Updated to include the Opposition’s reaction
The Commissioner for Standards in Public Life will be reduced to a mere puppet in the hands of the government, NGO Repubblika warned on Wednesday.
The statement came after it was revealed the government had quietly published a controversial new law that will change the way the Commissioner is appointed, and ensure the appointment goes the way of the government of the day.
The law had been published quietly and without fanfare just two days after Christmas, on 27 December, but it wasn’t until yesterday, 3 January, that the public and the media realised it had been tabled.
The new law as it stands, Repubblika said on Wednesday in reaction to its tabling in Parliament, “will erode democracy and continue to ridicule Parliament”.
The law will see the Standards Commissioner being appointed by Parliament with a simple majority vote rather than the previous two-thirds threshold, which had been introduced for certain constitutional roles in a bid to ensure cross-aisle agreement on such important positions.
But with Prime Minister Robert Abela at loggerheads with the Opposition over the selection of the country’s next Parliamentary Ombudsman and Standards Commissioner, the government appears bent on steamrolling its chosen candidate for the latter, former Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi, through at all costs.
The new law, which will be debated in Parliament but which surely be approved given the government’s significant parliamentary majority, will provide an ‘anti-deadlock mechanism’ when it comes to votes on the appointment of the Standards Commissioner.
The first vote will be held as usual but if a two-thirds majority between MPs is not reached, they will try again a week later. If still unsuccessful, a third vote will be held a week after that, in which a mere simple majority of MPs will be required – a vote that will most certainly always go the government’s way.
“This law turns an important office for the country’s good governance into another government puppet where ‘persons of trust’ are hired to do what suits the party in government and to cover up wrongdoings,” Repubblika charged on Wednesday.
The government is saying that it is introducing a “mechanism” to unblock such situations “but this law gives the government the power to appoint people who agree with it,” it added.
“This law erodes Maltese democracy, reduces transparency in government, continues to reduce Parliament’s autonomy and completely undermines the Commissioner for Standards’ moral and practical authority.”
The post of Standards Commissioner became vacant when the government nominated former Commissioner George Hyzler to the European Court of Auditors.
The Prime Minister has been insisting on the nomination of his preferred retired member of the judiciary, Judge Joe Azzopardi, as the country’s new Standards Commissioner and the new legal mechanism will ensure he gets his way.
In a political chess game intended to outmanoeuvre the Opposition, Abela had left the position of Ombudsman vacant since March 2021.
Futile discussions between the Labour and Nationalist leaders were held, with the Opposition having suggested retired Judge Joseph Zammit McKeon as Standards Commissioner – a person known for his competence and impartiality despite the fact that he occupied various positions under Nationalist Party administrations.
Abela rejected the nomination and instead proposed former Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi, who was once a Labour Party election candidate
When Abela understood a consensus could not be reached, he orchestrated former Standards Commissioner George Hyzler’s early retirement by making him an offer he couldn’t refuse, a nomination to the European Court of Auditors, and began pushing Azzopardi to fill his shoes.
The Opposition is understood to be backing Zammit McKeon for Ombudsman but not Azzopardi for Standards Commissioner.
PN demands Abela stops ‘dictatorial behaviour’
Commenting on the new law introduced on 27 December that will undoubtedly ramrod Abela’s preferred choice of Standards Commissioner through Parliament, now with or without the Opposition’s agreement, the PN on Wednesday afternoon demanded the Prime Minister stop his “dictatorial behaviour” and reach an agreement on the post of Standards Commissioner.
“The Bill the government published is another confirmation of how dangerous a politician who wants to control everything and everyone such as Robert Abela is.”
The PN accused Abela of not wanting a person with the investigative skills, drive and moral fibre to uncover and expose abuses.
“Instead of strengthening this important tool for democracy, Robert Abela is capturing another state institution so that, with the choice of person, he weakens it and renders it worthless.”
The PN said it was clear that Abela had struck a deal with the person “he wants at all costs as Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, even though he knows he is not the most suitable person for this position”.
This, the PN said, was the state of affairs even though Opposition leader Bernard Grech has proposed the names of three people for the job “who are known for their integrity, enjoy respect from the entire political spectrum and are suitable to be appointed”.
The PN proposed former parliamentary speaker and Labour candidate Myriam Spiteri Debono, former judge Silvio Meli and former Air Malta CEO Philip Micallef.