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Sitting in semicircle ‘won’t change thing’

The so-called hemicycle layout is popular across Europe. Photo: Shutterstock

The so-called hemicycle layout is popular across Europe. Photo: Shutterstock

The wisdom of seating MPs in a semicircle in the new House of Representatives has been questioned by Godfrey Pirotta, who wrote an official history of Malta’s Parliament.

“I see no reason to change from the old Westminster style,” the professor of public policy said when contacted.

“We still have two parties in Parliament and it will probably stay like that for some time. A semicircle will not change the way parties approach issues.”

The recommendation that MPs sit in a semicircle – or hemicycle – was made recently by a cross-party working group tasked with devising proposals to maximise space in the new Parliament building, which is expected to open next year.

Since the first Parliamentary Assembly in 1921, representatives have sat facing one another like British MPs in Westminster. This layout is said to encourage adversarial debate while the hemicycle, used across Europe, is thought to encourage compromise and consensus.

“In European countries, you often have several parties, so it makes sense to spread them out in a semicircular system,” Prof. Pirotta pointed out.

He added that despite Malta having had two major parties seated in the Westminster style for much of its parliamentary history, the vast majority of legislation was passed without the need for a division.

New layout would make the term backbencher redundant

“Outside of Parliament, the parties have to show they have an individual character but in Parliament the tradition has been to compromise,” Prof. Pirotta said.

In the hemicycle of the European Parliament building, the president and his staff sit facing MEPs while the seats to the far left are taken up by the Council and the seats on the far right by the Commission.

With this in mind, Laurence Grech, the former editor of The Sunday Times of Malta, had some practical concerns about the layout of Malta’s new Parliament.

Mr Grech, who cut his journalistic teeth as a parliamentary reporter, said the new layout could lead to a “ridiculous situation” with the present Government as it had the largest ever Cabinet, with 23 members.

If all Cabinet members sat in the area reserved for the Executive they would outnumber their elected members sitting in the area reserved for Government MPs.

In the seating plan of the European Parliament and other national assemblies, such as the German Bundestag and the French Assemblée Nationale, political groups are arranged mainly from left to right.

Mr Grech said such a seating arrangement in Malta would be a first and it would be interesting to see how the parties were identified along the left-right political spectrum.

“Presumably, the Labour MPs would sit on the left but, historically, we did not really identify the parties in this way,” Mr Grech said, pointing out that the new arrangement would also make the term “backbencher” redundant.

He was not expecting the new layout to make a substantial difference to political divisions, although he thought the physical separation of powers might provide ordinary MPs with a greater sense of the Executive being subject to their scrutiny.

Asked if he felt that Malta was losing an important part of its heritage by changing from the Westminster model, Mr Grech said: “In a way, I am nostalgic but the new model is more practical and in line with the European model.”

MEP Joseph Cuschieri, who previously served as an MP, said he was a “firm believer” in the hemicycle seating arrangement. “This encourages consensus and steers away from the idea that politicians and parties are diametrically opposed,” he said.

pcooke@timesofmalta.com

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