. The vote was a tie. Government members voted against and the opposition MPs in favour.
In a lengthy statement, Speaker Anġlu Farrugia, who chairs the committee, stated that he agreed in part with the report but not in its entirety and repeated the government’s mantra that the time has come to draft guidelines on the ministries’ use of public funds for publicity purposes to draw a distinction between legitimate information and partisan propaganda.
The most controversial part of the Speaker’s statement, however, was his refusal to cast a vote by abstaining. He confirmed, on a query by opposition MP Therese Commodini Cachia, that his lengthy statement culminating in an abstention was a “declaration and explanation” of his vote.
A casting vote is given to a presiding officer precisely to resolve a deadlock. It does not make sense, therefore, for such an officer to abstain. That officer has a duty to vote either in favour or against. Abstaining is tantamount to someone washing his hands of an issue.
This dangerous precedent will be regretted in the future. It can be interpreted as meaning that each time the two political parties fail to agree on a report by the commissioner against a member of the House or a person of trust in a government ministry, the Speaker can adopt the same stand – abstention. The commissioner’s report is thereby neutralised, rendering his office effectively toothless.
The current criticism being levelled by Labour against the standards commissioner, George Hyzler, conveniently ignores the fact that reports have been published by his office exonerating leading members of the governing party. For instance, former prime minister Joseph Muscat was not found guilty of any breach of ethics in a celebration of his birthday at Girgenti, a public property used by the prime minister as a second residence. In another case, the commissioner ruled that minister Edward Zammit Lewis had not breached any ethical duty in engaging a legal advisor.
There were certainly no qualms by government MPs about accepting the commissioner’s verdict then or criticism to the effect that no former politician should hold the office of commissioner.
The provision that the commissioner should be appointed by a resolution requiring a qualified majority is intended to give strength and credibility to his decisions. What is the use of requiring such consensus if the committee then goes on the reject his reports?
The commissioner is an officer of parliament. The abstention has seriously undermined his authority in controlling misdeeds, errors of judgement or breaches of ethics by the members of the legislature and the executive.
The Speaker’s abstention has sent the wrong message: that the commissioner’s reports to the House can always be blocked by the party in government and that the Speaker will not budge an inch in defence of his own parliamentary officer, in whom he appears to have little confidence.
The commissioner’s considered opinion has been thrown out of the window and, with it, the cause of raising standards in public life.
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