18 Dec Eight years before the Venice Commission – the Presidency
Adjournements of Hon.Franco Debono – a speech I delivered in Parliament in January 2010 about reforms to the Presidency. To date nothing has been done. Yesterday the Venice Commission echoed the same proposals.
The Thirteenth Parliamentary Speech – sitting number 186, Wednesday, 27th January 2010
Hon.Franco Debono : Mr.Speaker I had to speak before as I was in possession, where I was going to continue my speech about the implementation of the budget measures estimates about justice, however tonight I will talk about some points that concern probably, even generally, the Constitution. Lately in my opinion in the context of the appointment of the President one of the most historical and important decision was taken by the Prime Minister in this legislature. As I had the opportunity to write in a local newspaper this was a decision which certainly elevated the concept of the Maltese State. Whether a Presidency is successful or otherwise depends largely on a psychological factor, on the way a nation looks at the person who occupies that position. I believe that the success of the Presidency does not depend on how much the President visits villages or on the activities undertaken – this is important as well – but the way the nation , each single individual feels inside him,that beyond the political game, looks at that person and identifies himself with him as a symbol of national unity.
Politics per se has some thought and reasoning, there are various opinions which is good, and God forbid if this was not so as, I had already had the opportunity to say, I find it worrying if about any topic there is not more than one opinion in the country, as this would really mean that we have dried up from any ideas, we would have stagnated. It is not a good sign that there are not different ideas. It is healthy, it is good for democracy that there are different ideas. Albeit, the President has a fundamental role to fulfil and ultimately the role of the President is to incarnate national unity. As I already had the opportunity to say, each and every person who forms a nation identifies themselves with the President as a person who goes beyond political divisions and unites everyone. Persons of different religious beliefs, atheists, persons who are not interested in politics, persons with one political creed, persons of the opposite political creed, floaters, everyone or at least a very large amount of the citizens will identify himself or herself with the person of the President.
Mr President, as I already had the opportunity to state, I think time has come to effect changes in the manner the President is appointed. I believe in the most direct and clear manner that the dispositions of our Constitution regarding the appointment of the President, taking into account the function, role and significance of the Presidency in a republican constitution like ours, is inadequate. The way the President is appointed is by a resolution that does not even require a quorum. Therefore I ask if it is reasonable, if it is just, if it reflects the importance of the office this lax requisite required in the Constitution. A while ago, after I reflected about this aspect of the Constitution, I thought that at least there should be an absolute majority of this House which appoints the President. I believe that we will certainly be in a better situation than we are nowadays and certainly that vote, that requisite, will reflect more than today the sentiment the Maltese feel or should feel towards the Presidency.
However after I saw some aspects of the Italian Constitution and the German Constitution I felt that I should polish the idea I was pondering on. Now let me be clear. Ideally there should be required two-thirds majority in the Constitution so that this reflects the role of the President, that is, you will have a requisite in the Constitution that in order to appoint a President you require a two-thirds majority. In this way, in the case of two parties as Parliament is composed today, you require basically two-thirds. In this way – as happened in the appointment of George Abela that basically you had the two parties which were in agreement – a truly strong guarantee that the person enjoys that psychological sentiment in parliament that I made reference to before. It does not mean that the Presidents who came before, where there was not mutual agreement between the parties, were not successful, did not do a lot of good, did not fulfil their functions with great circumspection and were not loved by the nation.
However one sees how this presidency is flourishing, one sees the way it’s becoming, one sees the way its flourishing after the historical decision of the Prime Minister to appoint George Abela as the President of the Republic. I think I will be expressing the sentiment of all the nation, except those who have ulterior interests, when I say that His Excellency George Abela is continuing to strengthen the stature of the Presidency. So I believe that with its decision this Parliament has strengthened the Presidency and on his part , the person chosen is also strengthening the office per se and continues to mature the sense of our nation and continues to generate unity amongst the nation.
In the last days we have seen that certain activities in which the President was involved were a great success. Recently I was satisfied hearing a discussion about the family in which the President participated and it looks like this is done to further bolster the notion of the Maltese State. As I had already said in this Parliament, and I say this with a certain responsibility, I don’t think in every thing we say we should make reference to the eighties or seventies. We are living today. The nation is pleading to move forward. We have seen also changes in the way we look at our political parties. Today the parties have opened up, today even the political headquarters are not fortresses anymore. Today in the PN General Council we invite representatives of the PL and likewise the opposing party, invites representatives of the PN.
Thus we are seeing and I think we should understand that we are living in very exciting times, times of great challenges, international challenges, but also challenges to extract ourselves from thinking methods which have fossilised too much this Parliament. I know that in the Committee there are various topics for discussion, but there is dire need to accelerate. We should not take a long time for this Parliament to have its own means of communication. May I remind whoever is listening to me on the radio that the radio was brought into effect by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi when he was Speaker. However since that time we have stagnated. As far as I know there wasn’t an improvement in better means of communication in this Parliament. Now as I’m speaking there aren’t any persons in Patliament except obviously the Speaker and some employees. Mr.Speaker, thanks be to God, our country is a centre of excellence in IT thanks to the achievements and the hard work of the Maltese nation, however this Parliament is still stagnated with the radio. And today we have advanced so much, there are so much sophistiated means of technology, videos, etc… that the people don’t even listen to the music on the radio, imagine how much they are going to listen to me or my colleagues in Parliament. However if we have better means of communication the people will listen to us.
I come again to the Presidency, Mr.President. I think the ideal method in appointing the President in this Parliament is that of a two-thirds majority so that the historical decision undertaken by the Prime Minister won’t be a one off decision. I augur and believe that the maturity being shown by our nation means that we are moving in a direction where this won’t be a one off decision, but the parties represented in this Parliament, and the members representatives of the nation in this Parliament will take this as something that crystallises itself as the norm and the decisions will continue to be taken in this manner in regard to what concerns the Presidency. So the two parties or more that are represented in this parliament should do their utmost to truly inject in the office of the President that symbol of national unity desired so much in a country where unfortunately today is diminishing.
I believe that my colleagues and I are contributing so that this polarisation is decreased, however we are a country where there is polarisation more than we require. Recently when I was speaking about the press laws I mentioned the fact that there isn’ t a role for political stations any more. These were a product of certain circumstances, but today we have moved forward and I think that they have become outdated. If this Parliament has better means of communication the importance of political and partisan broadcasting automatically diminishes. But let me come back to the Presidency. Ideally we should amend the Constitution in the sense that the Presidency is appointed by a majority of two- thirds but – and here I will do a suggestion – I had recommended that the presidency is appointed by absolute majority. However this may lead to a constitutional deadlock, so what happens if there isn’t agreement. So I would like to suggest that the Constitution is changed in the sense that you have the requisite of two-thirds majority however if in the stipulated time there isn’t any agreement, to avoid a constitutional deadlock an absolute majority is sufficient.
I’m saying all this because we are attesting what it means when you have a presidency that is the result of mutual agreement, although I repeat again that I’m not saying in any manner that the previous Presidents weren’t a success. Amongst others I mention a Presidency which was a great success, that of Prof.Guido de Marco, without diminishing the merits of other Presidents that obviously contributed a lot for the strengthening of the Maltese State. I’m mentioning Prof. Guido de Marco as he was also my lecturer in university when I studied law. What I’m saying is that we ought to continue elevating the office of the presidency as much as we can, up there where it should be, but at the same time be practical, understand that circumstances may arise where that grade of approval isn’t reached in Parliament. In that case, to avoid a constitutional deadlock, we should opt for at least an absolute majority. So you are giving two grades of voting to this parliament, ideally there is two thirds majority , but if the two thirds aren’t attainable, in the second round of voting an absolute majority would suffice.
Certainly these are much better form the present situation in our Constitution as it is not a type of voting that the office of the President deserves and doesn’t reflect in any way the importance of this office.
I would like to take the opportunity to send my best regards to all the Presidents of the Republic that, as I have said already, did a great honour to this country. However it looks that even in detail there is this wish to change what we have built. Here I would like to mention MEPA. When MEPA was established it was good, however today we musn’t stop there, stagnate and say that in the eighties or in the beginning of the nineties we did something worthy, let’s look at it. Let’s say how good it was and leave it there, not touching it. Things aren’t done that way. We should respect our ancestors, however today we have an obligation to continue building and to change. That is the responsibility we have today and the responsibility and the challenges that we have today are exceptional, are formidable as much as those of our ancestors. Let’s face them with this sense of responsibility.
Mr.President, I have mentioned various times the law on party financing and I will continue to mention it. We are very late compared to other countries. I know that it is being discussed but we are very late. I’m not consoled. For me the fact that it is being discussed is not a consolation when you consider that other countries amongst which Italy – as I had the opportunity to state, I follow a lot Italian politics – this law was done 20, 25 years ago, so in the late eighties and in the beginning of the nineties, and Italy was late! In the beginning of the nineties in Italy they were doing this type of legislation and today we are in 2010. With all responsibility I say that these things should have been done in the beginning of the nineties in our country. Italy was already late in the nineties. If we have a party financing law, the parties will look more transparent and will generate more trust amongst the people. It is important that we don’t look at political parties as something hidden in the corner but should be open. The parties belong to the people, the parties are that nest where politics is cultivated which is presented to the people. Then that party that by virtue of the politics of persuasion, as Prof.Guido de Marco likes to say, succeeds to convince the greatest amount of people and wins an election can implement the politics which the party developed.
I think that today everyone knows as I had the opportunity to say it, my thesis was on political parties. There is a lot of sceptism on political parties however without them democracy cannot function, there isn’t a better system than that of political parties. There isn’t a better system. The political parties have a lot of shortcomings but there isn’t a better system than this of political parties. When a political party is elected to govern, it’s not the whole party which is elected, but the elected members make it to parliament. The secretary general of the party and the president of the party are not elected to parliament. They are answerable to the delegates of the party, the party councillors, the executive of the party. However the members who are elected to parliament have two loyalties, the loyalty towards the party to which they belong because they believe in the political creed of that party because they feel that they belong to that party, but then they have the loyalty towards the constituency, towards the electorate. That is another loyalty which shoudn’t be ignored.
Mr.President, with utmost humility I say that today, we don’t still have this strong polarisation, it is assuming a more important role, the function of members of parliament is being more accentuated as a representative of the nation. The member of parliament isnt’t a party delegate however in a sense he represents the party, he is elected to parliament because he represents that party. Who voted for a particular candidate most probably voted for him primarily because he forms part of that party, then he chooses the particular candidate. I think that this role of a parliamentarian that represents the nation is being accentuated, that he is the voice of his constituency and of the nation as a whole.
In the last 20 years successive Nationalist Governments did a lot, they changed in a radical way the face of Malta. We must understand where we are today, witnessing a lot of reforms and we are facing formidable challenges. As I had the opportunity to say again, let’s be the architects of the modern political parties by doing a law on party finance. With all due respect I say that I’m not satisfied without a law on party finance, and I will continue to mention this point. I say again that I’m aware that this is being discussed in the Select Committee however I still feel that I should voice my preoccupation. If I’m not mistaken around ten years ago there was the Galdes Commission that mentioned some proposals about party financing. Albeit, we are here today and we don’t have the least clue, the least rudimentary structure about what concerns party financing.
Mr.President, I conclude by saying this. Let’s look forward, let’s not do this mistake to stagnate in the past. Let us respect the past but we will be respecting the past only if we continue to build on it, if we see what we need to ameliorate. As I had already mentioned, we are going to start to discuss the legislation regarding MEPA. The MEPA was good when it started, it constituted a novelty, it resulted in a lot of good, but we should look at MEPA and say : No, No we don’t touch anything. No, time is ripe that we change it, time has come to ameliorate it and I’m sure that the MEPA reform is going to be a good reform. I’m sure that both sides of the House will give their contribution so that the existing bill is further improved. I’m on this side of the House in the name of the PN however first and foremost we are all Maltese. I would like to see ingrained a sense of nation, that we are all Maltese. We have different opinions but first and foremost we are all Maltese.