A few days ago, I wrote about the false economies of trying to keep the justice system cost-effective by crushing its efficiency. Governments insist no more judges are needed and the justice system would work better if judges listened to cases for longer hours in the day instead of spending their afternoons doing what it is they need to do. They need to research and write their decisions but what can’t be seen can’t be important, can it?
The executive holds all the purse-strings. It pays itself millions to fund bloated government ministries and the salaries of hundreds of people whose job appears to be nothing more than persuading people to vote Labour: that’s whether they do it by writing propaganda, disseminating it, phoning people up to ask them ‘if they need something’ or trolling any dissent on social media. But the executive is stingy with the other branches of government that could and should keep it in check.
Last week Robert Abela and Edward Zammit Lewis waxed melodramatic for having to spend €80,000 to hire Spanish lawyers to defend the government from the case brought against them by Repubblika over the method of choosing judges. They called this – a sum that their crony Film Commissioner Johann Grech spends every 10 months on travelling alone, not counting his own salary – a capricious waste, an indulgence of those wicked Nazzjonalisti at Repubblika.
In theory the control of public expense should be in the hands of parliament. They should be the ones to pass the money to government to spend and they keep the strings attached to what they pass by checking the executive spends the money as it’s supposed to. But the relationship between government and parliament here is the opposite of what it should be.
The standards commissioner George Hyzler published today his second report examining how MPs are earning their salaries. A few months ago, he criticised MPs that support the government for accepting jobs in the administration compromising their ability to fulfil their function of overseeing it. Now he criticised MPs on the opposition benches who were in government employment when they were elected, kept their jobs (and their salaries) but stopped doing their original job in any meaningful way to focus on parliamentary duties.
It would be right to say, as George Hyzler says, that this means they’re not doing either job well. The sort of people who go frantic at the idea that the government spent €80,000 to defend its decisions on how to hire judges, will go banana at the idea that a nurse, or a road engineer, or a jobs counsellor kept the salary they had there when they stopped doing that job.
They have a point, I guess. But that’s not the real problem here. The real problem is that you need to have a salary from outside parliament in order to afford to do the job you’re required to do within it. Let’s not run away with some fantasy that MPs are “abusing their position as parliamentarians” because they are greedy and like making a lot of money. Let’s take opposition MPs since they’re the topic of the day.
They make €24,000 after getting elected to Parliament, a good chunk of which goes in the expense of the job: campaigning, buying wedding gifts, sponsoring local clubs and so on. A couple of them get a little bit extra for extra duties – the whip, the deputy speaker, the chairman of the public accounts committee. That’s some €7,000 a year.
Then some keep their government salary as well, which they would be perfectly entitled to if they continued to their job as they are expected to. Most of those salaries float around the €20,000 mark. So, they’re taking home around €3,000 a month. It’s a living but hardly in the realm of boundless greed.
George Hyzler chided MPs for staying off work to do more than attend day-time sittings in the chamber. They skip duty to go to funerals, a daily occurrence for the diligent constituency MP, or to accept invitations for interviews or discussions on the media, or to host the odd ‘coffee-morning’ for the elderly of the village, or to visit constituents in their homes.
Although none of this sounds edifying, I would argue it’s comparable to the time judges need in the afternoons to actually do any judging, researching the law, reviewing precedence and writing judgements. We can’t just measure the time a judge works by the time they clock in an open chamber. And we can’t measure the working hours of an MP by how long we see them staring blankly in the chamber as some other MP drones on.
Now I admit it is not a very persuasive argument to say we must be ready to spend more money to allow MPs more time to attend funerals of people they do not know, campaign like Jehovah’s Witnesses and sit in open-eyed coma at interminable sittings waiting for their turn to bore their colleagues to highly-paid oblivion.
This is what we’re supposed to be worrying about. In between sitting on some government board, or conducting their lucrative profession, or running around between their work place and parliament, no one is actually doing any parliamentary work.
This suits the government best. Because a parliamentarian with the time and resources to do their job is, by definition, a thorn in a government’s side, including – nay, especially – a parliamentarian sitting on the side of the majority. The vote of a government MP the government can lose is far more valuable than a vote of an opposition MP the government has little hope of winning.
Laws are churned through parliament like shit out of a goose. Most of them are initiated because of new European laws, but they’re badly written and hardly thought through. And Malta is no longer a middling town that could be run by a part-time glorified town council.
We are an EU member state. The legislative process is complex and the passing of European laws expects the scrutiny and participation of our national parliament. Our national parliament abdicates this, too busy with everything else to look at laws that will affect us profoundly down the line.
And the government operates a national budget of €7 billion and it is doing so without any material parliamentary oversight. €7 billion a year and we spend time indulging in Robert Abela’s distractions knocking about over an €80,000 legal bill. That’s how they like it. It’s not how it should be.
Democracy gives us the right to choose who gets to oversee the government when they’re spending our money. I don’t mind at all that we choose nurses and clerks and road engineers and jobs councillors, as well as all those lawyers, to do the job. They bring in real-world insight that loaded landed gentry and overpaid professionals can never have. I think it’s a good thing actually.
Maybe we don’t need 65 MPs to do the job if they have the time and resources on doing the job properly. Maybe if we’re that desperate to keep our expenses in check we can shrink the number and boost the productivity. After all, how do we expect to justify having 65 MPs but only 24 judges?
I don’t agree with the idea of allowing MPs to choose whether to work on a full-time basis or a part-time basis, especially when the duties they are expected to fulfil are the same for both categories. We should not have multiple tears in a single chamber. This is the sort of ‘transitory’ compromise we end up getting stuck with forever, a wart we never get rid of which is after all the plague we have now.
Other democracies have parliaments that include people who need to go back to their professions or businesses or jobs when their term expires or after they’re voted out. They’re paid decently for the time they’re in office. And they’re offered transitionary income for a number of years until they get back on their feet.
Why don’t our professionals agree to give up their profession for some years for the profession of being a parliamentarian? Combining the two simultaneously retains the idea that being a lawyer is one’s real mission and being a parliamentarian is someone’s diversionary interest, like hunting or chess.
But this is no sport. This is important.
George Hyzler is identifying and documenting serious issues: like government MPs in awe of the government that also employs them and opposition MPs drawing a salary for work they do not do. The people of Malta have noticed this a long time ago. It’s why no one cares what parliament does or says anymore. It’s a place where nothing happens. Even the annual ritual of the budget debate and approval has become purely symbolic. After all the big speeches from the chamber end, the real job of doing politics starts at press conferences and TV chat shows outside parliament. What happens inside parliament is of importance and interest to no one.
Because nobody watches, the work they do gets even dodgier. Before the summer they changed the constitution without reading the changes they made. That’s not just shabby. It is dangerous and potentially very, very harmful.
I doubt the hospital system misses Mario Galea or the Freeport will stop running because David Agius is trying hard to stay awake at a funeral of someone he can’t quite remember. But if the constitution is being changed while those two aren’t looking, we’re going to face some ugly consequences.
We have two choices now. We can tweak things with new compromises or finally consider proper reforms. We’ve had part-timers writing our laws since 1921. But surely now, we should consider an upgrade.