Updated Tuesday with reply from Commissioner for Standards in Public Life
Those expected to give an account of their actions usually have two options.
They can be brave and face the music, especially if they know they are on the right side of the law and have no axe to grind. Or else, they would come up with a thousand and one reasons why they need not explain anything.
Parliament’s standards committee has endorsed the findings of an investigation by the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life about a consultancy job given to Konrad Mizzi soon after he resigned from tourism minister in late 2019.
The investigation found that it had been former prime minister Joseph Muscat himself who had issued instructions for Mizzi to be given the €80,000 contract.
Still, the details of the findings remain under wraps because the commissioner decided not to publish his report although a copy was handed over to the standards committee.
The committee now faces a self-imposed obstacle. It is divided on party lines on whether Muscat should appear before them to explain the whys and wherefores.
The Nationalist representatives insist it is only fair that Muscat’s side of the story should be heard.
But the two ministers sitting on the committee – one of whom has some explaining himself to do on another matter – feel that would not be right once he is no longer an MP. It would set a precedent that could hamper the committee’s work in the future, he argues.
Though the Opposition MPs’ stand may not be as noble as they make it appear, it is also likely the precedent that the two government representatives have in mind is putting colleagues in embarrassing situations.
The ball is now in Parliament Speaker Anġlu Farrugia’s court.
Parliamentary practice in the democratic world is usually for the speaker to allow a discussion to continue because that is always considered to be for the national good, especially where there is public interest.
In this case, it is a discussion that started in late 2019 with the resignation of top government officials, including the prime minister himself and cabinet colleagues.
On the national table of discussion is what led to the demolition of a sound governance structure and the rule of law and the lessons to be learnt.
Sadly, judging by past experience, nobody should be surprised if the Parliament Speaker rules that the debate on Mizzi’s lucrative contract should stop here. It was Farrugia who, in early 2018, had disallowed two questions tabled in parliament about accounts held by the then prime minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, arguing they were not in the public interest.
Evidently, the speaker, and/or his advisers, have a very restricted view of what amounts to public interest. It is in the public interest to dig deep to find the truth about the actions of politicians, past and present, especially those occupying very high office and senior government officials.
Likewise, it is in the public interest that standards in public life are raised as high as possible – the speaker should be the standard-bearer in such an effort.
Hence, Farrugia should lose no more time in deciding that the standards committee convene urgently to hear what Muscat has to say.
Indeed, Muscat himself should come forward voluntarily.
After all, he likes reminding all that it was his government that “took one of the most significant steps ever against impunity, that of removing time barring on corruption cases”.
Muscat has always made an effort to appear brave. Here is another challenge ahead of him.
Reference is made to your editorial.
The decision whether or not to publish the Commissioner’s report in cases where the Commissioner has found there has been a breach of the Code of Ethics rests with the Standards Committee, not with the Commissioner. In any case, contrary to what is stated in your editorial, the report was actually published by the Committee on October 14 and all the local media, including Times of Malta had reported it in its entirety.