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Car parks privatisation: Speaker turns down Opposition request for urgent debate

The Speaker Dr Michael Frendo.

The Speaker Dr Michael Frendo.

Updated 12.13 a.m.

The Speaker of the House, Michael Frendo, in a ruling just after midnight turned down a call by the Opposition for adjournment of the House to urgently debate a motion on the privatisation of car parks.

In a ruling, delivered after the sitting was suspended for two-and-a-half hours, Dr Frendo said that this was a substantive motion and it had been filed according to requirements laid down in Standing Orders.

Substantive motions did not need to be moved by a minister.Three days notice had to be given, as was given in this case.. 

But the Opposition was wrong to present the motion during the time of uncontested business, Dr Frendo said, quoting a ruling by Speaker Myriam Spiteri Debono.

Furthermore one could not argue that the motion was backed by a majority and therefore had to be debated,  since one could only determine a majority once a vote had been taken. 

Speaker Spiteri Debono, when ruling on an adjournment motion moved by then Opposition leader Eddie Fenech Adami, had said that even if the motion was admissible, it could not be moved at the time reserved for uncontested business.

She had also said that the motion had to appear on the Order Paper.

Such a motion could be put on the Order Paper only by agreement of the House Business Committee or by the Leader of the House. 

The Chair had to follow the existing rules, even though it appreciated that they needed to be updated. At present all the keys were in the government's hands. Standing Orders had actually reserved alternate Thursdays for private business, but unfortunately it had become the practice at the beginning of the parliamentary session to regulate procedure by a procedural motion which further undermined this. 

Since 1976 more than  40 private motions  had been presented but not moved in the House.

Dr Frendo said the Chair supported moved for an updated of Standing Orders.

He said he would be convening another meeting of the House Business Committee on Thursday in the hope that some sort of agreement could be reached between the government and the opposition on this debate.

OPPOSITION'S REQUEST

The request for the holding of the urgent debate  was made in the House by Opposition whip Joe Mizzi and Leader of the House Tonio Borg immediately disagreed.

Mr Mizzi raised the issue just before the end of business, a few minutes before the adjournment of the House was due to be moved at 9 p.m.

He said that it was clear at the last sitting of the House Business Committee that the Opposition's request for an urgent debate was backed by a majority in the House.

He said that the procedures of the House provided that the Opposition and, indeed, any MP, may move adjournment motions. Furthermore, Standing Orders provided that the House may regulate its business and a ruling in February 2009 provided that any Standing Order may be suspended on a motion made after notice when approved by a majority of MPs present and voting.  

The rulings by the current Speaker also made clear that anyone could move an adjournment motion or any procedural motion as long as there was sufficient notice and the motion was moved before the end of business.

On Friday, the Opposition presented a motion that the House should be adjourned for urgent debate of the motion on the privatisation of the car parks.

The Labour whip said one of the roles of the Speaker was to safeguard the rights of the minority. This, however, was a rare case where the minority actually enjoyed majority support, reinforcing its call for urgent debate of the Opposition's motion tomorrow or on any other date which may be agreed.

Leader of the House Tonio Borg said he did not think that Mr Mizzi had a right to move his procedural motion when the House was still debating other business.

The government was not against holding the debate but there was no obligation for the motion on the car parks to be debated immediately, despite the three-day notice. Motions would be debated according to the legislative priorities.

Dr Borg argued that it was only ministers who could move the adjournment motion. Furthermore, the Opposition motion gave no date when the debate on the car parks privatisation should be held. To say 'tomorrow' did not hold water since motions ordinarily carried dates.

Dr Franco Debono said the request also included his motion calling for the resignation of Austin Gatt.

Mr Speaker Michael Frendo said no such request had been made.

Dr Debono said they were related. He insisted that Mr Mizzi was in order when he raised his point. He said the Constitution prevailed over Standing Orders and the Chair should therefore consider that the Standing Orders had not been comprehensively amended for a quarter of a century.

By Dr Borg's yardstick, no motion could be presented without the government's approval. Such argumentation was dangerous.

He said the government stayed in office only for as long as it enjoyed the support of the House, but it had no support on this motion, like it would not enjoy support on the Budget. The prime minister had spoken of the 'moment of truth' and, Dr Debono said, he would reply: 'bring it on'.

Dr Debono referred briefly to the reply of a parliamentary question and said it was contempt of parliament that Richard Cachia Caruana still held the title of ambassador.

Anglu Farrugia (PL) the opposition's motion and the procedurethat was followed mirrored the requirements laid down by Speaker Louis Galea (in 2009).

Mr Mizzi said a procedural motion had been presented and if required, the House should vote on it and that would prevail over anything else.

Dr Frendo suspended the sitting to give a ruling.

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