We’ve heard how government employs opposition MPs. We also heard how government backbenchers are on the government’s payroll. Both these cases are problems for democracy. They’re also the same problem, even if they seem different.
This article explains why they’re identical, why this is a problem and how we can start to fix this.
Jobs for backbenchers
Life for backbenchers can’t be fun. Whichever side you’re on you’re considered to be a second-class MP because you’re not a minister or shadow minister. We all know MPs aren’t paid much so it’s reasonable to expect them to supplement their income. How else are they supposed to live and support their families?
Of course the nature of the job means they can’t find any job. There has to be a clear separation between their parliamentary work and whatever private job they do. The phrase used in such circumstances is “avoiding conflict of interest.”
All this is straightforward enough, so why did I start this by claiming there’s a problem?
As I mention at the beginning, these examples are two sides of the same coin.
- An opposition MP takes a role within government. If the government can point to an opposition MP saying, “He’s the one doing this,” the opposition loses the ability to criticise government. We’ve seen this come to light in recent weeks.
- A government MP takes a role within government. If the government appoints one of its own MPs to a role in government, it can silence its own internal critics. How can a backbencher criticise the government if their job is on the line?
In both cases, MPs’ employment contracts silence them. The current head of the civil service has explained this is not illegal, but that doesn’t make it right.
Just because you can, Mr Cutajar, doesn’t mean you should.
MPs are there to represent the people. Their loyalty is to the people above all else. They should – they must – hold the government’s feet to the fire when needed. It’s the duty of all MPs to do this, whichever side of the House they sit on.
When MPs put themselves in these positions they weaken democracy with this conflict of interest between their personal needs and public duties.
So how do we solve this situation?
There are many solutions and we need to find one that works for us in Malta. If I had to fix this problem, this is what I would do:
- MPs need a better salary. I don’t expect them to earn exorbitant pay packages, but a monthly income of EUR 1 200 isn’t much. The average Maltese salary is about EUR 1 500. It’s fair to give them a salary a little above the average. Not much higher though; they need to know what the people they represent live on. With 65 MPs this would be an increase in the budget needed, which leads me to my next point.
- We need fewer MPs. Why do we need 65 MPs in Parliament? If we reduce the number elected per district to 4 instead of 5, then we can afford a salary of EUR 1 500 per person with no change in budget. Go down to 3 per district and everyone can get a EUR 2 000 monthly salary with no change in budget.
- MPs need to be more accountable for their work. Their attendance in parliament can and should be public information, in real-time too. Political parties should have clear performance-based metrics to measure their MPs’ performance. Mr Johnson is doing this in Downing Street. The data should be public so we can see how they’re doing. For the rest, the people can voice their satisfaction in them in the election.
This is a start, and I’m not sure it will be enough.
The key principle here is that MPs’ loyalty is not to their party or to their bank account. If that’s how your MP thinks, you should be worried because it means your MP lets his ego get the better of him. But your MP should be using his brain, not ego.
How would you solve it?
- ‘Report for duty or you are out,’ Opposition MPs on the state payroll are told; Ivan Martin and Jacob Borg; Times Of Malta; 2020-02-03
- Jobs for backbenchers: Standards Commissioner insists on changing system; Times of Malta; 2019-11-23
- Manuel Mallia cautions those seeking political career, calls for respect, pay; Keith Micallef; Times of Malta; 2020-02-04
- Downing Street keeps ministers in line with threat of the sack; Tim Shipman; The Sunday Times of London; 2020-01-19
Written by: Antoine P Borg
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