In a Banana Republic

When Labour Leader Robert Abela addressed the party faithful at the Birkirkara Labour Party Club last Sunday, he was right to complain that the sentencing policy currently applied by the judiciary may at times appear as being too lenient. However, as Prime Minister he had other fora through which to convey his preoccupation and to emphasise the need of an up-to-date sentencing policy.

He could have drawn the attention of the President of the Republic in order that he may refer the matter for the consideration of the Commission for the Administration of Justice. He could have legitimately brought up the matter in a formal meeting with the Chief Justice. He could also legislate in order to restrict the current flexibility which the Courts have when applying the law. In fact, he has at his disposal various tools to bring about the change he spoke about: pontificating at the Birkirkara Labour Party Club through a Sunday political sermon is not one of these tools.

At Birkirkara Robert Abela also spoke on the conflict of interest which Members of Parliament who are practising criminal lawyers are continuously exposed to. They ably defend their clients during the morning in Court pleading in favour of minimal sentencing, including the application of suspended sentences. Then, in the afternoon, emphasised Robert Abela, in Parliament, these same Members of Parliament vociferously argue on the dangers of an increasing criminality.

He is definitely right on that. But this line of reasoning does not only apply to criminal lawyers. It is also applicable to MPs who are civil and commercial lawyers as well as to other professionals in their specific area of practice. We have been exposed to this over the years in a number of cases. Is it not about time that parliament is made up of full-timers? No Member of Parliament should carry out any other work (paid or unpaid) except that resulting from his/her parliamentary duties. My party has been emphasising this for a considerable number of years. We believe that it is the only way to effectively address the obvious conflict of interest which abounds in Parliament.

Robert Abela said more. He referred to a tete-a-tete with a sitting Magistrate with whom he discussed the lenient sentencing which the Criminal Law Courts are applying. The Magistrate, said Abela, defensively replied that it is all the fault of the appeals court as they consider themselves bound by precedent when they revise the decisions delivered by the inferior courts, ending up in lighter sentences.

Robert Abela was wrong when he conveyed his views directly to one of the Magistrates currently sitting in judgement at the inferior Courts. Bragging about it in public makes it even worse as it conveys the wrong message that the judiciary is at the beck and call of the Executive. This, in plain language, threatens the independence of the judiciary. As a lawyer, Robert Abela is undoubtedly aware that he has gone far beyond the red line.

In any other democratic country where rule of law is fact, not fiction, Robert Abela would have resigned within a couple of hours after having publicly admitting pressuring a sitting Magistrate. Similarly, the Magistrate who allowed the discussion to proceed would by now have been identified and disciplined.

But, as you are aware, nothing has happened yet.

On Monday in a press statement, I have called on the President of the Republic to convene an urgent meeting of the Commission for the Administration of Justice to take the necessary and required action. So far there has been no reaction whatsoever. Possibly his Excellency the President is currently abroad, or, maybe he is extremely busy with some activity promoting the citrous products of the presidential kitchen garden at the San Anton Presidential Palace!

As things stand banana week would definitely be a future activity in the Presidential agenda: this takes priority over the independence of the judiciary, in this Banana Republic!

published in the Malta Independent on Sunday: 5 February 2023

Il-Kostituzzjoni tagħna: ir-riforma meħtieġa

Hawn min iqis li l-kostituzzjoni ta’ Malta hi tajba kif inhi u li għaldaqstant, jaħseb, li ma hemm l-ebda ħtieġa li nduruha dawra sew. Kien ikun sewwa kieku din kienet is-sitwazzjoni. Imma sfortunatament l-affarijiet huma ferm differenti minn hekk. Il-kostituzzjoni teħtieġ ferm iktar minn ftit irtokki ‘l hawn u ‘l-hemm.

lkoll nafu li l-kostituzzjoni ma titħaddimx biss minn persuni ta’ rieda tajba. Nistgħu ngħidu li xi minn daqqiet din ir-rieda tajba tkun ftit skarsa f’dawk li jmexxu u f’dawk li niddependu fuqhom għat-tħaddim tal-kostituzzjoni. Xi drabi dawn ifittxu t-toqob minn fejn jgħaddu u b’hekk jagħmlu ħilithom biex jevitaw milli jwettqu dmirhom.

Ilkoll nixtiequ li dan ma kienx hekk, imma l-esperjenzi tagħna lkoll, kontinwament, juru mod ieħor. Huma esperjenzi li l-ħin kollu juru li hemm ħtieġa illi l-kostituzzjoni tkun ħafna iktar ċara milli hi illum biex tilqa’ iktar għall-kontra l-abbużi u tonqos il-possibilità tal-misinterpretazzjoni tagħha.

Malta qed tinbidel u jeħtieġ li l-kostituzzjoni tagħna tirrifletti din il-bidla. Hu meħtieġ li l-Kostituzzjoni illum tirrifletti l-valuri ta’ Malta tas-seklu 21.

Tul is-snin, Alternattiva Demokratika tkellmet dwar diversi aspetti tal-kostituzzjoni li jeħtieġ li jkunu ikkunsidrati mill-ġdid, inkella li hemm bżonn li jiżdiedu ma’ dak li tipprovdi għalihom il-kostituzzjoni attwali. Dan jeħtieġ li jsir mhux biss fid-dawl tal-esperjenzi tal-pajjiż tul is-snin imma ukoll għax il-pajjiż għaddej minn metamorfosi kontinwa.

Ewlenija fost dawn l-esperjenzi hemm ir-rwol sekondarju li fih, tul is-snin, ġie mqiegħed il-Parlament fil-konfront tal-Kabinett. Ma’ dan trid iżżid ukoll id-drawwa tal-Parlament li kontinwament jgħaddi poteri sostanzjali lill-Kabinett kif ukoll lill-Ministri individwali mingħajr l-iċken sorveljanza inkella b’sorveljanza irriżorja. Hemm ukoll il-korpi regolatorji li l-persuni li jmexxuhom mhux biss jinħatru, ġeneralment, mingħajr referenza lill-Parlament, imma li wkoll, b’mod konsistenti, ftit li xejn isir skrutinju tagħhom, la qabel ma jinħatru u wisq inqas wara.

Din kienet is-sitwazzjoni sal-emendi riċenti għall-Att dwar l-Amministrazzjoni Pubblika liema emendi ħolqu l-Kumitat Permanenti dwar il-Ħatriet Pubbliċi biex ikunu skrutinati mill-Parlament xi ħatriet politiċi li jsiru minn żmien għal żmien. Minn dak li rajna s’issa, l-iskrutinju li qiegħed isir hu wieħed superfiċjali ħafna, lil hinn minn dak li hu mistenni.

Ir-rapport riċenti tal-Kummissjoni Venezja tal-Kunsill tal-Ewropa, li jiffoka fuq is-saltna tad-dritt, l-indipendenza tal-ġudikatura u tal-korpi bl-inkarigu li jinfurzaw il-liġi, jiftaħ id-diskussjoni beraħ dwar kif għandhom isiru dawn il-ħatriet u dwar jekk il-Gvern u/jew il-Parlament għandux fil-fatt ikollhom xi rwol f’dan il-proċess.

Fil-fehma ta’ Alternattiva Demokratika mhux aċċettabbli li l-Parlament jibqa’ jagħti blank cheque lill-Kabinett, lill-Ministri u lill-awtoritajiet regolatorji. Il-Parlament għandu jżomm il-kontroll effettiv f’idejh: huwa l-Parlament li għandu jmexxi u mhux il-Kabinett għax, kif iħobbu jfakkruna wħud ta’ kulltant, il-Parlament hu l-ogħla istituzzjoni tal-pajjiż.

Mill-Indipendenza l-pajjiż dejjem tmexxa mill-Kabinett li kontinwament ta’ struzzjonijiet lill-Parlament, li, għall-formalità, bi ftit eċċezzjonijiet, approva dawn l-istruzzjonijiet u mexa magħhom.

Dan ovvjament kien possibli minħabba l-polarizzazzjoni tal-pajjiż f’żewġ sferi politiċi li ttrasformaw dak li fuq il-karta hi demokrazija parlamentari f’sistema ta’ ċentraliżmu demokratiku, immexxija mill-Kabinett.

Spiċċajna biex flok il-Kabinett hu qaddej tal-Parlament l-affarijiet huma kważi kompletament bil-maqlub.

Din, fil-fehma ta’ Alternattiva Demokratika, hi waħda mir-raġunijiet ewlenin għaliex kontinwament hemm resistenza għal sistema elettorali aħjar li tagħti spażju lill-ilħna oħrajn, lil hinn mill-ilħna tradizzjonali.

Għax l-effett prattiku tad-dħul ta’ partiti politiċi addizzjonali fil-Parlament, eventwalment, ikun ifisser rifondazzjoni tad-demokrazija parlamentari bid-deċiżjonijiet jittieħdu fil-Parlament stess u l-Kabinett ikun relegat għal postu: jirrapporta lill-Parlament, jieħu l-istruzzjonijiet mingħandu u jwettaqhom!

Fi ftit kliem, dan ifisser il-ħtieġa li jkun hemm separazzjoni effettiva bejn l-eżekuttiv u l-leġislattiv, punt fundamentali meta qed nitħaddtu dwar il-kostituzzjoni ta’ demokrazija parlamentari. Din is-separazzjoni illum teżisti fuq il-karta biss.

Il-Kostituzzjoni teħtieġ li tirrifletti ukoll il-ħtieġa għal trasparenza u l-kontabilità. Dan hu meħtieġ mhux biss min-naħa tal-politiċi imma wkoll mingħand dawk kollha li jirċievu kwalunkwe delega ta’ xi forma ta’ awtorità eżekuttiva, anke l-iżjed waħda ċkejkna.

Ma’ dan kollu trid iżżid is-sistema elettorali, li teħtieġ tibdil sostanzjali. Dan hu meħtieġ prinċipalment minħabba li r-regoli kostituzzjonali dwar il-proporzjonalità huma limitati u diskriminatorji fl-applikazzjoni tagħhom.

Dawn japplikaw biss f’sitwazzjoni fejn fil-Parlament ikun hemm żewġ partiti politiċi u u allura, b’mod prattiku, japplikaw favur il-Partit Laburista u l-Partit Nazzjonalista, li fassluhom favur tagħhom.

Imma l-proċess elettorali jeħtieġ li jkun eżaminat mill-ġdid ukoll, għax illum, iktar minn qatt qabel, hawn il-ħtieġa ta’ intervent leġislattiv biex ikun indirizzat in-nuqqas tal-presenza adegwata tal-ġeneri differenti fil-fora politiċi Maltin, ewlieni fosthom fil-Parlament Malti.

Pajjiżna qed jinbidel kontinwament. Kultant din il-bidla isseħħ b’ritmu kajman. Drabi oħra din issir b’għaġġla kbira, kif qed iseħħ fil-mument. Huma bidliet li l-poplu Malti qed iħaddan kontinwament.

Bidliet li żdiedu fir-ritmu hekk kif Malta issieħbet fl-Unjoni Ewropea u bdiet dieħla fis-seklu wieħed u għoxrin, u b’mod iktar qawwi minn meta seħħ l-approvazzjoni tar-referendum dwar id-divorzju fl-2011.

Malta tal-lum hi differenti minn Malta tal-1964. F’numru ta’ aspetti hi wkoll Malta aħjar. Hi Malta li mxiet ‘il-quddiem u addattat ruħha ġeneralment b’suċċess għal dak li seħħ madwarha. F’dan il-proċess mifrux fuq kważi 60 sena, minn stat prattikament konfessjonali Malta żviluppat fi stat lajk b’koeżistenza ta’ valuri li jikkuntrastaw.

F’Malta illum isaltan pluraliżmu etiku. Hija din il-pluralità ta’ valuri ta’ Malta tal-lum li għandna nżommu quddiem għajnejna aħna u niddibattu dwar x’forma għandu jkollha kostituzzjoni emendata jew mibdula fil-ġimgħat u fix-xhur li ġejjin.

 

Ippubblikat fuq Illum : Il-Ħadd 10 ta’ Novembru 2019

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