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The commissioner who never was - Tonio Borg

In March 2017, Parliament enacted a law setting up the office of Commissioner for Standards. The commissioner was to act as a watchdog over our representatives in Parliament, checking their demeanour and financial assets declarations and receiving any complaint against them from ordinary citizens. Eighteen months later the law has not yet been put into effect by the government.

The life story of this Bill is even more tortuous. In September 2012, just before I left for Brussels, I published a White Paper with a Bill attached to it establishing the office of Commissioner for Standards. Following the 2013 general election it languished for a year in the parliamentary archives.

It was, following pressure from the Opposition, proposed again in the same form. It languished on the parliamentary agenda for a full two years and was approved in early 2017 and signed by the President in March of the same year, three years after being proposed in Parliament. Probably the abolition of the crime of vilification of the Catholic and other religions was deemed to be more important.

In these times of populist trends, does it make sense for the government to procrastinate in bringing this law into force? What is stopping it from doing so?

Rumours abound that the Opposition five months ago proposed the name of a commissioner to act in this role. Is this true, and if it is, what is holding the government from creating an office which will protect MPs against unjust accusations but also grant a remedy to ordinary citizens if their rights are breached when, for example, an MP abuses his right to parliamentary privilege?

I for one believe that the privilege should remain lest powerful corporations or banks start harassing our representatives with unnecessary and unjust legal actions, but where the breach is committed by an MP who, knowing that his statements in Parliament are covered by privilege, slanders ordinary citizens who cannot sue in a court of law, then an internal procedure should exist to curb such abuse.

The privilege should remain lest powerful corporations or banks start harassing our representatives with unnecessary and unjust legal actions

As the eminent Indian jurist Durgas Das Basu wrote: “If the sole object or paramount consideration of granting powers, privileges and immunities to members of the legislature is to enable them to ensure that they perform their functions, exercise their rights and discharge their duties effectively, it is difficult to digest that in cases of abuse or misuse of such privilege by any member, no action can be taken by the legislature, the parent body.”

The office of the Commissioner for Standards was intended to grant redress in such cases. However, the commissioner is nowhere to be seen, six years after the first proposal for the establishment of such an office was made.

Have we become so immune to scandal that we are no longer conscious or aware of such shortcomings? When the Opposition delayed, by a few months, the appointment of a member to the Permanent Commission Against Corruption a few years ago, all hell broke loose, until the appointment of ex-commissioner of police John Rizzo, the right man for the right job.

Now a government conveniently does not bring a law into force which intends to set up public machinery to control abuse by members of the legislature and there is complete, deafening silence. In other countries the press would be ablaze asking questions, publishing editorials and leading articles. In Malta, we speak about reports from the law courts of salacious criminal cases, but nothing on this grave shortcoming of the powers that be. Are we losing all sense of decorum and consciousness of what is right and wrong?

To make matters even worse, this law was approved unanimously by the House of Representatives, which makes the government’s shortcoming even more serious. The government should immediately bring the law into effect and then strive to find a consensus on the appointment of a commissioner who enjoys the confidence of both sides of the House.

If there is no such consensus, then let the people decide who is dragging their feet, if anyone – but enacting a law and then not putting it into effect does not make legal or political sense.

In the meantime, we as citizens are deprived of an office which would raise the ethical standards applicable in the House.

The implementation of the Nolan Report in the United Kingdom some years ago and the appointment of a parliamentary commissioner who scrutinises the members of the House has had the desired effect, namely that no MP can feel that he is above ethical and moral norms, knowing full well a parliamentary watchdog is breathing down his neck.

In Malta the parliamentary watchdog literally exists only on the paper of a dormant law. A pleasure yet to come, if it comes.

Tonio Borg is a former deputy prime minister and European commissioner.

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