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The President's example

This article was published in the Times of Malta on the 11 June 2013

Quite a number of articles have been written about the controversy surrounding the President and the Malta Community Chest Fund. Considering how the Maltese hold the fund to heart, and how generously we contribute when we are asked to help, this came to no surprise. I was most taken aback though, by an article on the Times of Malta penned by Andrew Azzopardi, who happens to be a member of MCCF’s board.

In his attempt at damage limitation, he follows a line of thought which I find to be not only fundamentally flawed but intrinsically dangerous, especially when it comes from someone who lectures at our highest academic institution.

The main gist of his article is that we should turn a blind eye to the board and the President’s behaviour because the cause is good, the President has done a lot to raise the MCCF’s profile, and Darleen Zerafa, the President’s relative who was offered the scholarship, works tirelessly for the cause.

A sort of Machiavellian “the end justifies the means” which forgets all about the constitutional role the President is supposed to serve.

I will not delve into the question of spending €2 million of MCCF money to build a centre for eating disorders or into Ms Zerafa’s suitability for the post. Let’s assume both are absolutely deserving.

In my view, two serious issues remain open.

The first one is the MCCF’s remit to fund scholarships. The actual causes we are shown when asked for our donations make no mention of people who have to undergo huge ‘fatigue and stress’ to travel on low-cost airlines for their studies or that they have to buy expensive textbooks.

Knowing of people who are still waiting for help for more essential things like chair-lifts, and in view of the numerous government and EU-funded scholarship schemes available, this seems inappropriate. Having the President say on the national TV station that this is not the first scholarship funded by the MCCF makes matters worse rather than excusable.

The second and most problematic issue that remains is the familial connection between the President and the beneficiary of the offer. The problem stems from the fact that in the Office of the President is employed someone related to him.

The Ministerial Code of Ethics does not allow ministers to employ family members in their ministries. Having the holder of the highest office behave in this way does not help matters. But even if no relative were employed in his office, given the size of our country, situations where a relative ends up being discussed in a meeting of a committee or board one belongs to are bound to arise.

It is standard practice, from the tiniest sectional committees to public boards, for the board member concerned to leave the room, if not for the sake of ethics and to avoid conflict of interest, to spare himself and the other members the awkwardness of the situation.

Such a situation in the domain of local councils is in fact contemplated in the Local Councils Act. Article (20) obliges a local councillor to disclose in writing any relevant family relationship known to him which is being discussed, and to withdraw from that meeting while the question is being considered. If the councillor fails to disclose this interest or fails to withdraw from the meeting, he “shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine (multa) not exceeding €698.81” and “shall be liable to be disqualified from holding office of councillor for a period of five years from such conviction”.

Basically, if what happened in the MCCF board meeting had happened in a local council meeting and the local councillor concerned simply stayed on for the meeting, he would have been fined, dismissed and disqualified from running in the next election.

In the MCCF case, it was the chairman himself who not only remained at the meeting but actually proposed that a relative benefit from the funds that the board administers.

The fact that there is no similar law obliging the same behaviour in the MCCF board does not mean that this board is less important than a local council.

It simply means that we expect the holder of our highest office to demonstrate exemplary behaviour which goes beyond the need to write down what is considered to be ethical. Even though the written law would define the family relationship to be present only up to the son’s wife, the spirit of the law would demand that the persons carrying out the country’s highest constutional role exercise caution also when handling a case involving her sister.

It’s about time we realise that in every public role, it’s the person who must adapt to fill the role and not the role which has to be adapted to fit the person.

As a councillor, I am disappointed that the man whose primary role is to act as guardian of the Constitution, and of laws to which I swore loyalty, behaved in a manner which was not only unethical but which could, if applied to a councillor, be deemed illegal.

As Mark-Anthony Falzon put it in another article, “this is a serious case. To ignore it is tacitly to accept that we, as a people, are and will always be fundamentally flawed”.

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