George Hyzler has a tricky job on his hands. As Malta’s first ever commissioner for standards in public life, the seasoned lawyer will not only be tasked with scrutinising MPs and people of trust, but will also get to define what constitutes ethical behaviour and what doesn’t.
In an interview with Lovin Malta, his first since taking on the job on Monday, Hyzler insisted he will not be navigating these foggy waters alone. Not only will he eventually employ full-time staff, but he intends to embark on a widespread consultation process to find out how the public, the press and the general public expect politicians to behave.
“I think it would be a bit rash on my part to just decide on a standard and impose it,” he argued. “I’m not excluding that possibility but my preferred course of action is for us to agree on what is expected of our MPs.”
Yet Hyzler has his own opinions and, although he is prohibited from investigating any case that occurred prior to 30th October (the date the law passed) and that is the topic of an ongoing police investigation or court case, he agreed to give his two cents on issues that have proved ethically contentious in Malta in recent years.
Should politicians be allowed to take drugs?
PN MEP David Casa
Allegations that PN MEP David Casa was a frequent cocaine user gave rise to a debate about whether all politicians should impose themselves to random drug tests.
Hyzler was adamant that politicians should not be allowed to take illicit drugs, even though this is not specifically referred to in their Codes of Ethics, but was less sure on whether he should impose drug tests.
“This could possibly be a new rule and I’ll certainly be discussing it, but what I think at this stage is not very important,” he said. “It’s one thing having a specific accusation and another thing imposing a blanket obligation on anyone in public life to give regular urine samples. Let’s discuss this.”
Should politicians be allowed to drink heavily and visit brothels?
Economy Minister Chris Cardona
The line gets blurrier here as it concerns actions that are legal but ethically questionable, a debate that emerged last year when Economy Minister Chris Cardona was allegedly sighted at a German brothel.
“I don’t think its correct [for a minister to visit a brothel], and in fact when a minister was accused of this, he reacted by saying it’s not true and started court cases to prove that. It seems, and I would tend to agree, that it is not correct behaviour.”
“However, we must be careful when it comes to drawing the line between public and private life. Obviously, people in public life are exposing themselves to greater scrutiny than private individuals, so they must be prepared to face public scrutiny. For example, is it correct behaviour if a politician drinks everyday without a care to what others say? Does it affect their duties as a representative of the people? Let’s talk about this and see if it’s acceptable and correct behaviour.
“My training as a lawyer tells me to treat each case on its own and see the circumstances. For example, it’s one thing if someone is a habitual drinker who cannot perform his duties and another thing if someone drank a bit too much at one party.”
Should politicians be allowed to open offshore companies?
Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi
Revelations that Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Keith Schembri owned offshore Panama companies led to widespread outrage. However, Hyzler cautioned against issuing a blanket condemnation of offshore companies.
“It depends. Anything that breaches the law is not acceptable, so it is obviously not correct behaviour for a politician to open offshore accounts to hide money and therefore evade tax.”
“However, it is very difficult to make a blanket statement and say it is unethical to open offshore accounts. I don’t think I could or would say that, but obviously you must look at the circumstances and ask for explanations.”
Should politicians be allowed to hang out with criminals?
Murder suspect Alfred Degiorgio (Court sketch by Seb Tanti Burlo)
Chris Cardona was recently criticised for attending a bachelor party to which one of the men charged with murdering Daphne Caruana Galizia was also present.
However, Hyzler warned that the nature of politicians’ jobs means they will invariably come into contact with people of unsavoury repute.
“Politicians are close to the people and, as a rule, they don’t choose the company they’re in,” he said. “It’s one thing attending a public function where you don’t know who the people are and it’s another thing being invited by someone who’s known to be a criminal.”
“I would think that, as a general rule, if a politician happens to be at an event where there are people of a certain bad reputation, you cant really do much about it. On the other hand, if the politician accepts an invitation by someone or a group of people known to be criminals, I think that would be wrong.”
Should politicians face the music for their employees’ misdeeds?
Manuel Mallia lost his ministerial portfolio after his driver fired shots at a moving car
Such controversies keep raising their head in Malta but there is certainly no consensus as to what the repercussions should be. For example, while Manuel Mallia lost his ministerial job a few years ago after his driver fired shots at a moving vehicle, no action was taken against Education Minister Evarist Bartolo after one of his aides was charged with corruption and fraud.
Hyzler endorsed the concept political responsibility, arguing that politicians who don’t take decisive action when their employees are implicated in corruption and criminality risk sending a message that they endorse such behaviour.
“As a general rule, members of the staff of ministers and parliamentary secretaries should be clean,” he said. “If politicians want to raise the standards of our ministries and MPs and improve the way they are viewed by the public, I think it is in their own interests to distance themselves from anyone with a criminal record or who could put their office in disrepute.”
“As a lawyer, my instinct tells me the everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but in this role, my tendency would be to tell politicians to distance themselves if there’s a hint of wrongdoing. Hard luck, get another job, but please don’t stay in public life.”
“We don’t really have a culture of political responsibility here. There were only a few instances in which ministers shouldered political responsibility by resignation in the case of wrongdoing by their employees. That is something that maybe we’ll be working on.”