Numbing the minds of backbenchers

Just imagine if the Environment and Resources Authority Head was replaced by a government backbencher. Even if ERA were to act most professionally, its credibility would be wrecked.

The Planning Authority’s leadership is perceived as a political mess already, but imagine if the chairmen of the boards that grant permits at the Planning Authority, were government backbenchers. Every difficult policy or decision at the Planning Board would explode.

Fortunately, the law disqualifies MPs as chairpersons of ERA or of the Planning Board.

Statutory entities with the word ‘Authority’ in their title are regulators. Their work involves scrutinising the actions of businesses and the general public, and also of the government. They must act objectively and at arms-length from the government. Their chairpersons should therefore not be government MPs.

The Occupational Health and Safety Authority is another a regulatory body. Its chairman is, however, an MP from the government backbenches. In 2013, the new government had changed the law to remove the disqualification under which MPs could not sit as members of the body governing the OHSA.

Now, please explain to me how having a government MP chairing the OHSA is of benefit to the public? Why politicise this supposedly independent regulator? It’s not like nobody else is capable of doing the job.

The OHSA is only one example. The new report by the Commissioner for Standards, George Hyzler, investigates the appointment of MP backbenchers to a range of positions within the public sector, or to provide contractual services to the government. It rightly concludes that this practice is “fundamentally wrong”.

This practice should stop, and immediately. Well done to the Commissioner for having written this report, and also to MP Godfrey Farrugia for having requested it. Its conclusions must be acted upon, and not allowed to gather dust.

The report suggests that the motive for these appointments and consultancies may be “to appease backbenchers who are not appointed as Ministers or Parliamentary Secretaries”, and/or “to compensate them for an inadequate salary as MPs”. This creates serious, potential conflicts of interest.

Backbenchers are not there just to back up the actions of Cabinet colleagues. They must scrutinise the Executive. MPs who fail to do this are failing the public, whom they are entrusted to serve. These checks and balances are a fundamental principle of democracy and the rule of law.

The manner in which all Labour Party MPs have so far responded to questions by journalists on this report is telling. Each one avoided giving a proper answer. They have not yet been fed a party line to follow. Rest assured that once ‘the line to take’ is set, each one will parrot it without providing any independent-minded opinion. Our parliament numbs minds.

In reality, they all have a conflict of interest. This puts far too much power and influence in the Prime Minister’s hands. It is shocking to read that ALL government backbenchers have now been given some perk on the public payroll. And as the report says, “it is not correct that MPs could take, or be perceived to take, undue advantage of their position as MPs.”

So far, the government has replied that a few such posts were granted by the previous administration too, as though this justifies anything. That was a bad idea, but it was never the case that every backbencher had an extra position of this kind. The exception has become the rule.

While the report mentions the names of two such MPs under the previous administration, it does not include a list of the current MPs holding such positions or the jobs and consultancies in question. Surely it would have been correct to either mention them all, and by name, or none at all.

The problem does not lie primarily with MPs who have regular day jobs within the public sector. The issue is with those engaged as public officers, or granted positions and consultancies, after their election as MPs. But even here, public sector employees should be able to go on leave and work as full-time MPs when serving in Parliament.

The report also notes that these backbencher appointments give MPs too much opportunity for “dishing out favours through access to public resources” and “bolsters the system of political patronage and clientelism.” This is an unlevel playing field for the Opposition MPs.

These appointments are a way of giving an income to government backbenchers, without a controversial increase in salary. It is also unfair that PL MPs may be able to dedicate more time to their political role, while Opposition MPs must give their attention to another job to pay the bills. The choice to be a full-time or part-time MP should be open to all.

The Prime Minister fears political backlash if salaries for MPs are raised. But why has there been no backlash on this negative practice of dishing out jobs to backbenchers, which is now completely out of hand? Instead of the €500 raise to MPs which the PL had fought tooth and nail when in Opposition, it has instead contrived another way to hand more to its own backbenchers.

Negative, undesirable situations are allowed to persist when people, and the press, do not speak out. A huge furore surrounded the €500 controversy, but there has been hardly a murmur about this. Hopefully, the Commissioner will lead the way to setting this right.

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