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Slow pace of constitutional reform

In the run-up to the general election 33 months ago, both the Labour and Nationalist parties promised to conduct a review of the Constitution of Malta on its 50th anniversary.

When she marked her first anniversary as head of state, President Marie-Louise Colerio Preca commented on the lack of progress in constitutional reform, which she found “worrying”. In her Republic Day speech on Sunday, she spoke in terms of the reform being urgently required in the context of politicians’ recent behaviour and the need to strengthen trust in our institutions.

Fifteen months ago, The Today Public Policy Institute presented a comprehensive report entitled ‘A Review of the Constitution at Fifty: Rectification or Redesign?’ It was largely regarded by experts present at a conference a year ago as “the baseline document for further consideration by [the promised] national Constitutional Convention”.

The Minister for Justice, who was present, promised that action on the organisation of a Constitutional Convention was in hand. Since then, there has been a lamentable silence, which has now been broken by the Prime Minister saying that it is time to go ahead with the Constitutional Convention.

Regrettably, there is some difficulty between the government and the Opposition over the possible choice of the Law Commissioner, Franco Debono, to run the Convention. But the continued lack of progress on a matter of this importance is worrying. The government and Opposition should seek a sensible way forward.

They would do well to take as their start-point the sensible proposals made in the think-tank review. It has considered the issue as objectively as possible, drawing on the advice and experience of a number of constitutional experts many of whom have experienced the Constitution at the rock-face. The report offers possible changes for the consideration of the Convention.

It highlights a number of principles and citizens’ rights not currently covered by the Constitution. The report also considers a number of major institutional issues which have been proposed from time to time which, if implemented, would imply major changes to our Constitution. Should the powers of the executive (the Prime Minister and his Cabinet) be reduced? Should Malta have a Second Chamber, or would an advisory “Council of State” provide the better answer? How should the President of Malta be appointed, and how much power should he or she wield?

It also focuses on a number of other institutional issues which may need re-visiting in the light of recent developments; for example, the effects of accession to the EU, and others. As to consideration of political issues, the report focuses on three: national days; neutrality; and party political funding.

The final part of the report draws the threads together by asking whether Malta’s Constitution requires complete re-design, or simply rectification, amendment and amplification. Turning to the organisation and conduct of the proposed Constitutional Convention, the think-tank strongly recommends the need for great tact and delicate political choreography to ensure its success. Most importantly, it recommends that the Convention should be led by a person of stature, political independence and objectivity.

The Prime Minister’s belated promise to hold a Constitutional Convention presents an opportunity for Malta to take a hard look at the way its institutions operate. The sooner the Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition find a working modus operandi to establish the Convention, the better.

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