Malta may be excelling in economic indicators, with the government wallowing in self-praise over consistently high growth rates, but there is another face of the country that is not so attractive. Where moral standards are concerned, there has been a marked decline across the board, suggesting a growing mentality that life is all about materialistic gains or, as it is becoming increasingly evident, of just making money.

Standards in public life have been declining too and, despite measures aimed at improving the situation, there has been no change in the perception that there is a long way to go before acceptable standards are reached. Which is why much is now being expected of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, appointed following the enactment of a law that provided for the new office as well as of a parliamentary standing committee with powers to investigate breaches of statutory or ethical duties of categories of people in public life.

The committee has just had its first meeting, at which the commissioner, George Hyzler, said that his office had already received four complaints against public individuals. Hopefully, his office will be sufficiently staffed to enable it to work efficiently. The commissioner, who has to report to the parliamentary committee, touched on some important aspects of his work during the sitting.

One of the first was that he would be looking into concerns raised by the Council of Europe’s rule of law experts on MPs’ ability to scrutinise the government while also holding positions on public bodies. Since most of the appointees to such boards are known supporters, or sympathisers, of the party in government, it is hardly likely that any will be willing to scrutinise his/her own government.

What appears to have received greater attention at the first meeting of the parliamentary committee is the extent to which cases before the office of the commissioner are publicised or not. In cases already in the public domain, the commissioner felt that, when the person involved is cleared, it would be unfair not to make such a fact public. He is, of course, absolutely right.

It seems the committee was a bit uncertain as to how much information should be given. But the commissioner was on solid ground when he remarked that, while it was important to protect parliamentarians’ interests, the committee had also to remember its responsibility towards the public. He could not have put it better when he said: “The whole purpose of this exercise is to increase transparency and accountability and we should keep that at the forefront of our thinking.” Spot on. This is precisely the purpose of the code of ethics: “To provide a guide of the highest levels expected from the ministers in their behaviour in order to respect the best standards of integrity, honesty, transparency, accountability and a sense of justice and so as to provide a guide with the aim of avoiding conflicts of interest.”

When Malta’s image abroad has been tarnished so much by allegations of corruption, wrongdoing and lack of good governance, it is unlikely there will be any improvement anytime soon. But if the commissioner and the parliamentary committee work as they are expected to, a start would at least have been made in efforts to raise the bar in public life.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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