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EDITORIAL | Wednesday, 06 February 2008

None of your business (interests)

It seems you can always rely on Opposition leader Alfred Sant to drop the occasional pre-electoral bombshell.
Interviewed by Reno Bugeja on the PBS programme Dissett, Sant suggested that, if elected Prime Minister, he would not allow any member of his Cabinet to retain a position or business interest outside his or her role as minister.
Alfred Sant made the above announcement in reply to a specific question about Roads Minister Jesmond Mugliett, whom the Labour leader has often accused of harbouring a conflict of interest, especially regarding the ongoing works on Manwel Dimech Bridge.
According to Sant, Mugliett retained a professional interest in the same architectural firm (which, to compound the irony further still, is called “Sant & Mugliett”) which was entrusted with the €5 million reconstruction project to begin with.
On his part Mugliett has consistently denied receiving any remuneration from the same project; but even if true, his very proximity to the firm in question can only doubts and suspicions, which any Opposition leader is bound to exploit.
But Sant went beyond scoring points against any individual Cabinet minister: for he also seems to be suggesting a reform of the entire role and function of public servants such as Members of Parliament.
“Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries will be expected to sever all their personal commercial and professional links to private entities, whether these take the form of whole or part ownership, or whether they consist of professional remunerated or non-remunerated connections with such entities,” he told MaltaToday last Sunday.
At face value, this may well sound like any of a number of proposals aimed at currying favour with the electorate on the last crucial lap before D-Day. But coming from the leader of a party who has already declared open war on corruption – and who himself presides over a shadow Cabinet dominated by external business interests – we are clearly dealing with a potential political masterstroke.
A cursory glance at Sant’s shadow Cabinet will reveal that many of his possible ministers also have vested business interests outside their Parliamentary work. MaltaToday has often highlighted these conflicting positions: a typical example was when architect Charles Buhagiar, who like the rest of his colleagues in Labour had lambasted the government’s decision to expand the development boundaries in 2005, had himself requested on behalf of a client that a parcel of land near Ricasoli be included in the new scheme.
While it is true that the charge of “corruption” does not apply in this case, it does give rise to an apparent conflict between the MPs’ obligations to his client as an architect, and the statements the same MP makes in connection with his role as the functionary of a political party.
A similar example was when notary Charles Mangion presided over the deed of sale at Pender Place, in his capacity as public notary, after Sant himself denounced the sale of Pender Place in St Julian’s.
On that occasion, Mangion defended the apparent contradiction by stressing that he has the right to continue working despite his party's public position on the project: “This is my professional work and as deputy leader, this is my source of income. When Mid-Med Bank was sold to HSBC, I had also criticised the sale, but I cannot stop working and I still get to work on contracts for HSBC as a notary.” On that occasion, Sant also came to his deputy leader's defence.
But what is sure is that it seems that Alfred Sant’s proposal may well cause problems to those of his own candidates who rely on their external business interests to make a living, and whom he chooses for his Cabinet. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that of all MPs to endorse the proposal, it had to be a PN backbencher: Clyde Puli, who has gone on record agreeing with Sant, but with the proviso that membership of the House is converted to a fulltime occupation, and salaries are increased from Lm6,500 (taxable) to Lm13,000.
“When you see a chairman earning Lm35,000, Lm13,000 for a Member of Parliament is not that much. MPs should have a decent salary, although it shouldn’t be too attractive, either,” he told sister paper Illum last Sunday.
Puli has a point. Naturally one cannot justify a case of corruption on the grounds that the guilty party was underpaid. But it remains a fact that the modest remuneration of our representatives makes it difficult for them not to hold down that additional job or position against a salary or honorarium. Some would argue that the prevailing status quo is in fact a recipe for conflicts of interest: and even if, in most cases, there would be no real corrupt practices taking place, public perceptions are bound to suffer if the scenario is not amended.
Alfred Sant may wish to work a little on the details of his proposal: he must ensure that being elected to parliament does not unduly penalise prospective ministers, otherwise the net effect may well be a dearth of potential candidates, to the detriment of future politics. But in principle at least, we wholeheartedly agree that steps must be taken to eradicate the perception of corruption among Cabinet ministers.


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