Robert Abela is like that spoiled kid with overindulgent parents who no one in the neighbourhood wanted to play with because every time a game wasn’t going his way, he’d bully and bluster and change the rules.
The prime minister’s approach to parliament is the same. Bully, bluster, subvert the rules, and if you still can’t get your way, change the rules so you win.
This time he wants to get his way with the Standards Commissioner.
Abela did his best to leave the position vacant by avoiding appointing a replacement after kicking George Hyzler upstairs to Europe, but no one can stall forever. He wants someone compliant in that role. Unfortunately, appointing a replacement requires a vote in parliament with two-thirds of MPs in favour.
He tried subverting the law with a bit of backroom horse-trading, offering the Opposition its choice of Ombudsman for his choice of Standards Commissioner. But not even the shambles that is today’s PN was going to fall for that fool’s gambit.
Unable to force his candidate through by guile, the government filed a motion to change the law to make parliamentary consensus an option rather than a requirement.
With a new law safely in place, Abela would be able to nominate a replacement of his choice. Parliament would vote on it twice, and if they didn’t vote the way he wanted them to, the ‘deadlock’ could be broken by appointing his candidate anyway with a simple majority.
Given that the government controls parliament by default, the result is a sham vote that’d make the USSR proud.
They’re even attempting to justify this undemocratic move by citing the Venice Commission. But the Venice Commission recommended an anti-deadlock mechanism for dealing with the appointment of a chief justice or president, not for nominations to an institution which holds the government itself to account.
Why go to such trouble to get their way when the Commissioner’s reports don’t result in binding consequences thanks to the Labour-dominated committee’s refusal to punish any of their own?
They’re doing this because the office that has caused every government minister to reach for a pack of antacids is one of the few institutions which wasn’t fully compromised by Joseph Muscat.
The disgraced former prime minister did his best to make himself untouchable by appointing shameless yes-men to the position of Police Commissioner, Attorney General, Head of the Army, and the heads of every regulatory body that mattered.
Because the institutions all worked in his favour, Muscat was able to deflect accusations of wrongdoing by ensuring they remained mere allegations forever. No one was ever guilty unless they were successfully prosecuted, and no one was ever prosecuted because investigations never ended and magisterial inquiries never finished inquiring.
But he had mixed results with the Standards Commissioner.
George Hyzler didn’t make a promising start when he took up the role in 2018. Asked whether he would investigate 17 Black – the offshore company owned by accused murder mastermind Yorgen Fenech that had been tied to Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri and so much more – he said he would only be able to investigate incidents that happened after 30 October 2018.
It didn’t seem to matter that the officials connected to 17 Black were still in public life. Hyzler had his excuse for steering clear of it. But even when dealing with current cases, he seemed to be trying to have it both ways.
Hyzler ruled that Silvio Schembri had made inappropriate use of public resources by filling a Department of Information press release with partisan cheap shots, but the Commissioner closed the case because Schembri issued a vapid non-apology and said he’d try not to do it again.
When then-Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli appeared in a private firm’s video pimping the sale of Maltese passports, the Standard’s Commissioner said politicians mustn’t give an unfair advantage to private businesses, and he dismissed the minister’s actions as a “lack of thought” rather than bad faith.
When then-Transport Minister Ian Borg swore on live TV and lied about it, Hyzler let it slide. “The words slipped out of his mouth in the heat of the moment,” the Commissioner said. “I don’t want to give the impression that swear words are acceptable, but…” swear words were clearly acceptable, and lying about it was okay, too.
His most blatant contortion involved Joseph Muscat’s sudden three-day €20,000 “family holiday” to Dubai in December 2019, taken when the entire government was collapsing around him. The first class tickets alone cost roughly €4,998 each and were paid for by a third party from Jordan, The Shift revealed, but Hyzler didn’t see a problem with this.
“It could perhaps be argued that Dr Muscat would have been better advised to postpone the trip until he effectively resigned his position as head of government,” the Commissioner wrote. “However, he claims that this could not be postponed and, in any event, the complaint does not rely on the timing of the trip.”
All of this seemed to play into Muscat’s hands. But somewhere towards the end of his tenure George Hyzler grew a bit of a spine. He started holding the government to account — including the disgraced former prime minister.
Hyzler ruled that Muscat abused his power in giving a bloated €90,000 consulting contract to Konrad Mizzi right before he was driven from office.
He ruled that Muscat crossed ethical boundaries by accepting wine worth thousands of euros from murder suspect Yorgen Fenech,
And perhaps most damning of all, he found Muscat guilty of yet another ethics violation for using unofficial Labour Party loyalists as ‘security’ to detain journalists after a press conference that took place in late 2019 when anti-corruption protests drove the prime minister from office.
The Commissioner even went so far as to compare Muscat’s actions to the political violence of earlier Labour Party governments during the 1980s.
“The assignment of party loyalists as the unofficial security personnel is at best incorrect and abusive,” Hyzler’s report states. “This is a serious issue that calls into question the institutional integrity of Maltese government and the separation that should exist between State and Party.”
While these condemnations may not have resulted in sanctions, they did have an impact. An institution was working, and it had found the most powerful person in the land guilty and in flagrant breach of his own government’s standards of ethics.
It punctured Muscat’s illusion and exposed him as a greedy, money-grubbing, wannabe tyrant. All the propaganda in the world couldn’t hide it.
Abela doesn’t want anything like that to happen to him, so he’s trying to change the rules of the game. He wants to pull the Standards Commissioner’s teeth by forcing the appointment of a man he thinks he can control.
Don’t let him. The consequences matter for Malta’s fragile democracy.