Earlier this week, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici explained to the press the measures proposed by the government in order that Parliament will be in a position to examine its political appointees nominated to head various state agencies or institutions as well as those appointed to ambassadorships from outside the civil service.
Naturally, the first reaction to Owen Bonnici’s declaration is that government’s proposal is a positive small first step. However, when the detailed proposal was published, it was clear that this was another gimmick. It is proposed that a Parliamentary Standing Committee will be able to examine potential political appointees through written questions. On the basis of the answers received, and supplementary (written) questions, the Parliamentary Standing Committee will be expected to advise the government on the appointments under consideration.
This is a far cry from what is expected in a modern democracy.
Parliament, either directly or through a standing committee, should not be expected to simply advise. It should decide on the suitability or otherwise of the government nominees. This should be done after the nominees have been examined in a public hearing in the same manner as that of the US Senate Committees or the Parliamentary Committees of various other countries. This can only be done if Parliament reclaims the powers it has ceded to the government over the years.
Parliamentary scrutiny means much more than answering a set of written questions. Examining the nominees to ascertain their suitability for the post they have been nominated goes much further than the superficial examination of their professional competence. It also entails the examination of their past performance in order to ascertain whether they are capable of withstanding political pressure which seeks to sway their judgement in favour of political expediency and consequently influence their behaviour.
Such an exercise cannot be done through written questions but through a viva voce examination where it is not only what is said that matters. Interpreting body language and reactions to unexpected questions or statements is generally more relevant than deciphering boring, long-winded answers that go around in circles and generally avoid providing an answer at all.
During the general election campaign a few months ago, we were told that we needed “Labour-proof institutions”. In reality, government institutions and agencies should be at arms length from the government of the day in all day to day matters. This is done by ensuring that the running of government institutions and agencies is not the prerogative of political cronies but of suitably qualified appointees.
The government proposal is one that ensures that Parliament, through it’s Standing Committees, will not be in a position to carry out any meaningful scrutiny. Parliament needs to have the authority to block the appointments which it considers to be unsuitable and in order to be able to act in this manner, the government’s proposal needs to be heavily revisited.
It is for this reason that – in the recent general election manifesto (and even in that of the previous general election) – we Greens proposed a much more effective policy: that parliament (or its committees) should have the authority to decide, and not merely advise on, public appointments and that this should be done through a public hearing without limitations.
These are the essential building blocks of a healthy democracy.
published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 1st October 2017