‘No rush to alter Constitution’
Lawrence Gonzi suggests debate should be held in House select committee
There was no urgent need to amend the Constitution but rather to respect it, Judge Giovanni Bonello said yesterday.
He was speaking during the third edition of the President’s Forum, where Opposition leader Lawrence Gonzi called for the debate on constitutional reform to take place in the Select Committee of the House of Representatives.
The forum discussed whether the Constitution still met the needs of the people.
During the three-hour discussion the panel speeches ranged from a call to draft a completely new Constitution to Dr Bonello’s urging for caution.
He insisted the Constitution was supreme but referred to cases where the constitutional court had declared particular laws as anti-constitutional and this declaration applied only to the person who instituted the case. The law then remained in force until Parliament decided to move the necessary amendments.
Dr Bonello, who heads a commission to reform the justice system, cited cases where the constitutional court contradicted itself on the validity of a law in similar cases.
These incidents meant the supremacy of the Constitution was being ignored, he said.
“We do not have to change the Constitution... but we should read it and respect it.”
Dr Bonello’s comments seemed to irritate Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri. He said he expected a better sense of propriety from Dr Bonello, seeing the number of judges present at the forum.
Both parties in Parliament have been calling for constitutional reform and the Government has proposed a Constitutional Convention, appointing Franco Debono as coordinator amid protests from the Nationalist Party.
The forum, held at the Palace Tapestry Chamber, Valletta, was opened by President George Abela, who welcomed the fact constitutional reform was on the national agenda. He noted this debate began in April last year during the second President’s Forum.
In between speeches, journalist Reno Bugeja showed videos of the leaders of the three main political parties, who were asked what they were expecting from this constitutional reform.
Dr Gonzi sent an e-mail to the forum in which he said the PN looked forward to contributing to the discussion but suggested it should be held in Parliament’s Select Committee.
He said the Prime Minister should clarify his position on the way the reform was going to be discussed.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat reiterated it was time for a new Constitution that was less dictated by political parties and more inclusive of civil society.
In the coming weeks, consultation would be held to look into the best way to hold the Constitutional Convention, he said.
Speaking from the panel, Kevin Aquilina, Dean of the Faculty of Laws, called for a comprehensive review of the Constitution and said it should be approved by the people through a referendum – so that they could identify with it and make it their own.
“Why a new Constitution? So many amendments are needed that it does not make sense to change it bit by bit,” he said.
While the present version should not be discarded, the new Constitution should ensure all State entities would be held accountable for their actions. It should include clear circumstances of when ministers and parliamentary secretaries should resign.
The new Constitution should include provisions for a council to advise the President, criteria for presidential pardons and a consultative committee to consider petitions for pardons and compensation.
It should provide for committees to supervise subsidiary laws and ensure the people’s money was administered wisely.
Prof. Aquilina also suggested a review of the appointment of constitutional bodies such as the Broadcasting Authority.
Another speaker, Ombudsman Joseph Said Pullicino, noted that changing all of the Constitution might not be necessary, but remarked that the second republic would only happen if substantial amendments were agreed upon.
He said the second republic was still a political slogan, and one should be motivated by legal ideas rather than political ones. Change, he added, should result from mature discussion.
These changes should not just be in the hands of the chamber of representatives, but also in the public’s hands: the Constitution was there to serve the people and not the State, he said.
He referred to how the State should assume responsibility when civil servants fail the people, adding that the Ombudsman law was the first step in response to the need for good governance.
Former Speaker Michael Frendo reiterated his call for Parliament’s autonomy from the civil service, adding that the House should not submit itself to the executive when it came to recruitment and financing.
He called for changes that would strengthen the role of all MPs in Parliament and argued that the speech at the opening of Parliament should be made by the head of Government, not the head of State.
Addressing the forum, Dr Debono noted that during the debate, the composition of the Constitutional Convention had not been tackled and the reform should include citizens, not just politicians.
He said the extent of the reform will define whether or not it becomes a second republic.