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Debono, Benigni and the Constitution

I own up to preferring watching the Italian genius of Roberto Benigni, who recited the intrinsic beauty of the Italian Constitution, than listening for the umpteenth time to that bundle of contradictions who happens to be Franco Debono.

The person who most spoke vociferously for institutional reform ended up becoming the prime cause of institutional instability, which prevented Parliament from the necessary stability it needed to discuss serenely where our Constitution is going and how to get it there.

Not only that, the ongoing institutional turmoil mortally hindered the President’s project to focus national attention on significant constitutional reform. It was disheartening seeing the President’s Forum dedicated to the Constitution not leading to any reform whatsoever.

The 2008-2013 legislature will be best forgotten as the one that least left its imprint on constitutional and institutional progress. If the House of Representatives had dedicated an infinitesimal part of the time it spent discussing innumerable motions of no-confidence in the Government, individual ministers and not to mention ambassadors, to constructive constitutional reform, progress on the very issues Debono himself wished might have been attained.

Benigni, instead of the constant negative and disruptive tone adopted by Debono, gave a unique performance by bringing into dramatic relief the very significance, in fact the quasi-poetic beauty to the Word of the Constitution, without trivialising the highly political meaning contained in the constitutional principles of an Italy moving from Fascist dictatorship to democracy.

If only we did this here. The Constitution contains within it the highest values that make of us a nation before they make us a State. The first exercise in reform therefore must go beyond the literal, positivistic or legal reading of the Constitution. We need to absorb how each phrase in each section works within the entire structure of the Constitution.

Shouting, hectoring and verbal aggression can never be the means through which constitutional reform may take place.

It is more than unfortunate that many intellectuals and even lofty legal brains read the Constitution, only to belittle its fundamental and supreme nature. They would see it a legalistic and positivistic exercise in finding loopholes to undermine its supremacy.

The first approach in interpreting the Constitution must be that of understanding why it is there and what social, national role the provision is intended to reach.

Having savoured the meaning of it then, the institutions are to implement the spirit of the Constitution in the manner the Italian and the American Supreme Courts do.

This in turn brings me to the President’s ‘Republic Day’ speech, in which he prospected a growing consensus on having two national holidays namely Independence and the Republic. Allow me to humbly build on the Presidential suggestion. Why not have December 13 as our ‘Constitution Day’?

Constitutional research confirms that on December 13, 1974, more than becoming a Republic, Malta acquired the necessary national consensus in the form of the two-thirds majority of Parliament behind our Constitution.

This brought to an end the very divisive constitutional confrontations that the Maltese political parties had during practically all the 1950s and 1960s up till 1974. Parliament decided that the Constitution was to be Supreme and protected by the two-thirds majority of the House. No other legalisms should cloud this one and incontrovertible truth of our national and constitutional consensus.

The consensus built in 1974 was to prevent any unilateral constitutional reform. However, today we still hear rumblings of Parliament being supreme over the Constitution. This was repeated in the 1990s by at least one leading Labour constitutionalist.

Joseph Muscat would be going in the right direction to call for a Constitutional Convention of sorts.

But for it to become truly a ‘re-constituent’ assembly of our constitutional framework, the approach must not start from scratch. The Convention would first have to savour, by thorough reading à la Benigni, the incredible and unique values and provisions already contained in it.

The project must be of the people for the people. The referendum must be re-activated as the ultimate means through which constitutional reform must take place and all sections of the Constitution must require the two-thirds majority of the House as well.

From the institutional and constitutional aspect, 2012 could not have ended in a worse way, with the institutions dangerously creaking under the spectre of corruption and institutional conflict.

The mood is an ugly one where verbal aggression shouts down rational thought.

I was privileged to have attended the conferment of the degree Honoris Causa by our University to Benigni. Aclown was capable of making us reflect seriously on our society. Unfortunately, by contrast, there are too many who make tragicomical mockery of serious national issues.

We deserve much better in 2013.

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