Constitution is the people’s
The process of constitutional reform seems to have kicked off without so much as a statement – even out of mere courtesy towards the public – on how it is being conducted and what is under discussion. All we know is that the Steering Committee on the Constitutional Convention, made up of representatives of the two major political parties and headed by the President, has met representatives of Partit Demokratiku and Alternattiva Demokratika, and of the civil society organisation Reppublika. We know this only because these entities have issued their own statements about their meetings and the proposals they submitted. Some proposals concern the process, others the substance, of reform.
So far, so bad then. The failure of the committee to communicate is far removed from the spirit of the President’s address to Parliament at the opening of the 2017 legislature. In a speech replete with references to “national unity” and “democracy”, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca spoke of a Constitutional Convention that would aim to make national institutions “accessible and accountable to the people”.
The steering committee has not yet shown any indication of leading by example. Last week, Reppublika said it had told its representatives it would prefer to hold its discussions “privately and without media scrutiny” or public debate.
The NGO may be a fledgling organisation but so far it seems to be the only non-political entity representing citizens in this all-important exercise of shaping their social and political future. It is alarming to those yearning for constitutional solutions to the virtually unfettered power being wielded by the government, that Reppublika describes the committee as a place where decisions are likely to be taken by political parties before being rubber-stamped by Parliament. “The risks of this top-down approach to our democratic well-being, such as it is, are unacceptable,” the NGO warned. PD had already objected last year to the secrecy surrounding the committee’s activity.
The steersmen and women have not yet been stirred into a response. They have not so far felt the need to enlighten ordinary, interested citizens, the very ones whom a Constitution is designed to protect from politicians such as those sitting on the steering committee.
What brief, for example, has the committee been given? What are its terms of reference and objectives? What are the principles guiding its work? What are its plans for a public education campaign on the Constitution? Will it provide an assurance that it is putting the public interest above all other considerations? Will it open its work to public scrutiny one day soon? Will it respect the constitutional right of freedom of expression and allow all citizens the opportunity to have their say, even at this preliminary stage? How does it intend to engage in further consultation? Is it already analysing and filtering the proposals for change or will that task be for the promised convention? And when is that likely to commence? Does the committee have a timeline or a roadmap?
So far, so very unclear. The fact that the parties are in the driving seat is diametrically opposed to the ideal scenario as proposed by this newspaper in 2017. In an editorial entitled ‘Politicians not welcome’ we had made the case for the constitutional reform process to be driven by non-politicians: “A new Constitution is for the people: it should embody their highest values and aspirations, cast in stone their freedom from tyranny, contain the wisdom and foresight to last generations. So it is clearly not for politicians, so many of them notoriously short-term and self-interested in their views, to meddle in its creation.”
We had proposed a Constitutional Convention that consults as widely as possible, considering views from all strata of society, before synthesising them into a set of proposals for consideration by Parliament and ultimately a referendum. This convention would be steered by a panel of local and international experts and chaired by someone of the stature to act as a guarantor of its integrity and its loyalty to national needs.
There is still time to adopt this approach. When he takes over at the helm of the committee, the new President, George Vella, who is the guardian of the people’s Constitution, is entreated to make an effort to steer the process of reform away from the clutches of politicians and ensure that citizens’ voices are translated into legal provisions moulded by wise men and women of their trust.
The people must be given due influence over the ultimate shape of the supreme law, a law that reflects their identity and the soul of their nation. Our politicians have too often proved themselves to be the people’s representatives in name only. They cannot be entrusted with this sacred task.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial