A motion for former chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi to become the new Commissioner for Standards in Public Life was controversially approved by parliament with a simple majority on Monday.

The House also approved - by unanimity - a motion for retired judge Joseph Zammit Mckeon to become Ombudsman.

The nomination of the standards commissioner by a simple majority came at the end of weeks of heated debate during which the Opposition accused the government of having changed the goalposts to ensure that its nominee got over the line. 

To date, the appointment of the standards commissioner had needed a two-thirds parliamentary majority. But the government changed the law by introducing an anti-deadlock mechanism after accusing the opposition of blocking agreement.

It also accused Opposition leader Bernard Grech of backtracking on what it said was an initial agreement to Azzopardi’s nomination.  

In terms of the anti-deadlock mechanism, two votes were held in the House last month during which a two-thirds majority was sought. With those having failed, - MPs having voted on party lines - a simple majority in a third vote sufficed for the nomination to go through on Monday. The vote was 41 in favour and 33 against. 

Joseph Zammit Mckeon to become Ombudsman 

The House also unanimously approved a motion for retired judge Joseph Zammit Mckeon to become Ombudsman. 

Justice Minister Jonathan Attard spoke on the important role of the Ombudsman as a defender of the people in cases of alleged bad governance.  He also underlined the qualities of judge Zammit Mckeon.  

He also reiterated the claim that the Opposition leader had backtracked on an agreement for Azzopardi to become the Standards Commissioner.

Opposition leader Bernard Grech denied the claim. He also said that had the government not been obstinate, judge Zammit Mckeon could have been able to take up his post as Ombudsman two years ago.

He also praised judge Zammit Mckeon for his qualities including his integrity and preparedness for the cases before him.

Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri accused the Opposition of being divisive. He observed that it was a Labour government which set up the Office of the Standards Commissioner because it was not afraid of scrutiny. 

PN MP Chris Said said the government by forcing through its nominee for the post of Standards Commissioner, was effectively hijacking another institution which had been working independently. It would have been wiser had talks continued with the opposition, with other people possibly being considered. This, he said, was a black day for democracy in Malta. 

Karol Aquilina, shadow justice minister, said that while the Office of the Ombudsman was important, the government was not respecting the office. It was ignoring its recommendations, denying it information and in some cases, it had chosen particular persons to head 'injustices commissions' which were effectively usurping the role of the Ombudsman. 

Prime Minister Robert Abela said the two posts were being filled by persons who enjoyed the qualities of integrity, capability, efficiency and impartiality. The motions for the appointments of Joseph Azzopardi and Joseph Zammit Mckeon reflected the agreement he originally had with the leader of the opposition until somebody pulled the strings and Grech asked for the roles to be reversed.

It was an honour for Malta, Abela said, for former chief justice Azzopardi to serve as Commissioner for Standards and Opposition criticism in this regard was shameful.

He also heaped praise on judge Joe Zammit Mckeon, saying he was well known for his mediation skills and for having decided a case for every two days he served as a judge. This was a statistic current members of the judiciary should note, particularly inquiring magistrates, he said, mentioning a fatality which took place three months ago over which no process verbal had been concluded and there was 'no end in sight'.

The PM did not mention names but was clearly referring to the death of Jean-Paul Sofia when a building under construction collapsed last December.

Abela: PN hijacked offices of the Ombudsman and Standards Commissioner

Reacting to the Opposition's claims of the government hijacking national institutions, he said it was the PN which, behind the scenes had for the past months hijacked both the Office of the Standards Commissioner and also the Ombudsman's office, with no opportunity lost to attack the Labour government.

While, over the past two years Anthony Mifsud de jure occupied the post of Ombudsman, despite his term having expired, de facto the post was occupied  by somebody else behind the scenes, but that was okay for the PN as long as someone from its establishment was involved. 

He now looked forward to the two offices henceforth operating serenely and independently and he would resist anyone who tried to do otherwise.  

Replying to criticism of the government for lacking respect to the Ombudsman, Abela recalled that in 2002, in parliament, Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami had criticised then Ombudsman Joe Sammut saying he had lost all sense of fairness, he was arrogant and sending a political message.

Abela insisted that the government had always been open to an agreement on the nominations for the two posts and it was arrogance by some quarters within the PN which had prevented agreement this time.

Other speakers were Robert Cutajar (PN), Edward Zammit Lewis (PL), and Claudette Buttigieg (PN).

The vote on the appointment of Joe Zammit Mckeon as the Ombudsman was 74 in favour and none against.

Judge Azzopardi is taking over from George Hyzler, who has joined the European Court of Auditors. Hyzler vacated the role of standards commissioner in September.

Judge Zammit Mckeon succeeds Ombudsman Anthony Mifsud, whose five-year term officially expired in March 2021, but who remained in office until a successor was found. 


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