“The vote on the Standards Commissioner report was a very serious and damaging moment for parliament and for public standards”. This was the conclusion of Lord Jonathan Evans, Chair of the UK Committee on Standards in Public Life.
He was reacting to Boris Johnson’s shameless attempt to protect his MP and former Cabinet colleague found guilty of breaching rules by lobbying for companies who paid him. The Standards Committee recommended that MP Owen Paterson, be suspended from parliament for 30 days.
In an unprecedented move, Boris Johnson whipped his MPs to vote against it in parliament. Despite his 81 seat majority, his amendment passed by only 18 votes. A furious backlash followed and Johnson swiftly reversed his decision and allowed another vote. Paterson resigned.
The Standards Commissioner gave a keynote speech to the Institute for Government’s conference on ethical standards in government on 4 November. “The political system in this country does not belong to one Party or even to one government,” he said. Like many others, he was outraged at Johnson’s cynical attempt to undermine ethical standards.
Paterson’s infringement, lobbying government officials, would not have even registered as an infringement in Malta let alone an offence worthy of parliamentary suspension. And yet the anger of the British public at Boris Johnson’s arrogance forced the prime minister to change his decision – despite enjoying a huge majority in parliament.
Lord Evans went on to outline what was wrong with Johnson’s interference with the course of justice. “It cannot be right that MPs should reject, after one short debate, the conclusions of the Commissioner for Standards – conclusions that followed a 2-year long investigation,” Evans noted.
This is what happens regularly at Malta’s Parliamentary Standards Committee. When Carmelo Abela was found guilty of multiple ethics breaches, the government MPs on that committee walked out of the 21 March meeting discussing the report on Abela.
Their excuse was that Robert Aquilina, brother of Karol who sits on the committee, lodged the complaint with the commissioner. When the meeting was reconvened on 21 April, the Labour’s MPs refused to attend the meeting, falsely claiming that the report had been leaked.
When the meeting was finally reconvened, Labour MPs Glenn Bedingfield and Edward Zammit Lewis voted against adopting the report. Speaker Anġlu Farrugia, the committee chair, refused to make a decision and abstained. The report on Abela was rejected by the committee and he was let off the hook without sanction.
In July 2021, the same two MPs aided by their former deputy leader Anglu Farrugia, refused to adopt another Commissioner’s report that found Rosianne Cutajar breached rules by failing to declare money she made out of a sale agreement involving Yorgen Fenech. The Commissioner thoroughly investigated the issue, hearing witnesses and compiling a comprehensive report. But Labour MPs and the Speaker shot it down.
In March 2021, government MPs sought to prevent the Committee from discussing the Commissioner’s report on the unlawful detention of journalists at the prime minister’s office. They argued that George Hyzler went beyond his remit.
In the UK, Lord Evans insisted angrily: “It cannot be right that this was accompanied by repeated attempts to question the integrity of the Standards Commissioner”.
Back in Malta, Glenn Bedingfield made it his mission to discredit the Standards Commissioner. The Commissioner’s reports did not please Bedingfield so, in default style, he savaged the Commissioner. Bedingfield accused Hyzler of “working strategically to harm the government”.
He falsely accused him of paying his driver excessively and that between 1992 and 1996, Hyzler hid behind confidentiality when asked about government advertising. Abrasive Labour loyalist Emanuel Cuschieri demanded Hyzler’s resignation while sharing Bedingfield’s posts.
“He wants standards for others, but not for himself,” Bedingfield taunted. He accused Hyzler of his investigations not being impartial and that “his heart is still with the PN”. This was the Labour Whip and Standards Committee member.
Bedingfield has been categorically condemned by the Caruana Galizia inquiry: “The campaign of denigration was aggravated by Bedingield’s blogs, which painted Caruana Galizia as a witch with graphic photos with malicious and cruel intentions”. That malice and cruelty were magnified by the fact that the person targeted was a journalist critical of his government.
In the UK, Lord Evans stressed: “It cannot be right to propose that the standards system should be reviewed by a committee chaired by a member of the ruling party, and with a majority of members from that same party. This extraordinary proposal is deeply at odds with democracy”.
That is exactly what Malta has – a system deeply at odds with democracy. The Parliamentary Standards Committee is chaired by the shameless Speaker, previously deputy leader to former prime minister Joseph Muscat. Together with the two Labour MPs, Bedingfield and Zammit Lewis, Labour commands an absolute majority in that committee. And that majority is abused to protect their colleagues.
Repeatedly and persistently the Speaker has undermined the process of holding MPs to account. When Muscat was found guilty of breaching ethics when he appointed Konrad Mizzi to a €90,000 Tourism Authority consultancy post, the Speaker refused to summon Muscat to face the committee.
When Muscat was found guilty of an ethics breach by detaining journalists in Castille, the Speaker ruled that the Commissioner had gone beyond his legal remit. When Muscat was again found guilty of accepting expensive wines from Yorgen Fenech, Farrugia decided that Muscat would not face sanctions since he was no longer an MP.
Lord Evans argued for stronger, clearer rules and robust sanctions, including for ex-MPs, such as recouping pensions or severance payments. In Malta, the Speaker exonerates ex-MPs, shields his former boss from sanctions and provides all MPs with a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Instead of stronger rules, Muscat engineered a “slimmed down” version of the ethics code. His friend, Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis, argues for the “lowest level of sanctions” for the arrogant Rosianne Cutajar. And Prime Minister Robert Abela inflicts the most unethical of his MPs on the Standards Committee.
Malta’s parliamentary standards are a sad joke.