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Ethics and part-time ministers

The Times reported last week that Parliamentary Secretary Franco Mercieca was granted “a limited waiver” by the Prime Minister to work as an ophthalmic surgeon in breach of the ministerial code of ethics.

Muscat has downgraded the code of ethics to a set of inconvenient rules one should try and bypass under some excuse or another

Dressed in a veil of humanistic reasoning, for the new Labour Government of Joseph Muscat, ethics are no longer sacred but have become selective, with the Prime Minister giving himself a power that the same code does not grant him, that is, to exempt a holder of political office from fulfilling his duties and obligations.

This instance clearly illustrates that for this Government the code of ethics is an inconvenient code of conduct rather than understanding the values and principles it represents.

Muscat has downgraded the present code of ethics to merely a set of inconvenient rules that one should try and bypass under some excuse or another rather than understand the high moral ground it represents and ensure that every member would seek to apply consistently.

The code of ethics and ad­he­rence to it say a lot about a government’s values and principles and about the sort and level of conduct a Cabinet member is committed to. Given the rhetoric we heard from Muscat during the election campaign, the least one could have expected is that this Government would uphold such ethics rather than undermine them.

It is clear that the new Government members have a problem with the established ethics. Signs of cracks are already apparent as members are finding excuses why they should still hold a private practice while also performing duties of Cabinet members.

Upon accepting office, ministers and parliamentary secretaries soon realised the income they had to give up when faced with the new responsibilities they are required to carry, and there are those who felt they are underpaid.

Giving ministers and parliamentary secretaries the honoraria due to every other MP would expose the hypocrisy of the Labour Party on this thorny issue. As expected, the Prime Minister clearly declared that there will not be any pay changes in this legislature and, therefore, the bright solution to keep the dissent in check is to create a new category of Cabinet members and have part-time ministers and parliamentary secretaries who can supplement their income through private work.

When Muscat came to justify the added cost of the largest Cabinet since Independence, he did so by using one of his usual catchphrases: value for money. Did that mean opting for a large Cabinet to have part-time ministers who shoulder fewer responsibilities, thus, allowing them to earn income on the side and do some private work while also receiving their full pay as Cabinet members?

It is very strange that a parliamentary secretary who is being allowed to do private work has been given an MP as a consultant. If this parliamentary secretary was so indispensable in his previous capacity, why did the Prime Minister not appoint the MP engaged as a consultant to the ministry as parliamentary secretary instead, and the parliamentary secretary in question would, if anything, be given the consultant’s role?

If it is in the public interest that this person is allowed to do private work, having him as consultant to the ministry rather than a parliamentary secretary would allow him ample time to keep offering his services, which we have now discovered are not so unique anyway.

One needs to emphasise that the alternative MP is equally able to the task in Muscat’s own judgement, having appointed him a consultant to the ministry. Or has the consultant been appointed precisely to allow the parliamentary secretary ample time to fulfil his private practice commitments while acting as a part-time parliamentary secretary?

For the Prime Minister, the solution is to declare that the code of ethics is outdated and needs updating. One cannot disagree that a code of ethics would need to be reviewed from time to time to ensure that it remains relevant to the times we live in.

However, this is certainly not understood to mean that rules should be relaxed when private interest pressures on politicians increase as a result of today’s realities and because of more accessibility to ministers due to, say, the social media.

Rather, the code of ethics needs to be revised to set more clear boundaries and to ensure that outside influences are not allowed to put pressure on or distract a minister from his duties.

I, for one, would have thought that, in view of Labour’s pre-election talk on better and transparent governance, on matters of ethics, ministers and parliamentary secretaries would be­come more accountable by, say, making them answerable to Parliament or, at least, to a Parliamentary Ethics Committee.

Instead, Muscat appoints himself as a parliamentary secretary’s defence lawyer and, in this case, also judge, condoning a breach of the code by stating that a waiver had been granted, but only when the press came to know of the violation.

So much for change, transparency and good governance.

Tonio Fenech is a Nationalist MP.

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