Voting in a new Parliament
As Parliament is dissolved today, the campaign commences for the voting in of a new Parliament at the general elections.
Out of the results of the new parliamentary elections on March 9, an Administration will emerge led by the parliamentarian who commands a majority of members in the House of Representatives.
The heated debate of party politics often blurs the reality of this constitutional process that will be played out on March 9 and beyond. It pays to remind ourselves of the constitutional context of our election process because, in this way, we highlight the ultimate sovereignty the Maltese people won at great sacrifice in our history.
I have to admit that when I was voted in unanimously by the members of the Parliament to preside over, and lead, this highest institution of the land, I was somewhat worried that I would find the exercise rather boring compared to the rough and tumble of the political tussle to which I had been accustomed since 1987 in Parliament and since 1977 in active politics following my unexpected baptism of fire at the University graduation speech on November 18, 1977.
Boring? My years of service as Speaker of the Parliament of Malta were turbulent and challenging from the outset!
This has truly been a very active Parliament with many firsts, such as when, as Speaker, I had to order the publication in the Government Gazette of a parliamentary notice on the parliamentary resolution and referendum question on the introduction of divorce (the referendum question also duly precisely translated into English as is legally required) and, subsequently, also the text of the Divorce Bill, which had been filed as a Private Member’s Bill forming part of a motion brought to the attention of the House by two of its members.
In this Parliament, we saw free votes, voting against the Whip and equality of votes which had to be decided by the use of the casting vote in accordance with the Constitution and parliamentary rules, practice and traditions.
In this rather contentious Parliament, I had to deliver as many rulings (33 in all) as that given by a number of my predecessors all put together, on an array of issues and points of law and procedure.
I have learnt many lessons from this rich experience of presiding over Parliament, a few of which I would like to share with you, while bearing in mind that I still retain the constitutional role of Speaker even after the dissolution of the House – until another Speaker is appointed in the next Parliament.
Firstly, one of the measurements (not the only one, of course) of the state of our democracy is that of the state of our Parliament. By that I do not mean the state of the political forces as they perform in our House but the state of the institution as such, distinct and separate from the political forces which battle their way in debate within its walls and within its rules and procedures.
Great strides have been made in our parliamentary democracy throughout its 90- plus-year tradition in this present format. Much remains to be achieved, not least the important assertion of the autonomy of Parliament.
Autonomy of Parliament is needed because the prime functions of Parliament are to scrutinise the Executive of the day, to provide all its members (not just those also carrying out an Executive function) with the facilities and resources to carry out their duties as elected representatives of the people and to be the ultimate legislative organ of the State.
It is absurd that the Ombudsman and the Auditor General, both of whom are constitutionally defined as officials of Parliament, enjoy an autonomy of their Office, which is denied to the House of Representatives. This anomalous situation where the parliamentary administration is considered a department of government (!), unique in the European Union, is addressed by the White Paper on the Autonomy of Parliament and in its Draft Bill, which must find its way in the Statute book without delay in the new Parliament.
I am confident that all political forces contesting the parliamentary elections on March 9 will include the commitment to legislate on the autonomy of Parliament in the next legislature. They should add a time-frame – say, in the first year – to that commitment.
Electors please take note: this is your House and the stronger it is, the stronger is the citizen throughout the five years between one election and another.
Secondly, I had to learn (or perish) that the role of the Speaker consisted in that of a proactive moderator, firm but fair, building consensus, guiding the institution in a constant discourse with the Whips of the parliamentary groupings, with the Leader of the House, with the members of the House Business Committee that constitutes the governing body of Parliament.
Consensus-building is always a challenge, more so in an adversarial system of parliamentary governance where not only are the opposing political forces facing each other but where also the members of government sit in the same House that scrutinises them. Still, the House sailed through turbulent waters not least because of the trust that had been assiduously built with all the players in the field and the collaboration which I found particularly from the two Whips, the Leader of the House at the time and the leaders of the political groupings in Parliament: the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The Clerk of the House and Office of the Clerk also provided invaluable unbiased support.
Thirdly, I understood how the appreciation of what the House does, and how it functions, remains largely inadequate. The sensationalism of the press and media may be partly to blame: reporting what is very often the banal and ignoring the serious and well-based argumentation and important points and suggestions raised in debate. Or else taking the other course of not reporting parliamentary debates at all.
However, all that forms only part of the picture: in our country we still lack the educational formation of citizenship, which has to be based on a knowledge and understanding of the Constitution and its institutions, particularly that of Parliament – the House of the People representing the end result of their freely expressed will in a general election.
Streaming, audio and now video of parliamentary debates in plenary and in the committees has helped but it is still not enough. The distinction between Parliament and government remains lost or confused on many: unlike the Constitution, which commences with dealing with Parliament conscious that government is derived from the majority grouping in the House.
Let us hope that the workbook for secondary school students, which we published and distributed to all private and public schools last year (with the sponsorship of APS Bank), can provide a good start. This was complemented by the production of a video on the history and functioning of Parliament in which all living Speakers Emeriti were interviewed, shown on TVM and distributed in all major libraries in the country. In this regard, Parliament’s engagement with civil society already present through hearings and meetings with committees and our Engaging with Civil Society programme needs to be bolstered in the next legislature. Civil society and the parliamentary institution are natural allies in the wider context of governance, rendering each other more relevant to the issues of the day and of the future in the process.
Fourthly, we have to reform our rules in a way that we ensure a fair allocation of debating time and decision-making to those members of Parliament, whether part of the majority or the minority political groupings, who are not members of the Executive.
This is a no-fault statement: not putting fault on anyone in particular since this is the system that has developed over many decades. However, in line with modern developments in other Parliaments (some of which only made the necessary changes fairly recently) and without impinging on the Government of the day’s need to legislate and see through its parliamentary agenda, it is time for us to consider how debating time can be allocated in accordance with the requirements of parliamentary democracy and not at the pleasure of the majority of the day, however much that majority may, at its discretion, be fair and accommodating in its application of the rules.
As we all commence to be bombarded by the noise of the election campaigns and as the heat of the debate inevitably rises, let us keep in mind that all this relates to the exercise of sovereignty that each of us is called to carry out in terms of the Constitution and in the practical implementation of our rights and duties as citizens.
As we vote in a new Parliament, let us keep our eyes fixed on the importance and supremacy of that institution that is a clear expression of our sovereignty and a prime guardian of our freedoms.
Michael Frendo is Speaker of the Parliament of Malta.