Prime Minister Robert Abela believes that a lack of a code of ethics dictating cabinet members’ social media use means that Ministers using public resources on their personal Facebook pages was “acceptable” before a critical report into the practice.
Following a series of questions from Lovin Malta, Abela finally gave his thoughts on a Standards Commissioner’s report flagging the “widespread misuse of public resources” content specifically for ministers’ personal Facebook pages, declaring the case closed.
Ministers have for years used their own personal social media pages as official lines of communication instead of setting up official ministry pages, Abela conceded.
“There was no code of ethics. It was a system going on for several years, and this was an acceptable practice,” he said.
It’s a convenient excuse. Former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had promised to tackle the issue way back in April 2018, but the government stamped its feet on the issue ever since. It was only a Lovin Malta request that spurred on the change and Abela still has not provided the newsroom with the new guidelines.
According to information that had been published in Parliament, ministries spend around €25,000 per month on Facebook boosts alone (€1.2 million in a 55-month period). This had prompted calls for an Auditor-General inquiry and Cabinet members to pay back misused money.
However, Abela insisted suggesting that the cabinet members were somehow misappropriating public funds was giving the wrong impression.
“Not a cent went from public funds to a personal page,” Abela stressed. However, without an Auditor-General inquiry, the public must rely on the Prime Minister’s words.
It’s a similar explanation provided by Finance Minister Edward Scicluna, but as explained by Lovin Malta, Parliamentary Secretary for EU Funds Aaron Farrugia had confirmed spending hundreds of euro from taxpayer money to promote government initiatives on his personal page.
Meanwhile, the Commissioner even tackled Abela’s point in his report where he examined an official ministry video published on Economy Minister Silvio Schembri’s personal page.
“Since the video does not appear on any official channel, I can only conclude that the video was produced specifically for Minister Schembri’s personal Facebook page, which represents the misuse of public resources,” he said.
Crucially, the Commissioner said: “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the production of videos in this manner is a thinly-disguised means for a minister to promote himself and to raise his political profile at public expense.”
However, Abela said that it was only the Commissioner’s report which first flagged the issue, vowing that changes have already been made.
“There is nothing wrong with a government promoting its projects. There might have been some issues with a distinction between the role of a politician and the role of a minister.”
“We have put forward our recommendations to change the system and is collaborating with the Standards Commissioner to ensure they are implemented,” he said.
Only the Office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry for Education and Employment, the Ministry for Energy and Water Management, and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade Promotion had active Facebook accounts by the time Hyzler published his report.
Some ministers have already regularised their positions in the past few days, including Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne, Economy Minister Silvio Schembri and Finance Minister Edward Scicluna.
Abela repeatedly stressed that it was the Labour Party government who introduced the role of the Standards Commissioner, adding that the latest investigation proved the government’s commitment to good governance.
However, he did not reply to a question as to why the Ministers were ignoring several questions from the Commissioner and whether he thought it was reprehensible for doing so.
Do you agree with the Prime Minister’s statement? Comment below