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This Is How I Helped Bring About Constitutional Reform In Malta

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Former Nationalist MP Franco Debono toppled the Gonzi-led government in a budget vote in December 2012 after years of forcefully campaigning for Constitutional reform. Once Labour was elected, he was appointed Commissioner of Laws and currently serves as a consultant to the Prime Minister on Justice Reform. As Constitutional reform becomes a key battlecry for protesters of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination, Debono talks about the reforms already carried out and what’s left to be done. 

During my last legislature as a PN MP, I had conceived and proposed a Committee for Constitutional Awareness. Since then, I have set up and chaired this Committee together with Martin Scicluna, Austin Bencini, Trevor Zahra, Oliver Friggieri, Veronique Dalli, Claire Bonello, Ray Mangion, Andrew Azzopardi and Saviour Chircop as members. 

This committee did its utmost not only to create and enhance constitutional awareness but also to kick-start the convention, and possibly could have also be seen as the Constitutional Convention in embryonic form.

Even though the Malta does not yet have a 2nd Republic in the form of a new constitution, constitutional reform has already started through the enactment of the Law on Party Finance, a law I had campaigned for, drafted and presented in Parliament as a Nationalist MP, but which was ignored by the previous Nationalist administration and which has since been unanimously approved by Parliament. 

There is also the Law on the Autonomy of Parliament for which I campaigned for strongly as a Nationalist MP but which was never enacted during successive Nationalist administrations. Both laws are major constitutional reforms.

Furthermore, the committee had already worked under the auspices, and in close collaboration, with the President, who had publicly pledged her support, and therefore one can see that proposals from both government and the Opposition can work together.

“The vast majority of PN supporters have come to realise that not only was I right… but also that I should have been given more space to work”

What I’ve done since 2008

As soon as I was elected to Parliament, in 2008, as the PN’s youngest MP, I started making calls from the backbench for a new or updated Constitution proposing a two-thirds majority for the appointment of the President, inviting a discussion on the possibility of a smaller parliament of full-time MPs, besides a reform of the Broadcasting Authority, an organ established by the Constitution.

I proposed amendments to the method of judicial appointments, discipline and removal from office within the ambit of a wide-ranging and detailed justice reform in a private member’s motion about ‘Major Reforms in Justice and Home Affairs’ in 2011. This included the strengthening of the police force, the setting up of a police union, decent forensic facilities, the setting up of a Supreme Court, splitting roles between inquiring and adjudicating magistrates and removing authorisation of phone tapping from ministerial to magisterial authority. You can find more about that at www.riformagustizzja.com

Also included were proposals to review the Attorney General’s dual role of public prosecutor and counsel to government and to also review the AG’s exercise of discretion in some cases, the removal of criminal libel, the strengthening of legal aid and a vast range of other issues. 

Most of these proposals of a constitutional nature have since been implemented.

The private member’s motion also paved the way for another fundamental change now cemented in our system – the split between the Justice and Home Affairs portfolios, which paved the way for other reforms. This was a major constitutional milestone achieved in early 2012 after very bold stands I took at the time. 

“As soon as I was elected to Parliament, in 2008, as the PN’s youngest MP, I started making calls from the backbench”

What I’ve campaigned for 

I had drafted and presented in Parliament the bill on Party Finance that, while ignored by the previous administration, has since been unanimously approved by Parliament.

I also proposed an overhaul to the outdated Parliamentary Standing Orders. 

I called for a greater autonomy and better communication facilities for Parliament and made a number of calls for ministerial accountability and responsibility to be shouldered and voted accordingly in Parliament.

I also campaigned assiduously for the introduction of the fundamental human right of Legal Assistance for arrested persons, the introduction of the Rule of Disclosure and the upgrading of the same right. This right as it is today was only enforced in February 2010 after I abstained from a vote in December 2009 as a sign of protest for the fact that the law passed in 2002 was still not in force seven years later.

All this is recorded in the Parliamentary debates themselves, where the issues are treated in greater detail, and various other proposals – including those subsequently taken on board in the detailed and well-researched document prepared by the Today Public Institute.

We need to unite and work towards real change

Finally, as I had said in a Parliamentary speech in July 2011 when I called for an updated Constitution, it is time to unite as a people. We must abandon the two tribe model occupying the same territory and adopt the mode of a united people with different opinions.

After two successive landslide defeats for the Nationalist Party, the vast majority of PN supporters have come to realise that not only was I right in my criticism and proposals as a Nationalist MP, but also that I should have been given more space to work on the valid proposals I formulated. This can be seen in a recent survey I commissioned (Vincent Marmara, 2017).

Therefore, it is now time to unite as a nation and continue the process of constitutional reform already started in a spirit of tolerance and respect for each other. 

What is your opinion on constitutional reform? Is it a priority for Malta? Let us know in the comments below.

READ NEXT: Malta’s Constitution Needs To Change

Johnathan is interested in the weird, wonderful, and sometimes dark realities late capitalist society forces upon us all. He also likes food and music. Follow him at @supreofficialmt on Instagram, and send him news, food and music stories at [email protected]

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