Our Constitution: the reform ahead

Some may consider that Malta’s Constitution is fine in its present state but, unfortunately, much more than a couple of tweaks are required. We are all aware that constitutional mechanics are not only subject to the workings of people of good faith: some excel in seeking the most devious of ways to justify the avoidance of their Constitutional responsibilities.

Most of us wish that this was not the case but, unfortunately, it is the reality. Experience has taught us that a number of our Constitutional provisions need to be clearer to be able to withstand abuse and misinterpretation. Malta is in a continuous state of change, which must be reflected in our Constitution. The Constitution should be a reflection of today’s values: it should reflect a 21st century Malta.

Over the years, Maltese Greens have spoken up on various aspects of the existing Constitution which need revisiting or new elements that need to be introduced. This is essential – not only in order to apply the lessons learnt from our experiences but also to reflect the continuous metamorphosis through which the country is going.

Topping the list of considerations is the need to address the secondary role in which Parliament has been placed over the years with the Cabinet, effectively, taking over. In this context, it is very relevant to focus on Parliament’s handing over substantial responsibilities to the Cabinet or directly to individual Ministers without the minimum oversight. This also applies to regulatory bodies or institutions which are generally appointed and entrusted with substantial responsibilities without even a basic referral to Parliament.

This situation prevailed up until the recent amendments to the Public Administration Act, which created a Parliamentary Permanent Committee to examine political appointments in the public service. From what has been seen so far, the operations of this Committee leave much to be desired.

The recent report of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, which has a focus on the state of play of the rule of law in Malta, judicial independence – as well as the autonomy of those entrusted to enforce the law – encourages debating reconsideration of the manner in which these appointments are made and whether, and to what extent, the Government and/or Parliament have any role to play in the process.

It is not acceptable in this day and age that Parliament hands over a number of blank cheques to the Cabinet, Ministers and regulatory bodies. Parliament should retain ultimate oversight and control, currently a function usurped by the Cabinet. Since 1964, the Cabinet has always taken the lead – issuing ‘instructions’ to Parliament, which has generally rubber-stamped these instructions and followed them through.

This has been made possible by the prevalent intensive political polarisation that has transformed what – on paper – is a parliamentary democracy to one where democratic centralism, led by Cabinet, prevails. We have ended up with Parliament serving the Cabinet, when it should be the other way around. In my view, this is one of the basic reasons for the continuous resistance to the reform of the electoral system which would give adequate democratic space to political formations outside the traditional ones. The practical impact of the entry of new political parties into Parliament would be a re-foundation of parliamentary democracy, with Parliament standing on its own two feet and issuing instructions to Cabinet, not the other way around. This would signify an effective separation of executive and legislative powers: a fundamental issue in the Constitution of any parliamentary democracy and one which, so far in Malta, exists only on paper.

Our Constitution needs to reflect the basic need for transparency and accountability. This should be applicable not just to those elected to political office but also to those having a delegated authority on any matter, however small.

The electoral system requires substantial change. This is primarily due to the fact that the constitutional rules on proportionality are defective and discriminatory. They only apply in a Parliament composed of two political parties: in practice they thus apply only in favour of the Labour Party and the Nationalist Party who designed them to suit their needs. The electoral process also needs revisiting to address the gender imbalance in our parliamentary representation.

Malta is continuously changing. This change is proceeding at a varying rate that has been accelerating since we joined the European Union, but more so since the positive divorce referendum of 2011.

Malta in the 21st century is substantially different to the Malta of 1964. In many aspects it is also a better Malta that has generally successfully adapted to change. In this context, in a 60-year timeframe Malta has developed from a confessional state to a lay one with the co-existence of contrasting values.

In Malta today one can speak of ethical pluralism and it is this plurality of values of today’s Malta that should be the basic foundation stone of the constitutional reform process on which we will be embarking in the coming weeks and months.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday 10 November 2019