Government blocks debate on Konrad Mizzi contract

Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

Government MPs have succeeded in a bid to block the Public Accounts Committee from debating the controversial contract awarded by the Malta Tourism Authority to disgraced former minister Konrad Mizzi, after Speaker Anġlu Farrugia ruled that strictly speaking, this did not fall under the committee’s remit.

However, in his ruling, Farrugia did highlight a window of opportunity through which the opposition could initiate further scrutiny into the contract, noting that under the Standing Orders governing the running of parliament, three committee MPs can ask the Auditor General to submit memoranda on any matter.

The PAC is always chaired by a member of the opposition, presently Beppe Fenech Adami. However, as is the case with all other committees, government MPs form a majority.

Government whip Glenn Bedingfield had asked the Speaker to issue a ruling, with the government arguing that since the contract – worth some €80,000 a year – was rescinded with no payments being made to Mizzi, the PAC had no remit to debate it.

In today’s PAC meeting, however, opposition MPs insisted on a debate, stating that a number of questions about the contract still needed to be answered: not least who was responsible for the granting of the contract in the first place.

Opposition wanted Johann Buttigieg to testify

During today’s committee meeting PAC chairman Beppe Fenech Adami emphasised that in contrast to plenary parliamentary sittings, parliamentary committees provided MPs with the opportunity to call witnesses. MTA chairman Johann Buttigieg was first on the opposition’s list.

Government MPs pushed for an amicable agreement on the matter, with whip Glenn Bedingfield stating that they wanted peace of mind. Family Minister Michael Falzon insisted that the government was not seeking to block debate, and was willing to hold it immediately after the Speaker’s ruling. But these arguments did not impress opposition MPs.

“If you don’t want this meeting to continue you can ask for a vote, but then everyone will know who tried to block debate,” Chris Said maintained.

The vote was ultimately held, and committee members predictably voted along party lines, prompting Fenech Adami to muse that with a majority of members, government could block discussion on anything.

“If you want to use your majority to block debate then so be it… given the circumstances, this meeting cannot continue,” he said before adjourning the meeting.

Today’s parliamentary sitting started shortly afterwards, and the first 15 minutes were taken up by the Speaker’s ruling. Farrugia quoted Malta’s Constitution, the Standing Orders and even proceedings in the House of Commons at length, but ultimately said that in the absence of any actual expenditure of public funds, the contract did not fall under the PAC’s remit.

Government accuses opposition of disrespecting speaker

The government issued a reaction through the Department of Information, accusing the opposition of disrespecting the country’s institutions by “choosing to ignore a ruling by Speaker Anġlu Farrugia.”

It stressed that the PAC was tasked with scrutinising public finances. However, in this case, no public spending occurred once the contract was cancelled, the government argued.

In spite of this, the government insisted that it did not object to debate on the matter, “so long as it was an issue falling under the Public Accounts Committee’s remit, and as always, it is ready to accept any decision taken by the Speaker in his ruling.”