Whether we like it or not, as a country, Malta is continuously under the international spotlight. Our behaviour as a country is continuously compared to what is considered to be the norm, that is what is acceptable elsewhere.
Whether it is Moneyval, GRECO, the Venice Commission or any other supranational institution the arguments are basically identical. At times it is just about improvements which are required or are in hand. Unfortunately, however, many other times it is a completely different matter: the ethical behaviour of our institutions leave much to be desired. This includes Parliament, which over the years has proven itself to be incapable of holding government to account. It gets worse by the hour as is evidenced by the behaviour of the Parliamentary Standing Committee which oversees the implementation of the Standards in Public Life. Specifically, the behaviour of the Speaker in the proceedings of that committee is, to put it mildly, unacceptable.
The Council of Europe’s GRECO Group has just issued its Fourth Evaluation Report on Malta. GRECO is the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption monitoring body. This GRECO report deals with corruption prevention in respect of Members of Parliament, judges and prosecutors in Malta.
It is nauseating to hear government spokespersons eulogising GRECO and emphasising a perceived praise for government “ethical initiatives”. It did nothing of the sort. It rather emphasised, in not so many words, that reforms in hand were moving too slowly and pointing out that they should be speeded up! I see no praise there.
Almost simultaneously we had another Venice Commission report, this time requested by Government, on how to implement changes to our legislation in order to ensure that it is possible for substantial penalties to be charged by a number of administrative authorities. The issue is whether these can be decided by a number of these authorities, staffed by so-called “persons of trust”, or else whether one had to stick to existing constitutional provisions which ensure that it is only a court of law presided by an impartial judge or magistrate that decides such matters.
Government has tried to use many tricks to force Parliament’s hand, clearly indicating that respect for the rule of law is not one of its strong attributes! Nothing new there, one might add.
The Venice Commission has drawn attention of Justice Minister Zammit Lewis that it would be appropriate if his government observes the paths laid down by the Constitution instead of engaging in tinkering with other pieces of legislation. Tactfully the Venice Commission points out that while it is expressing an opinion “contributing to the public discussion” it is Malta’s Constitutional Court which at the end of the day has the authority to decide whether the path on which government has embarked is correct or not!
The Venice Commission aptly threw the ball back in our court. It states in its report that its role “is not to assess whether the reform in question is necessary or appropriate. This decision falls within the sovereignty of the Maltese authorities and people. Further, the question of whether the proposed amendment of the Interpretation Act is compatible with the Constitution of Malta as interpreted by the constitutional case-law is for the Constitutional Court of Malta to decide, eventually.” (Vide para 94 of report)
For a change we have sought (foreign) advice, rather than complain on foreign interference. That is certainly an improvement!
Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 6 June 2021