The speaker’s decision to abstain from a casting vote on a matter of standards in public life could lead to the stalling of any future votes and effectively grants immunity to MPs, according to legal experts.
On Wednesday, Speaker Anġlu Farrugia, as the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, was given a casting vote after the other members reached deadlock on whether to adopt a report by the Standards Commissioner on Minister Carmelo Abela’s use of public funds.
Following a complaint by civil society NGO Repubblika, commissioner George Hyzler had investigated whether print adverts of Abela published last year constituted a misuse of taxpayer money.
He concluded that Abela had breached ethical standards because the adverts, which cost €7,012.98, constituted “blatant self-promotion”.
Giving a lengthy explanation of his decision to abstain, Farrugia said he agreed with portions of the report but not others, and agreed the way forward would be to draft advertising guidelines for public officials. But his decision effectively hit the brakes on the complaint.
The Speaker reiterated that stance in a statement released on Monday, adding that committee rules did not allow him to vote only partially vote in favour or against a motion or report.
Farrugia also released an eight-page document detailing his motivations in abstaining (see PDF below).
'He's given himself total immunity'
The former dean of the Faculty of Laws at the University of Malta, Kevin Aquilina, said the decision has brought stalemate to parliamentary and governmental ethical standards. The speaker’s decision would now serve as a precedent and would be emulated in future decisions.
“The speaker has given unto himself and all ministers, parliamentary secretaries and MPs of both sides total and complete immunity from honouring parliamentary standards and the imposition of disciplinary sanctions against any of them whom the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner finds in breach of ethical standards,” he said.
“It is like having a court of criminal jurisdiction that acquits an accused person charged before it when the prosecution has conclusively proved its case, so as not to embarrass the accused.”
Labour MPs on the committee had backed their own MP charged with ethical breaches and Nationalist MPs would inevitably have to follow suit when their own MP is charged, Aquilina said.
The Office of Parliamentary Standards has now become totally irrelevant as he can bark as much as he wants but can never bite
“It also implies that if in the past, ministers and parliamentary secretaries did acknowledge a mistake and apologised, henceforth they will never ever assume responsibility for any fault, blatant as it might be,” he noted.
“For they know what the end result will be: thanks to the speaker’s intervention they will be acquitted from any form of responsibility for breach of ethical standards and no form of sanction will be applied in their regard.
“In sum, I think that the implications of this decision are that ministers, parliament secretaries and MPs are being told that they can ignore with impunity the two codes of ethics in the Parliamentary Standards law and that they are being afforded total immunity from any consequences for breach of these code of ethics.
“They are being told that the Office of Parliamentary Standards has now become totally irrelevant as he can bark as much as he wants but can never bite.
“In a nutshell this decision has done away with any form of parliamentary and governmental ethical standards and introduced instead the rule of the jungle.”
'Speaker cannot wash his hands of the matter'
Tonio Borg, senior lecturer in Public Law at the University of Malta and a former member of Nationalist cabinets, said the speaker had a duty to cast a vote.
“I am absolutely sure that he cannot abstain,” Borg said.
“He cannot simply wash his hands of the matter. I know it is a difficult decision that would likely have been criticised no matter how the vote was cast, but the function of a casting vote is to resolve a deadlock, and if it is necessary then the vote must be cast.”
English common law, Borg said, did have certain conditions on how a casting vote ought to be exercised but the Maltese parliament was not necessarily bound by these conventions.
Neither the constitution nor the law on public standards specified how it should be exercised. He said the action could set a concerning precedent for future deadlocked votes.
“Ultimately this means that whoever is in government can block any reports by the Standards Commissioner,” Borg said.
“Considering that the commissioner is a parliamentary officer that is directly accountable to the speaker, one would expect the speaker to support his own officer,” Borg contended.
“It is a positive thing that the government does not have a majority in the committee but if we continue with this line of thinking, that the speaker abstains from voting, then any report can be blocked.
“The commissioner is elected by two-thirds of parliament, so either we have faith in our elected officials or we don’t.”