Public integrity is defined by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and (OECD) as “the consistent alignment of, and adherence to, shared ethical values, principles and norms for upholding and prioritising the public interest over private interests in the public sector”.
The extent of state capture and the emasculation of institutions, which led to a collapse in the rule of law and good governance in this country, make a robust and concerted effort to restore public integrity an urgent imperative.
The project just launched by the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, themed Improving the Integrity and Transparency Framework in Malta, is most welcome and opportune.
Funded by the European Commission’s Directorate General for Structural Reform Support (DG Reform), the initiative will engage the expertise of the OECD, which the standards commissioner accurately described as a respected international body known for its expertise in the field of good governance.
The public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination highlighted the extent of collusion between big business, politicians, elements within the public administration and even supposedly autonomous and independent institutions. That clear red demarcation line was not just blurred but erased altogether.
It was “the very system, meant to ensure checks and balances that was undermined to prejudice good governance”, the three judges conducting the public inquiry concluded.
They were shocked by the fact that almost all institutions failed to adequately and effectively stand up to a culture of impunity, which they were in duty bound to do. The three judges felt this shortcoming could, in the main, be attributed to the connections between those heading such institutions and individuals promoting their “dubious interests”.
Building anew has, therefore, to depend wholly on the integrity of all.
The OECD stresses that integrity is essential for building strong institutions and assure citizens the government is working in their interest and not just in the interest of the select few. “Integrity,” it points out, “is not just a moral issue, it is also about making economies more productive, public sectors more efficient, societies and economies more inclusive. It is about restoring trust, not just trust in government but trust in public institutions, regulators, banks and corporations.”
That is what the project launched by the standards commissioner seeks to attain: to restore and improve integrity standards among all those holding public office, including members of cabinet and parliament, with the aim of ensuring public trust in the policy-making process.
Standards Commissioner George Hyzler may have had a slow start but he must now be credited with doing his utmost to raise the bar.
The same cannot be said for the government, whose representatives on the parliamentary standing committee for standards in public life – Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis and whip Glenn Bedingfield, aided and abetted by Speaker Anġlu Farrugia – often lay obstacles in the commissioner’s path as he moves to sanction erring colleagues.
Indeed, proposals by Hyzler to revise the MPs’ code of ethics remain “stuck in the parliamentary process”.
So, when Zammit Lewis speaks of a government committed to improving standards of integrity in public life or calls for a “mentality shift” in the decision-making process and an improved culture of accountability and scrutiny, he should be taken with a pinch of salt.
The involvement of the OECD and DG Reform in the public integrity project is, however, encouraging. There is hope that the dreaded culture of impunity will one day be replaced by a culture of integrity across the whole of society.