The Speaker of the House, Anglu Farrugia, was right to abstain on a report presented by the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life

The Speaker of the House, Anglu Farrugia was criticized for having abstained on the vote taken by the Parliamentary Committee on a report presented by the Commissioner for Standards, George Hyzler. On this committee, the Speaker has a casting vote. The two Labour MPs voted against the report while the two Nationalist MPs voted in favour. Thus, the Speaker’s casting vote was needed. In this case, the Speaker chose to abstain. The Speaker’s decision was not appreciated by a number of legal experts. Irrespective of what these experts say, the Speaker was right in abstaining in this case.

First, there is a crucial question that needs to be answered. Who wrote this report? Was this report actually written by the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, George Hyzler or by someone else? In the hypothetical case that this report was not written by the Commissioner for Standards, is the Speaker bound to endorse it? This goes beyond the issue of whether the Speaker agrees with the report or not. The public needs to be informed on this fundamental point. This holds for all individuals holding public office. I can understand that at times it is necessary to get a second opinion or to brainstorm when one is not clear on some point or other, but at the end of the day, a report being presented by whosoever has to reflect one’s position. For this reason, commissioners, irrespective of their office need to come clean when they present a document that they have not drawn up. One needs to remember that in the case of George Hyzler, it transpired that he had employed an independent consultant.

For this reason, Glenn Bedingfield was right in querying the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life and insisted that the latter must lead by example. Without going into the merits of Bedingfield’s questions, it is time that the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life renders public the names of his staff. This was standard practice in pre-independence history. All the names and surnames of the staff employed with Government were published in the Blue Books, together with their grade and salary. It was an act of transparency as they were being paid from public funds. Why should the public not be privy to the employees working for the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life? This is appalling and unacceptable.

However, there are a number of points that can be raised about the role of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life. In the defence of Dr Hyzler, the Times of Malta published the opinions of a number of experts, among whom the former EU Commissioner Tonio Borg.  Borg’s argument is that the Speaker can never abstain but has to cast his vote. He can vote in favour or against but he must vote. But Borg does not specify how the Speaker should have voted in this case. Surely Borg must be aware that though the Commissioner and his staff fall under the aegis of the Speaker, the reality is that the Speaker has no say on how the Commissioner operates and recruits his staff. It is the Commissioner for Standards who hires his staff.

According to Borg’s argument, Malta has no hard and fast rules to guide the Speaker when to abstain from voting. This is not true. There is a specific law that regulates this committee and the speaker has a casting vote. This means that one cannot bind the Speaker to vote always in favour of such reports or for the sake of argument against it. Normally, by a casting vote, it is meant that the speaker votes with the government, which is a basic procedure of Westminster. Binding the speaker with a yes or no can therefore, lead to abuse.

Why should the Speaker always echo the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life? From where does this emerge? Can Dr. Borg give us a single example from the past to illustrate his point? This would be far more helpful than stating that we are not bound by Common Law when our Parliament is the Westminster model. What the media should be asking is whether the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life believes in transparency in which case why does he need to refrain from publishing the names of his staff? What is there to hide? Furthermore, the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life should answer whether he is drawing up the reports or are they being written by some outside consultant he ropes in?

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