House urged to consider extended role for Ombudsman
Sitting briefly suspended amid uproar
Foreign Minister Michael Frendo said yesterday that the House of Representatives should consider a suggestion made by the Ombudsman for his office to assume a role as commissioner for human rights.
The suggestion was made by the Ombudsman, Joseph Said Pullicino in his 'Ombudsplan' recently presented to the House.
Dr Frendo was speaking during the debate on a Bill to entrench the Office of the Ombudsman in the Constitution. The Bill also raises the retirement age of magistrates and the Attorney General to 65.
Speaking about the amendment on the Office of the Ombudsman, Dr Frendo said this built on the experience gained since the Ombudsman was first appointed in 1995 as an officer of Parliament. This Bill was an expression of political maturity and marked further development of democracy in Malta. The Ombudsman Act has successfully sought to protect the citizens from the machinery of the state.
The good offices of the Ombudsman had proved to be popular with people who felt they had suffered an injustice even when public officers acted in terms of the law.
While being an office to which the people could turn to if they felt wronged, the Ombudsman had also served to make those exercising administrative authority more aware of their responsibilities.
His example had been taken on board by a number of institutions, notably the university.
Dr Frendo said the 'ombudsplan' featured a number of interesting observations on how the Ombudsman viewed the future of the office. For example, Prof. Said Pullicino saw a role for his office as a guardian of fundamental human rights. Indeed, this was a concept implemented in several countries.
The 'Ombudsplan' noted that the Ombudsman was complementary and subsidiary but not a replacement to the courts. The office, therefore, could be further developed into a commission for human rights. Dr Frendo said he felt Parliament should discuss these suggestions with Prof. Said Pullicino himself to assess the direction it wanted to give this office.
Nationalist MP Michael Asciak said the Ombudsman should be a buffer of protection to the interests of the people. All parties agreed with this concept so the office deserved to be entrenched in the Constitution. Former chief justice Giuseppe Mifsud Bonnici spoke clearly in an article yesterday on the need to entrench certain principles in the Constitution and said there were certain clauses in the Constitution which did not just require two thirds majority to be removed but a national referendum.
Many, he said, argued against entrenchment but it was not easy to theologically leave certain decisions to the conscience of the individual but politically one could not allow decisions which could be harmful to others, the common good or the state to be taken. Entrenchment was practised the world over where there was a written constitution.
Dr Asciak said the Ombudsman did not just cover the national executive but also local councils. It was permissible for people to open cases by submitting a report to the ombudsman. He said the bill was built on rationality and unless there were big extenuating circumstances where, in spite of miscarriage of justice, the situation would have solved itself, action should be taken to rectify a situation when this could be done.
In the 12th century a discovery had been made of Aristotle's text on ethics which had been lost for many years. An individual translated the texts from Greek to Latin and these became available to a whole civilisation. Aristotle had said that the application of administration always played between the legal theory and the common sense of practicality. It was important to distinguish between justice and equity for it was impossible to legislate for every eventuality.
For one to apply the law fairly, legality and practicality needed to be taken into account. The application of the law needed the written law and an interpretation. When the government enacted legislation it moved closer to legal theory so structures which balanced the pillar of strict justice were needed. For this aim, the government created many such structures to create equity.
The office of the Ombudsman acted in a way to give a practical interpretation to cases which people raised. This process was absolutely necessary and the ombudsman played an important part in levelling the road to justice. The ombudsman looked at the will of the legislator when a law was enacted and at the common good.
Labour MP Noel Farrugia said that while it was good that the Office of the Ombudsman was being entrenched in the Constitution there was need for a stronger commitment by the government to proper and fair public administration.
Far too many cases moved before the Ombudsman were related to injustices committed by government ministers. It was not enough for the House to debate a Bill to entrench the Ombudsman in the Constitution while injustices or abuse of power continued as if nothing was happening.
Such injustices, he said, included people who were passed over for promotion and civil servants who were not given anything to do because they did not share the political opinion of the party in government.
Ministers needed to be more accountable and the people needed to be increasingly involved in decision-making. But more importantly, the government needed to be honest with the people. Far too many were feeling deceived. Nationalist MP Mario Galea said when the Nationalist government took office in 1987 it had found innumerable injustices and one of the first things it did was set up the Commission Against Injustices.
The Commission received more than 5,000 complaints, many of which demonstrated how there used to be no rule of law in the country. This, after all, had been a time when even government jobs were raffled during a political activity by a Labour candidate.
This government gave the people various ways how it could challenge government decisions which included the setting up of the Office of the Ombudsman and the Public Accounts Committee. It also introduced pluralism in broadcasting.
More recently the government even offered to amend the Standing Orders to introduce Prime Minister's Questions and give the Opposition the opportunity to set the agenda of the House once every month.
This situation was very different from the time under the Labour government when even entry to the University had to be approved by a committee which used to be headed by the current leader of the opposition.
At this stage a furious exchange developed between Mr Galea and Dr Sant after the case involving Eddie Fenech Adami's son's admission to the University was raised. Dr Sant insisted that he had not done anything to abusively stop Dr Fenech Adami's son from entering the University and was not serving on the committee at the time.
Mr Galea said the whole system was abusive and one could not even imagine a structure of this nature now.
The Speaker at this juncture suspended the sitting for a few minutes amid uproar shortly before the sitting was due to adjourn. The exchanges continued for a short while.
When the sitting resumed the House was adjourned to April 16, with both sides exchanging Easter greetings.