Minister Carmelo Abela has been found in breach of the Code of Ethics for Ministers by using €7,000 of taxpayer money for an advertising campaign that was “clearly intended to boost his image”.
Standards Commissioner George Hyzler said it was up to Parliament’s Standing Committee for Standards in Public Life to deem the remedy but he pointed out that the practice in the UK House of Commons is for misused money to be refunded to the State. The committee this afternoon agreed to publish the report.
“It is evident that the advertisement was intended to raise the Minister’s profile in the public eye and, indirectly, to strengthen his claim to retain his Cabinet post,” the report concluded, after a careful dissection of the advert that he said was littered with “typographical and grammatical errors, along with the indiscriminate use of capital letters”.
“Even if one leaves aside the issue of misuse of public funding, the advert does not reflect well on the Hon Carmelo Abela’s ministry on account of these errors, which may have been due to the inexplicable rush to get the advert out ‘because time was pressing’,” Hyzler concluded.
The report was triggered by a complaint by civil society NGO Repubblika after adverts appeared in various newspapers showing a portrait of Carmelo Abela alongside the logo of the Ministry within the Office of the Prime Minister.
“We feel this action falls short of expected standards in public life because the advert amounts to a conflation between Carmelo Abela’s role as a government minister and his role as MP, using his influence on his Ministry’s budget in the first role to secure his confirmation to the second,” the complaint read.
In his submissions, Abela said the “advertorial” appeared on Times of Malta, Malta Independent, Kullhadd, Torca, Illum and MaltaToday. He said it did not appear on Il-Mument because the price provided by the Nationalist Party newspaper was double the quotes by other media houses.
He said a company, Striped Sox, was contracted to obtain quotes and fine-tune the advertising which made use of an advert designed by the ministry and using a photograph taken by the Department of Information.
He pointed out that the minister’s name was not included in the advert, did not include any political slogans or logos and was not bought at a time when the country was in election mode so it was not intended to influence voters.
Hyzler found that Il-Mument actually provided two quotes, one of which was below the market price but he conceded that Striped Sox may have misled the minister by not providing him with both quotes. Therefore he did not find Abela guilty of discriminating against Il-Mument.
However, Hzyler said the advert was likely motivated by rumours of a Cabinet reshuffle.
“Given that the Cabinet reshuffle did actually take place on 21 November 2020, it is not unreasonable to state that the speculation and build-up were founded in fact. Bearing this in mind, it is also not unreasonable that ministers and parliamentary secretaries around this time were eager to remind the public, and the Prime Minister circuitously, of their achievements during this time.”
Hyzler’s position was based on his reading of the points listed in the advert as achievements.
The Minister describes these as “achievements” and “important milestones to fulfil”. Considering each of the above points on its own merits, however, it does not appear that the information contained in the advertisement can reasonably be qualified as being of genuine interest to the public. Four of the above points can be classified as generic, and certainly provide little to no indication of the actual work carried out by the ministry since its inception. These points cannot be seen as informative to the public, given the lack of detail or specific information regarding the work carried out by the ministry.
“Having considered the content of the advertisement and the circumstances surrounding its (unexplained) urgent publication, it does not appear to me that the content of the advertisement can be classified as truly informative from a government perspective and therefore warranting the use of public funds for its publication. It is evident that the advertisement was intended to raise the Minister’s profile in the public eye and, indirectly, to strengthen his claim to retain his Cabinet post.”
Abela is currently at the centre of another political storm amid allegations that he was part of a bank heist in 2010. He has strongly denied these allegations and sued for libel.
What do you make of the report?