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Opinion | Wednesday, 19 May 2010 Issue. 164

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Dangerous precedents

On 6 May, two things happened in Parliament which made history. The first is that the Clerk of the House succumbed to pressure from the government. The second is the new definition of “direct pecuniary interest”, established by the new Speaker in sitting number 217.
First, the Clerk of the House, whose job is to record each Member of Parliament’s vote by putting down in writing the ‘yes’ or ‘no’. After Dr Justyne Caruana, another eighteen members voted from both sides of the House and until Dr Mario Galea’s vote. This is the way, according to the website of our Parliament, how the members were called to vote for the motion of the Opposition:

Caruana Justyne
Cristina Dolores
Cauchi Gino
Coleiro Preca Marie Louise
Dalli Helene
Debono Grech Joseph
De Marco Mario
Debono Franco
Debono Giovanna
Deguara Louis
Falzon Joseph
Falzon Michael
Farrugia Angelo
Farrugia Jean Pierre
Farrugia Michael
Farrugia Noel
Fenech Antonio
Fenech Adami Beppe
Galea Censu
Galea Mario

Who can blame us for seeing it as very odd, and for looking at Parliament as having insulted our intelligence, when it tells us that after Justyne Caruana’s vote and the other 18 members who voted after her, the Speaker and the Clerk first noted a ‘yes’ vote from Caruana; but when Mario Galea’s vote was heard, and after the clever (but illegal) move by Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg, both the Clerk of the House and the Speaker suddenly woke up to realise that Caruana had actually voted ‘yes’, when it was already recorded in the minutes that she had voted ‘no’.

Do not blame us, then, for perceiving Parliament after that sitting as not complying with the terms given to it in the Constitution, because any man in the street knows that Caruana comes 18 members before Galea and it is inconceivable that the Clerk did not hear Caruana say ‘no’; the Nationalist MPs who voted after her did not hear her ‘no’ either – including Education Minister Dolores Cristina, who voted right after Caruana. Instead, they all waited until Mario Galea’s ‘yes’. Even Louis Deguara, who voted before Mario Galea, did not utter a word and they all joined in the chorus led by Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg.

So who can blame us for regarding Parliament as a vital asset to the Government?

The second thing that happened on 6 May is that now we have a new definition of what constitutes “direct pecuniary interest”, according to the Permanent Orders of Parliament. The Speaker of the House, Michael Frendo, came to the conclusion that to have direct pecuniary interest you have to directly gain from a tender. It does not matter if you can gain indirectly from that tender.

The Speaker agreed with the arguments of the Government and declared that it has checked the assets of MP Charlo Bonnici in 2008; it checked that the company he works for, Care Malta Limited, is not mentioned in the Auditor General’s report; it checked the Code of Ethics for Members of Parliament and the Permanent Order no 89 and after verifying that the Auditor General did not mention Care Malta Limited in his report, he considered that the employment of Charlo Bonnici as Human Resources Manager of Care Malta Limited did not constitute pecuniary interest in terms of the Standing Orders and the Code of Ethics .

Needless to say the Speaker did not refer to the EU Directive on the definition of ‘pecuniary interest’, and as somebody who proclaims himself to be well conversant with EU laws, it was his duty to refer to the EU and see what it has to say on the terms ‘direct pecuniary interest’. But this is a country where EU membership and EU rules are quoted only to suit our purposes.

It is true that Permanent order 89 states that the Member of Parliament cannot vote if he has a “direct pecuniary interest”, but we cannot play with the definition of “direct” and hide behind the Auditor’s report in order to justify the decision that if your boss is involved in a tender, and one of his companies employs you in a managerial capacity, you have no direct pecuniary interest.

There is no doubt that this has set a very dangerous precedent in all spheres of the tendering procedures in Malta. In the local councils sphere, where council members and mayors declare that they have a pecuniary interest and many times they do not participate in the discussions of any tender, now they have the support of the Speaker by saying that if they are employed with company B, and the boss is submitting the tender, then they have no pecuniary interest because the tender was submitted personally by the boss, or by any of his other companies, and not by company B.

Even the Government now has to look within itself and modify all those legal notices which it published describing the term “pecuniary interest”; as, for example, in the gaming regulations, in the local council regulations, and in many others.

There is no doubt that the dated 6 May is going to be remembered as another black day for Parliament, because it has shown us that playing with words is perfectly legal and playing games with parliamentary democracy is also perfectly legal.

No wonder, then, that Parliament is no place for growing flowers!



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