When it’s time to knock on the President’s door

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi rounds up the Budget debate tomorrow. Kurt Sansone explores the possibilities if Parliament rejects Government’s financial roadmap.

When Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said the Budget was a vote of confidence many thought he was stating the obvious... he was not.

If the Budget is voted down it will not be an immediate crisis but will become one because a government cannot function without money

Contrary to popular perception, losing a Budget vote does not automatically translate into a vote of no confidence that could prompt an election, says constitutional law expert Ian Refalo.

The Constitution does not mention the Budget in its provisions on the consequences of the Government losing a vote of confidence, but refers to a specific resolution instead.

This does not mean the consequences of losing a Budget vote are not serious. Without a Budget the administration will not have the money to pay wages, finance its social programme and do what it is supposed to do – govern.

“If the Budget is voted down it will cause problems. It will not be an immediate crisis but eventually it will become one because a government can’t function without money,” Prof. Refalo said.

Dr Gonzi first mooted the idea of linking the Budget to a vote of confidence two months ago at a party activity in Santa Venera. He has reiterated the statement on other occasions but significant as that may be it remains a political statement without legal consequences.

Unless the Prime Minister tomorrow proposes amending the Budget resolution to include a specific reference to a vote of confidence, the situation could very well resemble the developments that took place in 1998.

Labour Prime Minister Alfred Sant had linked the Cottonera project to a vote of confidence in his Government but this was only done orally.

When the Government lost the vote after former Labour leader Dom Mintoff voted with the Opposition, questions were raised over whether Dr Sant was obliged to go to the President within three days as outlined in the Constitution.

Dr Sant took much longer than three days to advise the President to dissolve Parliament, who did not feel the need to act before then.

Prof. Refalo said the scenarios depended on what the main players would do tomorrow. Dr Gonzi may still advise the President to dissolve the House irrespective of what happens in Parliament or how it happens, he added.

The Prime Minister can also resign and make way for another Government to be formed, which does not form part of constitutional practice.

But another scenario that has been mooted will see Nationalist backbencher Franco Debono abstain in tomorrow’s vote and vote against when the Transport Ministry’s allocation is debated.

If this happens, it will only be the ministry’s allocation that will be affected and not the whole Budget, Prof. Refalo said. “At this point the Government will have to draw its own political conclusions on how best to proceed.”

Dr Gonzi seems to have already drawn his conclusions and with Malta facing the prospect of waking up on January 1 without an approved Budget all eyes will be on Parliament tomorrow.

Linking the Budget to a vote of confidence

• October 7 – in Santa Venera
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi says the Government will be pressing ahead with Budget 2013 and using it as a vote of confidence where “everyone will have to assume their responsibilities”.

• November 27 – speaking to The Times
Dr Gonzi says the vote on the Budget is “make or break” and if it is not approved, he will have “no problem asking the President to call an election and let the people decide who they want to govern in the coming five years”.

Understanding the terminology

• Parliament’s life
The Constitution says that Parliament can continue in session for five years from its first sitting unless it is dissolved beforehand. The first sitting was held on May 10, 2008, two months after the election.

• How it ends
It is the President who dissolves Parliament on the advice of the Prime Minister.

However, the Constitution lists specific circumstances when the President can dissolve Parliament of his own accord: when after three days of losing a vote of confidence the Prime Minister does not resign or advise dissolution; and when the Prime Minister’s office is vacant and the President feels there is no prospect of appointing someone else who enjoys the support of a majority of MPs.

The President may also refuse to dissolve Parliament despite the Prime Minister’s recommendation if he feels it is not in the country’s interest.

• Vote of confidence
The Government can seek a vote of confidence to test its parliamentary majority and this will have to be in the form of a specific resolution. If a majority of MPs vote against, the Prime Minister has three days to resign or else advise the President to dissolve Parliament and call an election. The same consequences apply if the Opposition calls a vote of no confidence in the Government and this is supported by a majority of MPs.

The Government may link a vote of confidence to any vote but it will be legally binding in Constitutional terms if the actual Bill is amended to reflect this. Any other declaration will only be politically binding.

• Budget vote
Contrary to popular belief, the Budget is not automatically considered to be a vote of confidence in Constitutional terms. However, without a Budget the Government cannot function effectively because it will not be able to appropriate the necessary funds to pay public wages and social services.

If the Budget fails to make it through Parliament, the buck will pass back to the Prime Minister. He can call a vote of confidence, resign, ask the President to dissolve Parliament or attempt to present another Budget. But Dr Gonzi has repeated on various occasions that he considers the Budget to be a vote of confidence.

• The election
The Constitution states that an election has to be held within three months of Parliament’s dissolution. If Dr Gonzi calls an election in the next few days, the last Saturday possible by when this can be held is March 9.


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