The Opposition MPs on the committee for standards recommended yesterday that since both sides had already agreed to endorse the standards commissioner’s conclusion that Rosianne Cutajar breached Parliamentary ethics she should be suspended for a month.

MPs for the government disagreed and the Speaker threw in his casting vote against the motion. He supported a motion by government MPs for Rosianne Cutajar to be reprimanded for accepting payments from Yorgen Fenech to broker a property deal without declaring the income in her yearly assets declaration. A separate tax investigation is still ongoing.

Though Rosianne Cutajar denies retaining the brokerage fee, she has admitted accepting €9,000 from Yorgen Fenech as a “gift” which she did not declare. She did so while intervening in Parliament (and as a delegate of the Parliament to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) in opposition to any suggestion of wrongdoing in Yorgen Fenech’s Electrogas deal or the relevance of the Electrogas deal to an understanding of the reasons why Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed.

Rosianne Cutajar addressed the committee yesterday insisting she should not be judged until the tax investigation is concluded, which means that though she is being reprimanded she does not consider even that penalty justified.

I want to compare this episode with a very recent event in UK politics which has close similarities but had a very different outcome. The comparison should help us identify what was done differently and why.

Owen Paterson was, like Rosianne Cutajar, a back-bench MP in the government party. Like Rosianne Cutajar, Owen Paterson was the subject of a report by the standards commissioner who found he broke ethics rules.

The actual breach is similar in nature though different in consequential scale. Paterson was found to have used his position as an MP to benefit two companies he works for. He still denies any wrongdoing. Cutajar also denies any wrongdoing insisting that the gift she admits receiving (and the income from the business she entered into with Yorgen Fenech) had no bearing on the way she spoke in Parliament and in Strasbourg.

The UK standards commissioner recommended Paterson is suspended from Parliamentary duties for 30 days. As you can see from this analysis of the events by the BBC, MPs normally uphold recommendations by the standards commissioner without debate. In this case the UK government (the office of Prime Minister Boris Johnston) attempted to buy time for their MP saying the process of censoring an MP did not include a right of appeal so they needed changes to ensure fairness before any punishment can be handed down on Paterson.

It’s not unlike the way the government behaved here when the standards commissioner found against Carmelo Abela. They said new rules about government advertising would need to be written before anyone could consider punishing anyone that did what Carmelo Abela had done. Carmelo Abela was saved. It would prove different for Owen Paterson.

24-hours after the UK government suggested changing the rules to save their MP, they were forced to withdraw their suggestion. Opposition parties were angry, which you would expect, but the clincher was that MPs in Johnson and Paterson’s party signalled they would not vote for the government on the matter.

Seeing that he would, ultimately, be suspended, and still protesting his innocence, Paterson resigned as an MP altogether and plans to change the system were shelved because the government committed not to make any changes on ethics rules unless Opposition parties agree. After what happened Opposition parties are not in the mood to agree with the government about anything much.

Now to Rosianne Cutajar’s situation. Our standards committee is authorised by law to recommend to the House any appropriate penalty they consider proportionate to the findings of the standards commissioner that an MP is in breach of ethical rules. Opposition MPs recommended the same penalty applied on Paterson in the UK just a few days ago: suspension for a month.

In contrast with what happens in the UK, when our standards commissioner finds against a government MP, his recommendations are not waived through without debate. I recalled earlier the report on Carmelo Abela. Like the report on Rosianne Cutajar it went through hours of filibustering and legalese contortions propped up by Anġlu Farrugia in order to delay any decision or reach no decision at all.

In the UK MPs of all sides would not want to be seen to protect one of their own who has conducted themselves unethically. Rebelling against their party leadership as has happened in the Paterson case is infinitely preferable to be seen to cover up or justify unethical conduct. It’s not because British MPs are inherently morally superior. It’s because in a normal democracy the political calculus would be that voters would be distinctly unhappier about MPs covering up wrongdoing for each other than MPs forcing U-turns on their party leaders.

Why fight so hard against a 30-day suspension, both in the Paterson case and in the Cutajar case?

No law can be written that forces an MP, chosen by the electorate to represent them, out of their Parliamentary seat on a permanent basis. But decency requires any MP faced with such a punishment to resign their seat of their own free will.

In the UK they have inbuilt mechanisms that can force the issue, but the forcing is done by the electorate not by MPs. A UK constituency whose MP has been suspended for 30 days has the right to recall their MP and force by petition a fresh election for the seat. We can’t in practice consider that in Malta while we have multiple-seat constituencies.

But we should still have the moral imperative governing MPs to realise that if their colleagues think they should be suspended, it really means that they should resign altogether.

We don’t think like that in this country. Even sticking with the reprimand that Rosianne Cutajar is getting, the audacity of the convicted is so galling. Forget the rejected 30-day suspension for a moment. Think of the reprimand.

Some people reacted to this as if it was a joke, something not even Rosianne Cutajar should take too seriously. It calls back memories of childhoods lived in different times when a reprimand, without some material punishment like being grounded or even a smack, was a way for parents to assuage their conscience that they’ve done something about the naughtiness of their children rather than to actually force their errant children to face some form of consequence.

But MPs are not children. They should not be anyway. If both sides of the House, including her Parliamentary colleagues and the Speaker, are unanimously reprimanding Rosianne Cutajar for unethical conduct, the least she could do is take the hint, resign her seat in Parliament, and avoid any further embarrassment for her colleagues.

Instead, she’s acting like she got a medal.

Is that because our MPs are inherently morally inferior to MPs in the UK? Also no. It’s just that here the political calculus leads to different results. MPs, particularly those in the same party, figure it will look worse for them to force their party leadership to act against a colleague than to be seen to condone unethical conduct.

Why would Edward Zammit Lewis worry about looking unethical for protecting Rosianne Cutajar when his ethical standards are perceived as so low to begin with?

If it was any different, and a convicted and admonished MP did not voluntarily resign, the least her party would do is what is very much within their power to do: to vote in favour of an escalated consequence (a 30-day suspension seems proportionate); dismiss her from their Parliamentary whip; and commit to delist her for the subsequent election.

They’re doing none of that. Which is why Boris Johnson is having to defend his government from accusations of institutionalised sleaze after the Paterson affair, and Robert Abela presents himself as some sort of hero of good governance after the Cutajar imbroglio.