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Restoring trust in Parliament
Dissenting backbenchers may have burnt their fingers, if not their whole political career. But MPs should not be afraid to speak their mind if we embrace reform.
11 November 2011, 12:00am
It was only after my plane touched down in Ljubljana that I heard the real winners were now wearing blue shirts and bearing flags of the old maduma. At the Slovenian airport I jumped into a taxi with two Arab friends. When I shared the news, the two journalists were not too enthusiastic to discuss Maltese elections and their conversation turned to Arab reform. Then, I cynically assumed this was typical chit-chat. People talk about reform but things remain the same because politicians do not risk change nor do they heed to reformist movements. Nonetheless, the Arab spring did happen; it is our structures and institutions which seem to be stuck in a cold, dark winter.
When PN was re-elected by the slimmest of margins, it was evident that its one-seat majority may invite dissent from within the government ranks. Yet, the realisation that this was a vulnerable government could have opened huge opportunities to implement a national reform programme with the support of the opposition. The opportunity was there but it was not taken up. Instead we have seen a Prime Minister heading a cabinet that applied the same tactics and political strategies that worked in the past when governments enjoyed wider support.
In the past week we have witnessed a culmination of tensions. In this legislature the PN's whip was unable to make some dissenting backbenchers comply. MPs like Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, Franco Debono, Jean Pierre Farrugia and Jesmond Mugliett kept their party and the general public on their toes.
They raised valid issues that divided PN constituents: Some felt they were courageous representatives of public sentiment. Nonetheless many loyal supports, led by their party machinery, felt betrayed. These resented the fact that much of their Prime Minister's energy was consumed by his struggle to prop-up and shore a crumbling Parliamentary group. The recent dramatic events in our House of Representatives may have vindicated the continued relevance of Oliver Friggieri's 1980s assertion that 'no flowers grow in Parliament' but to some of us, the thorns in the Prime Minister's backside were evidence of aspirations for a Maltese spring.
Public perceptions of our Parliament remain very negative and this year we experienced intense discontent with the way this institution operates. The shady way in which parliamentarians were awarded a hefty pay rise was shameful. Cabinet appeared highly insensitive when ministers were given an increased MP's honorarium of around €26,000 annually. While government claimed the Opposition was aware of the rise since 2008, it was Minister Tonio Fenech's answer to a parliamentary question by Leo Brincat in November 2010 that actually put the honoraria into the public realm. The mess led to such a widespread negative reaction that former Prime Minister Alfred Sant stated he felt 'embarrassed' to be an MP, adding that this highest national institution was facing a crisis.
PN backbencher Jean Pierre Farrugia also fired an Exocet missile against his own government stating the honoraria issue may cost his government the election. There is now less hype about the honoraria but people will not forget and forgive easily. Moreover, Parliament has not learnt its lessons as we do not yet have a transparent procedure to establish the MPs remuneration.
Another public outcry was stirred by media reports that revealed the high level of absenteeism by parliamentarians. Two doctors on both sides of the house hardly attended at all: Labour MP Dr Adrian Vassallo missed 90% of the sessions, whereas the PN's own Dr Stephen Spiteri missed four out of five sessions. These MPs did not even have the humility to apologise. "At least I came first in something. I think I have a world record and we should present it for publication in the Guinness Book of Records," said Dr Vassallo to make a mockery of the situation. Dr Spiteri even claimed he is more honest than fellow MPs who simply clock in and leave.
Such statements are an insult to Parliament as an institution and to other dynamic MPs who work tirelessly. It also discourages new blood: good potential candidates who may improve the level of our political class. Why are we not too surprised with the Prime Minister's blunt but honest disclosure made after his 2008 victory; that he has a "limited talent pool from which to select ministers that are matched well with their competencies and are able to form an efficient working government"?
When we look at the weaknesses of our Parliament we also need to look at the electoral system. Our political system seems to benefit individuals who seek office at all costs. This system intensifies polarization where small parties (no matter how good they are) do not ever get much oxygen to breathe, it benefits some professions (three out of five elected in my district are medical doctors) and opens the door wide open for others to inherit a seat from daddy (see the Demarco, Mifsud Bonnici and Fenech Adami dynasties). The electoral system also has a number of anomalies. Invariably the party which enjoys the majority of votes does not obtain the majority of seats and so we have to add "extra" MPs (4 seats were added in 2008).
In my view this system also discourages women and contributes towards a democratic deficit. Malta does not have a single female representative in the European Parliament, but we should be more anxious that in 65 years, female representation in our Parliament never exceeded 10%. Moreover, we are observing that female representation in local councils is on the decline. One political theorist, Voet, wrote: "We should suspect a system of representation that routinely restricts power to a particular group, usually middle-aged and older men".
This is one of the biggest weaknesses of our Parliament.
Malta needs a dedicated forum that discusses and promotes political reform with the involvement of civil society and other stakeholders. Almost 50 years after Independence, we should be demanding stronger democratic structures. Shouldn't we be asking if we need changes in the electoral system; how we are going to implement transparent party financing; how to achieve an efficient judicial system, how to establish valid pluralism in broadcasting? The new Parliamentary building in Freedom Square will remain an extension of old arrangements unless there is good will to institute reform.
In the 1980s a song from a popular TV programme provided us with some comic relief. "Parla parla ... parla parla ... parla parla ... Parlament"; Brown Rice sang while the whole nation smiled in agreement. It is tragic that a quarter of a century later the word 'Parliament' instills the same feelings.
Dissenting backbenchers may have burnt their fingers, if not their whole political career. But parliamentarians should not be afraid to speak their mind if we embrace reform. We have also heard Labour leader Joseph Muscat promising new ways of doing politics. It is now time for a new generation of politicians to lead the way for us to restore confidence in our political structures.