The rules of the game
On June 4, I sat for three solid hours in the House of Representatives. I felt most uncomfortable. This was not due to the seating facilities. The well-padded, spacious, cushioned seats in the Strangers’ Gallery are deep enough and ergonomically designed. The Swedish Socialist government that had donated them to us in 1976 had been generous.
Officially, I was a “stranger” in my own house! I had gone to see how the persons I had entrusted – along with thousands of others – to represent me , and us, on both sides of the divide, behaved. To see for myself how they deliver themselves. What they do to make our social, economic and political lives much improved. A life which, as the philosopher had remarked centuries ago, is short, nasty and brutish. We give them complete trust. Yet, we are described as “strangers”.
This is one aspect of the democratic process we have inherited from the Mother of Parliaments. Just as we have adopted the confrontational positioning, where and how the members sit in their “pit”.
Parliamentary democracy has its good and not so good points. Like in all tried systems of government. Which brings me to the point I want to make in this piece.
We have adopted, practically in most of its aspects, the constitutional system of government practised in England. However, there are notable exceptions.
The British Constitution is unwritten. Therefore, it is more flexible. Ours is ironclad in the Statute Book.
Then there is the emotive element in the two “islands”. One in the Atlantic. The other in the Mediterranean.
Over there they show more restraint on their emotions. Stiff upper lip and all that. An inherent culture of understatement prevails.
In the palace of Westminster the members of Parliament are, traditionally, not very physical and vociferous in their expressions of either support or disapproval. They prefer to wave the order papers, the hand Bills in their hands, having the printed business of the day. Very recently, though, a leaked e-mail is said to contain covert instructions to members to be more vocal, to “drown” a speaker’s delivery not considered music to the other side’s ears.
The Woolsack on the table down from the Speaker’s chair is the dividing line which is considered sacred and not to be physically crossed.
A debate in London is normally considered to be carried out in a civilised exchange. History, however, reveals that there have been occasions of strong, unparliamentary language having been used. The British Prime Minister calling his opposite member “a muttering idiot” only a few weeks ago is one such example. In most cases it is the issue that is debated. Not the person.
The objective of the exercise is the offending target. Not the holder of the post.
My experience on that Monday, June 4, was a total disappointment in this tactic in my home country.
Which pops the question of ministerial responsibility according to the textbook definition. The minister is ultimately responsible for serious and even less serious misdemeanours of trusted underlings in his domain. This tenet is considered a sacrosanct doctrine in the British system.
In Malta, there has only been one recorded episode when a minister was made to resign because he had followed the advice of a civil servant. And it was not the correct one. The minister had to go. And he went. In the not too distant past. During the 1996-98 tenure of office of a Labour Administration.
As yet, Malta does not have the luxury of televising debates. Open air theatre is in the pipeline but informing and showing people on the telly how democracy works still seems a far off dream.
The social media, as things are, do not tell you the overall story. The reality as it is, to be seen to be believed, is left to citizens like this writer and a few dozen others. Mostly men in the Strangers’ Gallery (journalists on duty not counted) who bother to go and see and hear the antics.
Unfortunately, they are mostly histrionics. The only exception on June 4 was the Leader of the Opposition. He was the only member to speak on that part of the House. He was disciplined and used parliamentary language and behaviour in his delivery.
It is regrettable that the government spokesmen, five in all, including the Prime Minister, used fiery language, expletives, aggressive body language strongly peppered with spin and emotion.
The issue itself was never really addressed and discussed. Soberly and seriously.
This is the ugly and negative side that presents itself to the people out there in Maltese and Gozitan society. They believe and express themselves that “politics is a dirty game”. Most people will tell you this over a coffee sitting at the village bar in the local square.
If that Monday’s debate is anything to go by, no wonder I shudder to reflect why Malta has as shallow government. The government of Malta sidesteps the real issues, steeps you in spin, uses legality as its shield and spear, throwing mores and morality to the wind.
At exactly 9.15 p.m. the entire show was over. I left the august Chamber to where I had proceeded at 6 p.m. looking forward to attending a decorous debate carried out with dignity and respect. It turned out to be a disappointing debacle.
On June 18, the House of Representatives underwent its litmus test. A motion by the opposition was carried. The debate had been dominated by repeated rhetoric from the government benches. The opposition presented strong, sober, ironclad arguments. A member from the government side voted with the opposition. A colleague of his abstained.
The supremacy of parliamentary democracy was established. History was made.