Bżonn ta’ impenn ikbar favur il-kontabilitá

 

Dal-għodu għan-nom ta’ Alternattiva Demokratika għamilt żjara ta’ kortesija lill-Ispeaker fl-uffiċini tiegħu fil-Parlament.

Tkellimna dwar il-ħidma tal-Parlament. Jiena għażilt li niffoka fuq żewġ punti. L-ewwel dwar in-nuqqas tad-dħul fis-seħħ tal-liġi dwar l-Istandards fil-Ħajja Pubblika u wara dwar ir-apport annwali tal-Ombudsman għall-2017. Żewġ argumenti li huma relatati ħafna.

Bid-dewmien tad-dħul fis-seħħ tal-Att dwar l-Istandards fil-Ħajja Pubblika il-Parlament qed jagħti messaġġ wieħed ċar: li m’għandux għaġġla biex il-Membri Parlamentari jagħtu kont ta’ egħmilhom kull meta dan ikun meħtieġ. Jidher li għad ma hemmx qbil bejn Gvern u Oppożizzjoni dwar il-ħatra tal-Kummissarju għall-Istandards fil-Ħajja Pubblika, liema Kummissarju jeħtieġlu li jinħatar bi qbil ta’ żewġ terzi tal-Kamra.

Jidher li l-partiti rappreżentati fil-Parlament m’għandhomx għaġġla biex din il-liġi tkun implimentata. L-ewwel damet tlett snin għaddejja mill-Parlament (Mejju 2014 sa Marzu 2017). Issa ilha ħmistax-il xahar li rċieviet l-approvazzjoni tal-President tar-Repubblika, iżda għada fuq l-ixkaffa.

Dan kollu jassumi sinifikat ikbar jekk wieħed jarrah fil-kuntest tar-rapport tal-Ombudsman għall-2017 fejn hu ċar li d-dritt għall-informazzjoni dwar l-amministrazzjoni pubblika qiegħed taħt assedju.

Hu ċar li l-kontabilitá u l-aċċess għall-informazzjoni jimxu id f’id fi stat demokratiku. Huma l-pedamenti tad-demokrazija li l-Parlament għandu l-obbligu li jindokra.

Tlabt lill-Ispeaker biex jiġbed l-attenzjoni tal-Parlament li mhux aċċettabbli li nibqgħu bit-tkaxkir tas-saqajn. Hu neċessarju li l-Parlament jassigura l-ħarsien tad-dritt tal-aċċess għall-informazzjoni kif ukoll li l-kontabilitá ma tibqax slogan.

 

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L-inċident fil-kamra tan-nar fis-Salini: dmugħ tal-kukkudrilli

 

L-inċident tal-kamra tan-nar tas-Salini għadu fl-aħbarijiet, mhux biss għax għad hemm il-possibilitá ta’ murtali li ma splodewx li jistgħu jkunu is-sors ta’ periklu. Imma ukoll għax għad hemm in-nies l-isptar, uħud fil-periklu li jitilfu ħajjithom. Fil-ħin li qed nikteb qed titħabbar il-mewt ta’ wieħed minn dawk imweġġgħin gravi.

L-inkjesti għaddejjin u f’xi stadju jkollna rakkomandazzjonijiet dwar x’jeħtieġ li jsir biex ikunu evitati dawn l-inċidenti. Imbagħad ikunu hemm ħafna dmugħ tal-kukkudrilli dwar il-ħtieġa li jittieħdu passi biex tiżdied is-siġurtá.

Tajjeb f’dan il-kuntest li niftakru li ftit ġimgħat ilu l-Qorti tal-Appell, dwar kawża li saret mill-komunitá rurali taż-Żebbiegħ tletin sena ilu, ħassret permess ta’ kamra tan-nar fiż-Żebbiegħ, u dan minħabba li ma kienitx tosserva d-distanzi minimi meħtieġa mill-liġi.

Sfortunatament din id-deċiżjoni tal-Qorti ġiet newtralizzata, għax il-Parlament Malti, bi qbil unanimu, emenda l-liġi biex jagħti lill-Kummissarju tal-Pulizija l-awtoritá li jkun jista’ joħroġ il-permess għall-kamra tan-nar xorta waħda, minkejja li l-qisien minimi ma jkunux osservati.

Hi ipokrezija grassa li, fost dawk li l-iktar marru malajr is-Salini jxerrdu d-dmugħ tal-kukkudrilli, kien hemm dawk li mexxew il-quddiem malajr malajr il-liġi li tagħmilha possibli li l-kmamar tan-nar ikunu iktar viċin in-nies, bil-periklu b’kollox.

Issa, l-qisien minimi kif inhuma, waħedhom m’humiex biżżejjed biex jipproteġu n-nies. Aħseb u ara jekk tagħmilha possibli li dawn jonqsu.

Parliament moves the goalposts in support of fireworks lobby

On Friday, 26 January 2018, Malta’s Court of Appeal delivered judgement on a fireworks factory law suit which had originally been presented way back in 1989. The Court of Appeal accepted the requests of the plaintiffs (the rural community) and declared the building permit for a fireworks factory at iż-Żebbiegħ null and void.

The wheels of justice grind slowly, very slowly, we are told: 30 years in fact. Unfortunately, the wheels of injustice are too fast.

Fast-forward two months to March 2018: Parliament debates and approves amendments to the Explosives Ordinance, consequently removing the legal requirements as a result of which the Court of Appeal declared the permit for the Żebbiegħ fireworks factory null and void. Malta’s Parliament is of course very respectful of the rule of law, to the extent that if a powerful lobby falls foul of the law, the law is changed as quickly as possible thereby ensuring that after all, it is possible to be in full alignment with the law.

Parliament has caved-in to the demands of the fireworks lobby and restored its privileged status of being above the law. As a result, Parliament has set aside the expectations of the Żebbiegħ rural community which, for 30 years, has been battling against the Maltese state to ensure that the rule of law prevails.

As a result of the amendments just approved, Parliament has granted the Commissioner of Police the discretion to consider issuing a licence for a fireworks factory when this is closer that the minimum distance prescribed by law – which is 183 metres. Parliament has decided to give the Commissioner of Police this additional authority which he can apply “after giving due consideration to the exigencies of public safety”. Among those MPs accepting the granting of such additional authority to the Commissioner of Police where those who, until a few days ago were insisting that he should resign.

Parliament rushed legislation through practically all its stages on the 20 March 2018. The minutes of the Parliamentary session do not indicate a single Member of Parliament standing up to the fireworks lobby and its Ministerial lackeys. None of the 67 MPs stood up for the Żebbiegħ rural community: they preferred to protect the operation of fireworks factories instead.

It would be more appropriate if Parliament were to start debating the Vella report presented by the Commission of Inquiry headed by Professor Alfred Vella some years ago [Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Accidents in Fireworks Factories]. The 97- page report, published on 11 November 2011, contained a list of 24 recommendations, most of which dealing with the required quality of the materials used in the local manufacture of fireworks. Apparently a discussion on these conclusions is not a priority for the time being. Such a discussion seems to have been shelved until the next deadly fireworks accident.

Then maybe another inquiry and another report would be produced. Another smokescreen.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 6 May 2018

Manoel Island: one step forward

The controversy on the future of Manoel Island has been going on for ages.

The citizen’s action some 18 months ago led by eNGO Kamp Emergenza Ambjent and publicly supported by the Gżira Mayor Conrad Borg Manchè as well as various eNGOs led to the current breakthrough with MIDI, as a result of which common sense will be given the opportunity to prevail.

The setting up of the Manoel Island Foundation with environmentalist Claire Bonello as chair is a landmark decision. It does not signify agreement with what has been done to date but rather a determination that in the future, if we put our heads together, we can possibly avoid past mistakes. In time, perhaps, we can also seek to reverse some of the mistakes carried out so far.

When, together with countless others, I joined the protest at Manoel Island 18 months ago, I had one objective in mind: that access to the open spaces and the foreshore of Manoel Island belonged to all of us. There was an urgent need that this access be claimed back and subsequently guaranteed. This has now been done.

The Guardianship agreement focus specifically on the public’s right of access which right has always been in existence even though MIDI did its best to obstruct its use over the years. MIDI has (at last) bound itself to respect such a right of access and together with the Gżira Local Council has spelled out the details on how this can be reasonably exercised. The efforts put in by all environmentalists bore fruit such that MIDI clearly understood that it could no longer avoid the negotiating table. It risked further reputational damage which it could ill-afford.

The cynics among us correctly maintain that there is nothing for which to thank MIDI that has after all obstructed the public’s right of access for so many years! They are of course right, but it is time to move on to the next challenges. We move forward incrementally, one small step at a time.

The Guardianship agreement seeks to address two diametrically opposed positions: the Gżira community’s right of access as supported by the environmental lobby on the one hand and the MIDI development rights granted by Parliament in the 1990s on the other hand.

One can argue until eternity that Malta’s Parliament was irresponsible when it unanimously approved the motion granting development rights to MIDI over the Tigne peninsula and Manoel Island. I still hold that same view. No Green could ever support such a Parliamentary motion, not even with the restoration sugar-coating obligations woven into the agreed concession.

Given that Parliament has no political will to reverse the 1990s decision and take Manoel Island back into public ownership, the Gżira Local Council, supported by eNGOs was right to seek and arrive at the Guardianship agreement. The agreement fills a void which Parliament and government could not even understand, and consequently could not address.

A price had to be paid for the Guardianship agreement to be concluded. This was the acceptance, subject to the provisions of the agreement, of the Manoel Island Masterplan and commitment on the part of those around the negotiating table not to oppose or object to its implementation. I think that this is the point of contention brought forward by those who disagree with the Guardianship agreement. This might be considered a high price to pay. However, it must be pointed out that the agreement contains a number of limitations on the Masterplan’s implementation and grants the Manoel Island Foundation a legal basis to halt the commercialisation of the foreshore or the green open spaces.

Alternattiva Demokratika considers the Guardianship agreement to be a positive step forward as it addresses the pressing issue of access based of a realistic appraisal of the situation. Gżira Local Council and the eNGOs involved are to be applauded for their determination in reaching this goal. Moreover, the Guardianship agreement does not exclude the possibility that in future, a responsible Parliament would seriously consider taking all of Manoel Island back into public ownership. It should however be noted that only a green MP can guarantee that the matter makes it to Parliament’s agenda. The others are too “business friendly” to even consider the matter.

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 1st April 2018

Illum : wara li l-Arċisqof beżaq mis-sunnara tal-PN

 

L-emendi Kostituzzjonali reġgħu fuq l-agenda.

Nafu li tul dawn l-aħħar snin il-possibilita li tiltaqa’ l-konvenzjoni kostituzzjoni kienet limitata minħabba li ġie mdeffes fin-nofs Franco Debono. Il-Partit Laburista ried lilu u l-Partit Nazzjonalista oppona. Nifhmu li għad qed isiru sforzi biex din il-problema tingħeleb.Imma qed jingħadu diversi affarijiet oħra li huma ta’ interess kbir.

Madwar tlett ġimgħat ilu, Mons Scicluna qal li l-Knisja ma jkollha l-ebda oġġezzjoni li titneħħa r-referenza għal Kattoliċiżku mill-Kostituzzjoni Maltija. Il-Knisja, qal Mons. Scicluna, ma tridx privileġġi imma trid il-libertà reliġjuża. Dikjarazzjoni makakka u f’waqtha ta’ Mons Scicluna li indirizzat waħda mill-issues jaħarqu quddiem il-Konvenzjoni Kostituzzjonali. Jaħarqu fis-sens li kien (u għadu) antiċipat li l-PN jopponi din il-bidla. Dan minkejja li din il-bidla kostituzzjonali ma għandhiex bżonn żewġ terzi tal-Parlament għall-approvazzjoni, iżda teħtieġ biss maġġoranza sempliċi. Bid-dikjarazzjoni ta’ Mons Scicluna l-Knisja beżqet mis-sunnara tal-P.N. u mhux ser tħalli lill-P.N. jinqeda biha!

Issa li l-Knisja beżqet mis-sunnara tar-Religio et Patria, illum ħarġet ir-reazzjoni ta’ Adrian Delia, mexxej tal-PN, u dan kif antiċipat. Ser jibda jbeżża’ bil-babaw ġaladarba l-Knisja mhux ser tħallieh jinqeda biha. Dalgħodu kien rappurtat li Adrian Delia qal li l-Prim Ministru jrid ineħħi l-kurċifissi mill-iskejjel! Daqt jibda jgħidilna li sejrin l-infern!

Ir-realta hi li Malta għandha bżonn Kostituzzjoni lajka, jiġifieri kostituzzjoni li filwaqt li tirrispetta l-liberta reliġjuża tkun waħda li ma tpoġġi l-ebda reliġjon fiċ-ċentru tagħha. Tkun kostituzzjoni sekulari. Il-pajjiż hekk hu fir-realtà, wieħed lajk, u l-kostituzzjoni tiegħu għandha tirrispetta dan il-fatt.

Hemm bżonn ftit iktar serjeta meta niddiskutu l-kostituzzjoni. B’mod partikolari mill-partit tal-avukati!

Sadanittant Alternattiva Demokratika qed tistenna li tibda l-konvenzjoni kostituzzjonali biex tkun tista’ tinvolvi ruħha fid-diskussjoni dwar it-tibdil meħtieġ fil-kostituzzjoni Maltija. S’issa, AD ma hiex involvuta f’xi diskussjjonijiet li jidher li għaddejjin.

L-Ippjanar rasu l-isfel

Nhar l-Erbgħa, l-Kumitat Parlamentari dwar l-Ambjent u l-Ippjanar beda d-diskussjoni dwar jekk għandux ikun hemm tibdil fil-politika dwar il-pompi tal-petrol (u d-disil) (Fuel Service Stations Policy) tal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar. Bla dubju kien xprunat mid-deċiżjonijiet riċenti tal-istess awtorità dwar pompi tal-petrol f’f’Burmarrad, Marsaskala u l-Magħtab. Hemm applikazzjonijiet pendenti għal pompi ġodda f’Ħ’Attard, l-Imqabba u l-Iklin fil-waqt li hemm madwar 60 pompa oħra qed jistennew il-permessi mill-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar biex itejbu l-faċilitajiet inkluż protezzjoni ambjentali u dan minn total eżistenti ta’ 85 pompa.

Il-kummenti validi kienu bosta. Ikkonċentraw l-iktar fuq il-ħtieġa li l-pompi tal-petrol fiż-żona urbana jingħalqu u li dawn jiċċaqalqu xi mkien ieħor. Ftit iżda kien hemm ħeġġa biex tkun diskussa l-qalba tal-materja: xi bżonn għandna tal-pompi tal-petrol?

Madwar ħames xhur ilu, il-Prim Ministru, wara li għal darba oħra ħares ħarsa sewwa lejn il-Manifest Elettorali ta’ Alternattiva Demokratika tal-2017, ħabbar, li l-Gvern immexxi minnu kien ser jagħti bidu għal process ta’ konsultazzjoni pubblika. Dan biex jistabilixxi data minn meta karozzi li jaħdmu bil-petrol u d-disil ma jkunux jistgħu jinbiegħu iktar biex minflok ikollna karozzi li jaħdmu bl-elettriku. Ma smajna xejn iktar dwar dan ħlief artiklu miktub mill-Ministru tat-Trasport Ian Borg entużjażmat li fis-snin li ġejjin ser nimxu fuq il-passi ta’ pajjiżi Ewropej oħra.

Il-Prim Ministru, bir-raġun kollu emfasizza li din il-bidla fil-politika tal-Gvern kienet meħtieġa minħabba li l-emmissjonijiet tal-karozzi kienu l-ikbar sors ta’ tniġġiż tal-arja fil-pajjiż. Għalfejn dan id-dewmien kollu biex ikunu stabiliti u mħabbra d-dettalji ta’ din id-deċiżjoni tajba? Uħud mill-pajjiżi Ewropej ilhom żmien li għamlu dan. In-Norveġja u l-Olanda stabilew is-sena 2025, il-Ġermanja qed tikkonsidra s-sena 2030, fil-waqt li Franza u r-Renju Unit huma mħajra għas-sena 2040 biex iwaqqfu l-bejgħ ta’ karozzi li jaħdmu bil-petrol u d-disil.

Id-diskussjoni dwar il-politika li tikkonċerna l-pompi tal-petrol/disil għandha issir f’kuntest wiesgħa tal-politika tat-trasport inkluż l-elettrifikazzjoni tal-mezzi privati tat-trasport.

Il-punt ewlieni tad-diskussjoni huwa li bħala riżultat tal-elettrifikazzjoni n-numru ta’ pompi tal-petrol/disel meħtieġa mhux ser jiżdied imma ser jonqos fuq medda ta’ snin u dan sakemm jasal għal xejn jew kważi xejn. Allura għalfejn nibnu u ninkoraġixxu l-bini ta’ iktar pompi tal-petrol/disil? Ikun ferm iktar għaqli kieku l-investiment nindirizzawh lejn is-soluzzjoni tal-problemi, mhux lejn it-tkattir tagħhom!

Il-pompi tal-petrol eżistenti fiż-żoni urbani qed jintużaw bħala skuża biex jippruvaw jiġġustifikaw it-tħarbit ta’ 3000 metru kwadru ta’ art. Fil-fatt dan hu l-iskop ewlieni tal-politika dwar il-pompi tal-fjuwil approvata fl-2015.

Ma jkunx aħjar li flok ma jingħalqu l-pompi tal-petrol fl-abitat ikunu konvertiti f’lok fejn tiċċarġja l-batteriji tal-karozzi? Dawn il-pompi qegħdin fil-parti l-kbira tagħhom f’żoni ċentrali u huma ġeneralment ta’ qies żgħir. Kull pompa tal-petrol urbana li tkun salvata u konvertita biex fiha niċċarġjaw il-batteriji tfisser ukoll li nkunu salvajna 3000 metru kwadru ta’ art minn spekulazzjoni. Fl-istess ħin inkunu qed nippovdu servizz li ser ikun essenzjali eżatt fejn hu meħtieġ.

Dan ikun użu tajjeb għall-investiment, aħjar milli jintuża f’bini ta’ pompi ġodda barra miż-żona ta’ l-iżvilupp. Jekk dan isir inkunu qed nittrasformaw problema eżistenti f’diversi lokalitajiet f’soluzzjoni addattata għall-bini tal-infrastruttura meħtieġa għall-eletrifikazzjoni tat-trasport privat f’Malta.

Dan ovvjament ifisser li nkunu qed naqilbu ta’ taħt fuq il-politika dwar il-pompi tal-fjuwil. Flok ma nużaw il-pompi urbani bħala skuża biex tkun ġustifikata l-ispekulazzjoni tal-art inkunu qed nagħtu spinta tajba lill-ħarsien ambjentali.

Hu eżattament dan li għandna bżonn f’dan il-mument: naqilbu l-ippjanar rasu l-isfel.

 

Ippubblikat fuq Illum : Il-Ħadd 4 ta’ Frar 2018

 

Turning the Fuel Service Stations Policy on its head

Last Wednesday, the Parliamentary Environment and Land Use Planning Committee discussed the possible revision of the Fuel Service Stations Policy. The three development permits issued in the past weeks by the Planning Authority for fuel service stations at Burmarrad, Marsaskala and Magħtab without doubt was the spark that motivated the discussion. Among the pending applications, Attard, Mqabba and Iklin are queuing for new service stations, while over 60 more, from a current total of 85 stations are awaiting the Planning Authority go-ahead for upgrading.

A number of valid observations were made. Most of the discussion dealt with the need to relocate service stations currently within urban areas but there was, however, a reluctance to address head-on the real issue: do we need fuel service stations?

Almost five months ago, the Prime Minister – taking a leaf from Alternattiva Demokratika’s 2017 election manifesto – announced that his government will be launching a public consultation to establish a cut-off date for the sale of diesel and petrol cars in Malta and the use of only electricity-driven vehicles instead. We have not heard much more about this proposal, apart for an article by Transport Minister Ian Borg who wrote about following in the footsteps of other European countries in “phasing out new petrol and diesel vehicles in the next few decades”.

The Prime Minister has rightly emphasised that this change in policy is required in view of the fact that vehicle emissions are the largest source of pollution in Malta, but why wait so long to put flesh on the bare bones of the declared policy? Other European countries have already determined their cut-off date. Norway and the Netherlands are considering the year 2025, Germany is considering 2030, while France and the United Kingdom are opting for the year 2040 by which to halt the sale of diesel and petrol vehicles.

Revisiting the Fuel Service Stations Policy should not be discussed in a vacuum. It has to be placed in the context of related transport policies and in particular the fact (hopefully) that Malta should now be going electric.

The main issue clearly is that, as a result of going electric, the number of fuel service stations required will at some point in the future – hopefully the not so very distant future – will be next to nil. So why build more of them? Why encourage investment in something that is not needed? It would be much better to channel investment into resolving problems instead of adding to them.

The relocation of urban area fuel service stations – the main thrust of the Fuel Service Stations Policy approved in 2015 – is being used to justify the uptake of 3,000 square metres of land. But instead of relocating the existing service stations in urban areas, would it not be much better if these were converted into charging stations? These service stations are centrally located and mostly of a relatively small size. Every conversion one into a charging station would potentially save 3000 square metres of land in the middle of nowhere and simultaneously provide the service of electrically charging vehicles right where that service is required: in our urban areas.

It is towards the conversion of these fuel stations that investment should be channelled. They can be transformed from being a problem in our residential communities to being an integral and focal part of the strategy to develop a suitable, reliable and – above all – sustainable infrastructure so necessary for the electrification of private transport.

This would obviously turn the Fuel Service Stations policy upside down. Instead of using urban service stations as an excuse to trigger more land speculation, it is about time to inject some environmental considerations right where they are most needed.

This is what we need right now: the turning of the Fuel Service Stations Policy on its head.

 

published on the Malta Independent on Sunday : 4 February 2018

Meta l-Opposizzjoni toħroġ il-barra mill-Parlament

Li bħala protesta titlaq il-barra mill-Parlament waqt seduta parlamentari hi materja gravi għax tfisser li ma hemmx mod ieħor kif iż-żewġ naħat jikkomunikaw.

Dan mhux sinjal sabiħ u ma jagħmel l-ebda ġid lid-demokrazija parlamentari tagħna. Ovvjament il-Parlament baqa’ għaddej bix-xogħol tiegħu.

Saru ħafna żbalji li ħtija tagħhom il-pajjiż jinsab fil-qagħda attwali. Hu neċessarju li illum qabel għada jinstab mezz effettiv ta’ komunikazzjoni. Sfortunatament jidher li għadna l-bogħod.

Hemm bżonn li nikkomunikaw aktar. Forsi naslu biex nirrispettaw iktar lil xulxin, kif ukoll lill-pajjiżna. Għax pajjiżna jixraqlu ħafna aħjar.

Constitutional Convention: upsetting the apple-cart

 

A Constitutional Convention is long overdue. It has been on the public agenda for years.

Over the years, Malta’s Constitution has been patched up several times in order to resolve political issues arising at that particular point in time. It is about time that the Constitution is considered in its entirety in order to ensure that it serves the needs of the nation now and in the foreseeable future. An overhaul would certainly be in order.

One major issue which, in my view, needs to be addressed is the curtailing of the executive’s power over the composition, set-up and running of authorities and institutions so that these can begin functioning properly. Rather than the executive ceding power, as Minister Owen Bonnici stated recently when piloting the debate on the Bill that seeks to introduce limited screening of public appointments, it means that Parliament should rediscover its proper functions and claim back its authority.

This is the basic flaw in Malta’s Constitutional set-up. Malta is described as a Parliamentary democracy and, on paper, Parliament does have the power to decide but, over the years it has been reluctant to upset the current balance of power that favours Cabinet over Parliament. Unless and until there is a will to address this, no headway can be made and any proposed changes will necessarily be cosmetic in nature.

Currently, the focus of public debate is on the functioning of the institutions of the state. This debate has been going on for some time but has gathered steam as a result of the obvious inertia observed over many years. The principal issue is the manner in which major public appointments are made.

Unfortunately the public debate is sometimes derailed. The debate on the Attorney General’s office, for example, should rather be on the functions of the office than on Dr. Peter Grech, the current incumbent. In particular, Parliament should examine whether the multitude of responsibilities added to the office of the Attorney General over the years have diluted its Constitutional responsibilities. One detailed proposal on the hiving off of responsibility for public prosecutions was made in the Vanni Bonello-led Justice Reform Commission, many moons ago. So far, no action has been taken.

I think that by now it is clear to all that Parliament, on its own, will not deliver on the reform required because such reform, if properly carried out, will upset the manner in which political power is exercised in these islands.

The basic Constitutional set-up underpinning the 1964 Constitution, notwithstanding the multitude of changes carried out throughout the years – including the 1974 change from a Constitutional Monarchy to a Republic – is still substantially in place. On Independence, in 1964, most of the powers of the British sovereign, then exercised through the Governor, were handed over to the Prime Minister, subject to the theoretical oversight of Parliament. For over 50 years, Parliament has been reluctant to upset the apple-cart and no Prime Minister has ever had the courage to propose the curtailment of his own powers and handing them over completely to Parliament, which is where they belong in a Parliamentary democracy. Nor has Parliament ever taken the initiative: its composition prevents it from acting in such a manner.

The current large size of the Cabinet, coupled with the nomination of backbench MPs on the government side to various posts and sinecures, is a clear declaration of intent. Keeping backbench MPs happy and occupied reduce the likelihood of them asking too many questions. This has been going on for some time: in fact the Gonzi administration acted in a manner very similar to the current administration in this respect.

This, in my view, is the crux of the whole issue which Parliament cannot and will not resolve on its own. It needs a vibrant civil society (not a fake one represented by a couple of non-entities) which can prod and guide it until it embarks on the path where real political power is channelled back to where it really belongs. This is the real reason why electoral reform has always been left on the back burner, as it is only through fair electoral reform that results in a different Parliamentary format whereby Parliament can start to think outside the box in which it is currently restrained.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 5 November 2017

Owen’s latest gimmick

Earlier this week, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici explained to the press the measures proposed by the government in order that Parliament will be in a position to examine its political appointees nominated to head various state agencies or institutions as well as those appointed to ambassadorships from outside the civil service.

Naturally, the first reaction to Owen Bonnici’s declaration is that government’s proposal is a positive small first step. However, when the detailed proposal was published, it was clear that this was another gimmick. It is proposed that a Parliamentary Standing Committee will be able to examine potential political appointees through written questions. On the basis of the answers received, and supplementary (written) questions, the Parliamentary Standing Committee will be expected to advise the government on the appointments under consideration.

This is a far cry from what is expected in a modern democracy.

Parliament, either directly or through a standing committee, should not be expected to simply advise. It should decide on the suitability or otherwise of the government nominees. This should be done after the nominees have been examined in a public hearing in the same manner as that of the US Senate Committees or the Parliamentary Committees of various other countries. This can only be done if Parliament reclaims the powers it has ceded to the government over the years.

Parliamentary scrutiny means much more than answering a set of written questions. Examining the nominees to ascertain their suitability for the post they have been nominated goes much further than the superficial examination of their professional competence. It also entails the examination of their past performance in order to ascertain whether they are capable of withstanding political pressure which seeks to sway their judgement in favour of political expediency and consequently influence their behaviour.

Such an exercise cannot be done through written questions but through a viva voce examination where it is not only what is said that matters. Interpreting body language and reactions to unexpected questions or statements is generally more relevant than deciphering boring, long-winded answers that go around in circles and generally avoid providing an answer at all.

During the general election campaign a few months ago, we were told that we needed “Labour-proof institutions”. In reality, government institutions and agencies should be at arms length from the government of the day in all day to day matters. This is done by ensuring that the running of government institutions and agencies is not the prerogative of political cronies but of suitably qualified appointees.

The government proposal is one that ensures that Parliament, through it’s Standing Committees, will not be in a position to carry out any meaningful scrutiny.  Parliament needs to have the authority to block the appointments which it considers to be unsuitable and in order to be able to act in this manner, the government’s proposal needs to be heavily revisited.

It is for this reason that – in the recent general election manifesto (and even in that of the previous general election) – we Greens proposed a much more effective policy: that parliament (or its committees) should have the authority to decide, and not merely advise on, public appointments and that this should be done through a public hearing without limitations.

These are the essential building blocks of a healthy democracy.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 1st October 2017