26 May Riformi Kostituzzjonali (13) : Maltatoday 3 t’Ottubru 2011
Monday 3 October 2011 – 07:49
Doors flung open to Constitutional changes
President George Abela is set to kick-off the national debate on changes to the Constitution next April, as calls for reform have gained momentum over the past few weeks, and both government and the opposition are expressing ‘readiness’ to move forward.
While Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi has reiterated his call to the Opposition to return to the Parliamentary Select Committee in a bid to discuss “matters of national importance, including changes to the Constitution,” Labour leader Joseph Muscat said that he is “envisaging a Constitutional Convention that would give birth to a Second Republic.”
But while Labour remained non-committal on its participation within the Parliamentary Select Committee, President Abela has seemingly taken the bull by the horns this week by politely ‘inviting’ Labour to return to the Parliamentary Select Committee.
“It is high time that the Select Committee on Constitutional reform and strengthening of democracy reconvenes,” Abela said when visiting the Broadcasting Authority last Wednesday.
But he also went a step forward later in the week to reveal with MaltaToday that he will convene the President’s Forum in April and initiate the debate on changes to the Constitution and institutional reforms.
A spokesman for the Presidency told MaltaToday that the President “may exercise the role of a prime mover to stimulate discussion on a number of Constitutional and institutional issues that many believe should be addressed.”
Senior aides at the Palace described President Abela as “keenly supporting” calls for changes in the Constitution, and is set to involve the political parties, constituted bodies, social partners, the media and the general public in the national debate.
The Union Haddiema Maghqudin has also joined the foray calling for Constitutional changes, and will launch a document later this month detailing the changes (see overleaf).
Over the past weeks, President Abela reportedly received individual MPs from both sides of the House and informally discussed the changes envisaged for the Constitution and reforms to national institutions.
The Presidency refused to comment about these meetings, but sources have confirmed that similar talks have been held with Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg, who is also Leader of the House.
Among the changes which are being envisaged to launch the ‘Second Republic’ are the method of appointment of the President of the Republic.
According to Nationalist backbencher and prime promoter of the changes within the government bench, changes to the method of appointing the President is the “mother of all amendments.”
At present, the highest Office of State is appointed by a simple resolution of the House. A method which Debono considers as “highly inadequate” and is calling for a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament to reflect national consensus. In the absence of a two-thirds, an absolute majority would suffice to avoid Constitutional deadlock.
MaltaToday is informed that talks have meanwhile started towards reforming Parliament, granting its long-awaited autonomy from government, and more accountability from Ministers and MPs to the House.
Speaker Michael Frendo who has so far not been involved in the talks, welcomed the move and considers the news as an “important development in Malta’s democracy.”
Speaking to MaltaToday, Frendo reiterated his stand that parliament needs autonomy to guarantee the balance of powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.
The Speaker expressed his wish to see the new parliament, currently being built near City Gate in Valletta, to have the right “soul” and start operating as an autonomous entity.
Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green Party – has welcomed the recent developments, and expressed its willingness to participate in the national discussion.
“If a specific proposal is made public, AD will comment after discussing it internally,” said AD’s home affairs spokesman Carmel Cacopardo, who added that his party had submitted proposals some three years ago to the Parliamentary Select Committee.”
Malta’s Constitution will soon be 50 years old and has been substantially amended twice: in 1974 and in 1987. Subsequent amendments revisited the 1987 amendements.
MP Franco Debono insists that should the country not embark on a serious discussion regarding essential constitutional reforms now.
“I wonder where our democracy will be in 20 years’ time,” Debono said.
He added people are not greater than the institutions they occupy, and stressed on the dangers to have a parliamentary system, being run on Presidential lines, without the Presidential safeguards and separation of powers.
The presidential system is based on strict separation of powers between legislature, executive and judiciary. Within a Parliamentary model there is no watertight separation between legislature and the executive, but rather ‘checks and balances’, where separation of powers are diluted.
“Besides separation of powers, the Constitution must provide for a balance of power between three organs of the state, and none should be able to ride roughshod over the others,” Debono said.
The independence of the judiciary is safeguarded in both systems. However the method of appointment to judicature could also impinge on the independence of the judiciary.
One of the major problems today is that the country’s democracy is run on a model of a strong executive and a weak parliament due to lack of resources, communication facilities, lack of autonomy, and outdated standing orders.
The list of changes goes on to include changes to the appointments of the boards and roles of the Electoral Commission, and the Broadcasting Authority, while changes to the electoral system is also on the cards.
While a draft law on party financing has finally been completed and will be published as a White Paper in the coming weeks, Debono has meanwhile managed to secure another important novelty to the House, as Parliamentary Committees will now be broadcast via webcam.
The move is intended to serve as a better means of communicating with the electorate and an experiment for future broadcasts of plenary sessions.
This article appeared on the Sunday edition of MaltaToday