Prime Minister Robert Abela is actively seeking a trade-off with the Opposition for the appointment of two key constitutional roles – a new ombudsman and a new standards commissioner – in what looks like a clear attempt to try to avoid any possible further embarrassing investigations about members of his government.
Sources familiar with the closed-door discussions said that Abela is making it clear that he is ready to offer the Opposition “a new ombudsman of their own choice,” if the new standards commissioner, expected to replace George Hyzler this October, is someone selected by the Labour administration.
According to the sources, all nominees put forward by the Opposition for the role of standards commissioner, including retired judges with impeccable track records of impartiality, are being shot down by Abela.
This is being seen as a clear attempt by the prime minister to either postpone further the appointment of a new commissioner or to push more acceptable candidates for Labour who might be more lenient when investigating potential ethics breaches by members of his cabinet.
“Since Hyzler has turned out to be much less lenient than originally expected by Joseph Muscat, Abela wants to have a ‘friendlier’ standards commissioner even at the expense of having a tougher ombudsman. In his own political calculations, he sees a weaker standards commissioner as less harmful than a tough ombudsman,” sources privy to discussions have told The Shift.
The sources said that among Abela’s proponents are former Judges Philip Sciberras and Antonio Mizzi – both very close to Labour. On the other hand, the Opposition’s nomination of former Judge Joseph Zammit McKeon was turned down by Abela.
According to the law, both the standards commissioner post and the ombudsman post must be approved after a parliamentary motion supported by a two-thirds majority. This means that the prime minister is forced to have the Opposition on board in selecting the individuals for the positions.
While current Ombudsman Anthony Mifsud’s term ended in March 2021, the prime minister has not yet put forward a new nominee, instead leaving the current ombudsman in office. At the same time, Abela nominated Standards Commissioner George Hyzler for a top-tier EU post in the Court of Auditors, in a clear move to kick him upstairs and create a new vacancy.
Hyzler’s post as standards commissioner should have run to 2023, but he is now packing to leave for Luxembourg this October, creating a new vacancy to replace him, as sought by the prime minister.
While, in the ombudsman’s case, the lack of consensus has meant the current incumbent remains in place until his replacement is approved, in the case of the Office of the Standards Commissioner, this can’t happen. Once Hyzler relocates to Luxembourg, the office will become headless and nonfunctional.
Sources told The Shift that it is not being excluded that the prime minister will continue proposing clearly unacceptable candidates for the post with the intention of having an nonfunctional Office of the Standards Commissioner.
The law does not include an anti-deadlock mechanism in case of an impasse. This means that a lack of agreement between the government and the Opposition will leave Malta without a standards commissioner.