04 Aug 2023

Chief Justice Emeritus Joseph Azzopardi, Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, is recommending that the guidelines on government advertising issued by his office two years ago should be incorporated into law.

The history of these guidelines goes back to March 2021 when the previous Commissioner, Dr George Hyzler, referred a case involving an advertisement issued by a minister to Parliament’s Standing Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Committee could not agree on the case. The Speaker, who as chairman of the Committee had a casting vote, abstained on the grounds that the ministerial code of ethics lacked clarity on government advertisements.

As a result, in August 2021 Commissioner Hyzler issued the guidelines to serve as a point of reference on cases involving government advertisements.

In June 2022 Commissioner Hyzler referred a new case to the Committee involving advertisements published by the government in a supplement of the newspaper KullĦadd. On the basis of the guidelines the Commissioner concluded that these advertisements represented a breach of ethics.

On 28 June 2023 the Committee concluded its consideration of this case. A casting vote by the Speaker led the Committee to disagree with Commissioner Hyzler’s report. The Speaker said that he could not agree with the report because the guidelines had no legal standing. However, he also said that he agreed with the content of the guidelines and he felt they should be given the force of law.

In the light of this the current Commissioner, Joseph Azzopardi, wrote to the Committee on 18 July 2023. He stated that the guidelines had not been intended as new rules in their own right, but only as an indication of how existing ethical rules should be applied in cases involving publicly-funded advertisements or promotional material.

In his letter the Commissioner expressed the view that the Committee had interpreted the relevant provisions too narrowly in both cases considered by it. He stated that alleged breaches of ethics should not be treated in the same manner as criminal charges.

The Commissioner said: “If one takes these two cases as a precedent, it would mean that the Committee is neither willing to rely on the ministerial code of ethics nor willing to refer to the guidelines when considering alleged breaches of ethics relating to publicly-funded advertisements. In effect the Committee has created a situation where it cannot take action against such breaches. This situation must be resolved with urgency.”

Commissioner Azzopardi therefore recommended that the guidelines should be recast as rules and incorporated in the ministerial code of ethics, which constitutes the second schedule of the Standards in Public Life Act. “This will give the guidelines a legal basis and eliminate any doubts about their validity.”

The Commissioner issued this recommendation under article 13(1)(g) of the Standards in Public Life Act, which gives him the power to “make recommendations for the improvement of any Code of Ethics applicable to persons who are subject to this Act”.

The Commissioner informed the Speaker that he intended to publish his letter, but he agreed with the Speaker that the Committee should first be given the opportunity to consider it.

The Committee began discussing Commissioner Azzopardi’s recommendation yesterday, 3 August 2023. During the meeting the Speaker expressed his agreement with the recommendation, but the Committee has still to come to a decision.

The Commissioner’s letter is available from the website of his office at https://standardscommissioner.mt/wp-content/uploads/recommendation-to-speaker-2023-07-18.pdf, while the guidelines are separately available from https://standardscommissioner.mt/wp-content/uploads/guidelines-government-advertising-promotional-material.pdf.