Green and Clean: Parliament’s role

The general election is being over-shadowed by a web of corruption spun around the Office of the Prime Minister. It has been unravelling for months since the publication of the Panama Papers.

Months of debate has highlighted the need for Parliament to reclaim the authority which, over the years, it has ceded to government. All institutions require continuous Parliamentary oversight: even the civil service needs to be properly monitored by Parliament.

The PN are proposing labour-proof institutions. In reality the institutions need to be PN-proof as well – as both major political parties have had exclusive control of institutions over the years, bending them to their will.

The current mess is the direct result of a two-party system that spread its tentacles through the institutions creating empires with the specific aim of buttressing those in power and protecting them in their time of need. It is a two-party system which, over a 50-year period, has developed a winner takes all mentality, as a result of which only those aligned to the winner are deemed to be able to contribute to the well-being and development of the country. The rest, with few exceptions, have been repeatedly excluded, and it is Malta which, ultimately has lost the utilisation of substantial talent.

This is the background to Alternattiva Demokratika’s electoral manifesto. Entitled Vote Green – Vote clean, without ignoring other important issues, it focuses on matters of governance in addition to its core environmental proposals.

We have plenty of good laws. The problem is that, many times, the pool of talent from which those who implement such laws are selected is generally limited to those carrying the party card. Successive governments have often preferred the politically loyal to the technically and ethically competent. This has been possible due to the fact that Parliament has abdicated its responsibilities and assigned them to the government.

Parliament should reclaim the authority ceded to government to appoint authorities and it should proceed to screen those nominated through a public hearing by a Parliamentary Committee on the lines practised by the Senate of the United States of America. This screening by Parliament should  be applicable first and foremost to all constitutional authorities, as well as to all authorities set up in terms of law. Likewise, the appointment of Commissioner of Police, the Head of the Armed Forces, the Governor of the Central Bank,  the Head of the Civil Service and ambassadors, as well as all civil service grades from Director up to Permanent Secretary,   should be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny.

In addition to ensuring a more serious selection process, this would serve as a safety valve protecting the civil service itself from abusive action on the part of an incoming government as happened in 2013, when the Head of the Civil Service and practically all Permanent Secretaries were removed in the first minutes of a new Labour government.

The recruitment of people of trust on a large scale during the past 4 years has further politicised the civil service. It is a practice that has been on the increase even before March 2013. The engagement of people of trust throughout the wider public service was used as a stratagem to avoid the scrutiny of the Public Service Commission, a constitutional body established specifically to ensure a fair recruitment process. This should cease forthwith, with the engagement of people of trust being limited to the private secretariats of holders of political office.

The Standards in Public Life Act, which ironically was supported by both the PN and the PL, was approved by Parliament shortly before dissolution. It provisions were therefore not implemented. In particular, the appointment of a Commissioner for Standards in Public Life – to be tasked with investigating the behaviour of MPs – has not yet materialised and will have to be addressed by the new Parliament elected on 3 June.

Lobbying is not yet regulated. In fact, its regulation has been postponed as no agreement was reached between the PN and the PL about possible lobbying regulations.

AD considers that the next Parliament will have to address head-on whether Members of Parliament should be full-timers, thus severing all links with profession and/or employment and, as a result, substantially reducing instances of conflict of interest faced by Members of Parliament.

Parliament can, in the next few weeks, assume a central role in re-building the country’s institutions. It is the only way forward to ensure that ethical behaviour in public life is the norm, rather than the exception.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 21 May 2017

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The mess created by Franco Debono

The current controversy as to whether it is appropriate for the Electoral Commission to be the authority overseeing the implementation of the Financing of Political Parties Act was anticipated over three years ago.

As far back as February 2014, Alternattiva Demokratika -the Green Party – in reaction to the White Paper published by the government on the regulation of the financing of political parties, had welcomed the initiative but had also queried the choice of the Electoral Commission as the regulating authority. This position was reiterated by  Alternattiva Demokratika in July 2014 when Minister Owen Bonnici and his advisor Franco Debono presented the finalised Bill.

Alternattiva Demokratika has consistently insisted on the identification of an acceptable alternative to the Electoral Commission as the regulating authority. This alternative was identified when the Parliamentary Select Committee on Standards in Public Life agreed to the setting-up of the post of a Commissioner for Standards in Public Life and on the 24 March 2014 concluded its workings by finalising a Bill for the purpose. This Bill was approved by Parliament on 22 March 2017 and, hopefully, its implementation process will start soon. The Commissioner for Standards in Public Life is to be appointed by – and requires the consent of a two-thirds majority in Parliament. This ensures that the appointee will be acceptable to everyone.

Alternattiva Demokratika’s position was subsequently adopted by the Nationalist Party, which  presented various amendments to the proposed legislation on party financing at the Parliamentary Committee stage. On behalf of Alternattiva Demokratika, I participated actively in this debate, even in the Parliamentary Committee dealing with Bills, and can attest that Government and its advisors consistently opposed the replacement of the Electoral Commission as the regulatory authority of choice.

The author of the basic draft of the Financing of Political Parties Bill, former MP Franco Debono, emphasised that he had modelled his proposal on UK legislation. He refused to consider, at any time, that the basic mechanics that determine the composition of the Maltese Electoral Commission clearly show that his proposal was a non-starter. He even refused to consider that the situation in the UK is completely different, in view of the fact that there is a long-standing tradition of appointing a truly independent Electoral Commission, so much so that very recently the said Commission, after a thorough investigation, fined the Conservative Party the maximum fine permissible at law for proven irregularities in party financial reporting!

In a document published by Alternattiva Demokratika way back in July 2014 to explain its position on the Financing of Political Parties Bill, it was stated that:  “ ……. the manner in which the Electoral Commission is composed, half appointed by Government with the other half appointed by the Opposition (and a Government appointed chairman) places the two parliamentary parties in such a position that they directly control the whole proposed process.”

The fact that the Electoral Commission is a constitutional authority already entrusted with specific duties spelled out in the Constitution is not a valid argument which can in any way justify its selection as the regulatory authority for political party financing. It has to be borne in mind that the only reason why the Electoral Commission carries out its electoral duties adequately is due to the detailed and entrenched legislation which regulates the electoral process, which legislation is so tightly drawn up that it leaves very little, if any, space for political manoeuvring.

The Electoral Commission currently has three complaints on its agenda which point to three infringements of the political party financing legislation. The Labour Party, primarily on the basis of statements by the db Group as well as reports in the press, is insisting that it has proof that the Nationalist Party is circumventing the regulations on political donations by camouflaging them as payment for fake services. The way forward is to have the matter thoroughly investigated. Unfortunately, due to its composition, the Electoral Commission is not and cannot ever be a credible investigating authority.

The PN is thus right to oppose an investigation led by a politically-appointed Electoral Commission and to challenge the matter in Court. Obviously, this may be a convenient way out for the PN, handed to them on a platter by the Labour Government and its advisor Franco Debono.

Alternattiva Demokratika would have preferred it if the law were better drafted without leaving any room for the PN (and possibly Labour too, at a later stage) to wriggle out of its obligations.

This will, however now signify that in these crucial months leading to a general election, the rules regulating party financing will be largely ineffective while the validity of the law is dissected in our Courts of Law.

This is a mess created by Franco Debono who preferred his narcissistic posturing to the identification of reasonable proposals acceptable to all political parties. Whether the government will, at this late stage, seek a reasonable way out is anyone’s guess.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 9 April 2017