The Presidential rubberstamp

While you are reading through this article, His Excellency President George Vella is in the United Kingdom – after attending for the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. He left these islands on Wednesday morning.

As soon as the Air Malta plane taking His Excellency to Birmingham was in the air, the Acting President Professor Frank Bezzina was at the President’s desk signing into law the IVF amendments. Those same amendments which Dr Vella refused to sign in the days before.

This is not the end of the story. By refusing to give his assent the President, George Vella, acted beyond his authority as in terms of law he had no discretion on the matter: he had to signify his assent without delay, as established by article 72 of the Constitution.

Even His Excellency is subject to the law, in this case the Constitution. His refusal to follow what is prescribed by the law is a serious breach of his Constitutional responsibilities, and, in the view of my party this gives rise to valid reasons to consider the impeachment of Dr George Vella from his Presidential duties. His Excellency should show us the way as to what it means to be subject to the rule of law. How do we expect others to carry out their duties if the Head of State acts in this way: the worst possible example?

There is still time for Parliament to consider impeachment proceedings against Dr George Vella and remove him from office in view of his unacceptable and illegal behaviour.

Parliament needs, however, to go beyond clearly censuring Dr George Vella. It is essential to consider in some depth the role of the President of the Republic. Specifically, it should consider whether the President should be just a rubberstamp or else whether he or she should have limited powers of review over Parliament’s legislative authority.

In submissions which the party that I lead presented to the Constitutional Convention we focused on this specific matter, among other issues. In a section of the document submitted to the Convention, entitled, The President of the Republic: appointment and responsibilities, my party proposed that the President should have the right to send legislation back to Parliament for its reconsideration, if, in his view such legislation runs counter to the provisions of the Constitution.

The President, on assuming office, declares that he/she will do all it takes to defend the Constitution. He/she is not however equipped with any (constitutional) tools with which to carry out his responsibilities. The Green proposal presented almost three years ago for the consideration of the Constitutional Convention identifies an essential tool with which His Excellency the President can act responsibly within the parameters of the law. We further proposed that should Parliament refuse to budge the President should refer the matter to the Constitutional Court for a final decision.  This is the manner in which the Presidency should function. Much better than the present-day theatrics.

In this manner the President’s office would not be a mere rubberstamp, constrained to assent or else act outside the parameters of the law.  The President’s actions in the past days conveyed the worst possible message. It almost happened some years ago when another President had (privately) indicated that he would not assent to legislation relative to Civil Unions (Act IX of 2014). In order to avert a Constitutional crisis government had then slightly delayed the final vote in parliament, timing it with the swearing in of a new President. The Civil Unions Act was in fact signed on the 17 April 2014, just thirteen days into the Presidency of Marie Louise Coleiro-Preca.

Parliament would do well to consider the issue further. It is essential that the President of the Republic is adequately equipped with the necessary constitutional tools in order that he can carry out his duties in a responsible manner and within the parameters of the law. The sooner this is done, the better.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 31 July 2022

Constitutional top-ups: a democratic deficit

Earlier this week Parliament started discussing Bill 119, proposing constitutional amendments “to ensure de facto equality between men and women in politics”.  A very noble aim which all progressive politicians share. Unfortunately, in addressing the issue of equality between men and women in politics Bill 119 creates another problem: it goes about it in a discriminatory fashion. It discriminates against third parties through excluding them almost completely.

Bill 119 aims to top-up the number of elected members of parliament by a total of not more than twelve additional MPs through a process identifying unelected electoral candidates from the minority gender when the general electoral process has been concluded. The minority gender being that which has a representation below 40 per cent of the total number of elected MPs.

Clause 3 of the Bill starts immediately on the wrong foot. It lays down that the provisions of the gender top-up based constitutional amendments under consideration are only applicable in general elections “in which only candidates of two parties are elected”.

This wording is a cut-and-paste from another Constitutional top-up which was introduced in 1987 and fine-tuned throughout the years through a number of constitutional amendments relating to proportionality. Even then the constitutional solution was based on a basic discriminatory premise that it is only applicable if candidates of two political parties are elected to Parliament.

It is proposed by Bill 119 that the additional MPs “are to be apportioned equally by the absolute majority party or the relative majority party and the minority party”.

As has been emphasised many times, the proportionality Constitutional top-up, while ensuring majority rule, has created a democratic deficit in our Constitution in view of the fact that it is generally not operative when more than two political parties make it to Parliament. The gender balance top-up, faithfully follows in its footsteps. An existing democratic deficit is being made even worse.

The day when a third party makes it to Parliament on its own steam is fast-approaching. When that day comes, and it may be close, a Constitutional crisis may arise due to myopic legal drafting. This basic (intentional) error has been repeated in the Constitutional amendments under consideration by Parliament at this point in time.

I was surprised when I noted that during the Parliamentary debate, earlier this week, Opposition MP Herman Schiavone gave notice of amendments to address the gender top-up Bill. His proposals are an excellent first step but, in my view, they are not enough as they do not address all the possibilities that may arise when eventually the provision is to be applied. The matter can be explored further when the actual amendments are debated, at which point possible solutions can be explored.

The matter was also emphasised in Parliament by the Leader of the Opposition, possibly indicating that the PN has now changed strategy and has thrown away its previous policy of trying to cannibalise third parties which have the potential to make it to Parliament. A cannibalisation exercise which has been heavily resisted by the Maltese Greens throughout the years.

When the proposal for the gender Constitutional top-ups was published for public consultation, the Maltese Greens had participated and published a document outlining possible alternatives. One cannot keep patching up our electoral system. A fresh holistic revision is needed which will address both the proportionality and the gender representation issues. A possible solution exists through the use of party electoral lists which need be gender balanced. This is already done in various other countries.

We did not receive any reaction to our proposal. The Commission entrusted with examining the matter did not seek to meet us to explore alternative potential solutions. Unfortunately, the Commission too was trapped in a two-party frame of mind and consequently it concluded its exercise by adopting a solution which further reinforces the existing democratic deficit in the Constitution.

The setting up of such obstructions make our life more difficult as it increases unnecessary and artificial obstacles which seek to complicate the political work of third parties. This is not just unfortunate: it lays bare the “democratic credentials” of government and its advisors.

published in the Malta Independent on Sunday : 17 January 2021