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Parliament’s guardian Angel | Anglu Farrugia

Newly appointed Speaker of the House Dr Anglu Farrugia may not enjoy universal support, but he is confident that he can still put political pique behind him in his new role

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
21 May 2013, 12:00am
“Today I am no longer part of the Labour Party... I no longer take sides.”
“Today I am no longer part of the Labour Party... I no longer take sides.”


From his days as a police inspector in the polemical 1980s to his outspoken (and ill-fated) stint as deputy PL leader for parliamentary affairs all the way down to his present role as Speaker of the House of Representatives, it is fair to say Anglu Farrugia has been dogged by controversy at practically every step of his political career.

And unlike most politicians, he has found himself facing flak from both sides. In the recent election campaign, he found unlikely allies (so to speak) in the Nationalist Party, after he was unceremoniously ditched by then Opposition leader Joseph Muscat following comments which were interpreted as 'undermining the independence of the judiciary'.

Hailed almost as a folk hero by the same party that had previously identified Farrugia as one of the faces of Old Labour - the PN was even rumoured to have built most of its original campaign plans around demonizing the former PL deputy leader - this volte-face in itself illustrates the ephemeral nature of political allegiance in a country as intrinsically divided as Malta.

All things considered, one would be hard pressed to find a less suitable candidate for Speaker of the House - with the post's implications for national unity and reconciliation - than Anglu Farrugia. And already many have expressed the view that this is simply too difficult a part to be played by someone who is often perceived (rightly or wrongly) as among the more aggressive of the older Labour stalwarts.

But when we meet for this interview, Anglu Farrugia seems literally brimming with confidence that he can, in fact, prove to be every bit as impartial and unbiased as the office demands. And while this may be welcomed on its own merits, it can be frustrating for the interviewer who is really more interested in the very public clash he recently had with PL leader Joseph Muscat.

"Today I am no longer part of the Labour Party," he announces solemnly as I try to squeeze details of that conflagration out of him. "I resigned from the party and I have since taken an oath to occupy a Constitutional role which requires that I no longer take sides."

Fair enough, but even the fact that he was hand-picked for that role may be connected with his recent falling out with Muscat. In fact, among the most resounding criticisms was that he was made Speaker simply as an act of compensation for the price he was made to pay during the campaign.

Farrugia concedes the point and admits that the way things panned out for him just a few months ago was far from ideal.

"I don't think I should be talking about it for reasons of my role today, but what I will say is that it wasn't an easy time for me. I spent three of the darkest and most difficult months of my career... possibly even of my life. All along, however, I kept two things in mind. The first was the importance of my own health and well-being, and that of my family. These are the most important things in life, and I didn't want them to be affected by what was happening in the political scene. The second was that I didn't want my own experience to interfere with the will of the people. Looking back I think I managed on both counts."

Perhaps, but this was just the beginning of the criticism he has had to put up with since assuming the Speakership. Questions have since been raised as to whether a man associated - perhaps unfairly - with the excesses of the 1980s and who was certainly among the more vocally confrontational of the Labour Party's exponents can reinvent himself to such a degree in so short a time.

More unkindly still, some have argued that the sheer legal prowess the role requires - navigating the choppy waters of Erskine May, for instance - may even prove beyond his capabilities.

Farrugia deflects all such doubts with a brief snort. "People will always criticise. I can't do anything about that. But nobody as far as I know has ever questioned my experience in the political arena."

What about the Opposition? They weren't exactly thrilled when the choice was announced.

Farrugia insists that that while there certainly was resistance to his appointment, the Nationalist Party was careful never to directly criticise Farrugia himself.

"In fact if you listen to Lawrence Gonzi's speech you will see that I was not attacked personally. He made it clear that the Opposition objected to my appointment for political, not personal, reasons. Not only that, but Dr Gonzi even made an exception by accompanying me into the Hall when I took the oath as Speaker. It was the first time a Speaker was accompanied by the Opposition leader... and he did this deliberately to emphasise his respect for the office of the Speaker. Even when Gonzi resigned as party leader, in his speech he urged the Nationalist Party to continue to respect the office of the Speaker of the House."

While we're on the subject of parliament, it has not escaped notice that all previous objections to the Renzo Piano building currently taking shape at the entrance to Valletta seem to have been forgotten since the recent change in government.

Anglu Farrugia himself now seems ultra-keen on parliament moving into a building that his own party - when it was still his own party -fought against tooth and nail. And while there has been talk to the effect that the building may be too small, it seems that everyone is now content to site parliament at City Gate in spite of all former reservations. How does Farrugia account for the turnaround? And is there any truth to the rumours that parliament may still be relocated elsewhere, such that the new building could be used for some other purpose?

"Again I cannot talk on behalf of either government or Opposition, but as far as I know the Prime Minister has made it very clear that the Piano building will house parliament and nothing else. I for one agree with the Piano design. Even if there are shortcomings in the original plans - and by that I mean that there have been changes to the composition of parliament itself and the building was designed for a smaller assembly - works are now at too advanced a stage. We cannot have any further alterations."

Farrugia also hints that any modifications are likely to be reflected in additional costs to the taxpayer. "Each specific change comes at a cost. Even what look like minor alterations can increase the budget by millions."

So instead of redesigning the building to house parliament, it seems that parliament's modus operandi will have to be tailored to fit the building in its original form. Farrugia explains that the two separate blocks will house the assembly hall and committee chambers on one side and offices for MPs on the other. But it transpires that there are too few chambers for the existing number of committees, so in practice no more than four committees will ever be able to meet at the same time.

Farrugia insists that this does not represent any major departure from how things were done in the old building. "We just have to coordinate the work of the different committees better, that's all"

Is it true that parliament may have to annex other spaces in Valletta to make up for the lack of space - for instance, by using other government buildings to house extraordinary meetings of specific committees when there is no room in the main building?

Farrugia is reluctant to provide anything but a tentative answer, because "consultation is still in progress" on this possibility also. "It is still early to say if parliament will need any additional space, but any decision to this effect will be taken in full consultation with all interested parties and with the public stakeholders. More than that I cannot say at present."

Farrugia does however prove more garrulous on another aspect of the institution he has been appointed to chair. Like Michael Frendo before him, he has made the (as-yet-elusive) issue of parliamentary autonomy from the executive his top priority.

"It is partly for this reason that parliament must have its own building. It is an acknowledgement that parliament is autonomous from the other branches of the State. This is why wherever you go, in all countries, you will find parliament housed in its own building."

This, however, represents 'autonomy' of a purely cosmetic nature. Statutory autonomy remains non-existent for Malta's highest institution - and Farrugia intends to change all that if he can.

"The situation as it stands is absurd. Parliament is still at the mercy of the executive for its budgetary allocation and for the appointment of personnel. If the Clerk of the House - who despite the title is the equivalent of a director-general in Malta's highest institution - requires more staff, he has to obtain permission from Cabinet. And yet, ironically, two other institutions that are constitutionally answerable to parliament [the office of the Ombudsman and the Auditor General] have greater autonomy than parliament itself. There is an obvious conflict here."

Farrugia is not the first speaker to complain about this anomaly, though he hopes to be the last. "The matter has been discussed, and there seems to be consensus. The present government is in favour of passing the necessary legislation, and Opposition Leader Dr Simon Busuttil also agrees. There is no problem between the government and Opposition on this point. No constitutional amendment is required - it is simply at the discretion of the executive. All that remains is to make the leap from words to action."

Despite being early days yet, Farrugia is visibly proud to announce that he has already taken action of his own to build up the autonomy of parliament in other ways, too. "When I was appointed the first thing I did was pay a formal visit to the Nationalist Party headquarters. This was followed by a visit to the Labour HQ, as well as to the General Workers' Union, the Small Businesses Chamber (GRTU) and other representatives of civil society."

These meetings, he added, went beyond mere formalities. One little-known function of parliament as an institution is also to initiate discussion on a national level.

"For instance, the General Worker's Union recently drew up a report on precarious employment. On my visit I asked for a copy of the report. It makes no sense for a detailed and exhaustive report like that to simply be ignored or forgotten. I intend to table it in the house, where it can be discussed by the social affairs committee."

Farrugia does not hide the fact that this represents a subtle dig at the practical supremacy of the Executive over parliament. "If the issue is discussed by the social affairs committee, and recommendations are drawn up and presented to the executive, can the executive realistically ignore them?"

Technically the answer may even be yes, he goes on, but the executive would have to come up with some very good arguments to ignore the recommendations of a parliamentary committee.

"I will be explaining more of my plans on the occasion of this year's Sette Giugno. But what I'd like to see is a parliament that is accessible to the public. This means the building, yes, but also the institution as a whole. When civil society discusses issues, draws up reports, has ideas, I want them to know that they can always use the structures of parliament to bring those ideas to public attention."

Apart from the report on precarious employment, one of the first items likely to be discussed under Farrugia's tenure in office is something slightly more contentious from a purely partisan point of view. The incoming government has already been accused of violating the Code of Ethics - and even if the finger-pointers in this case are hardly in an ideal position to criticise, it remains a fact that ethics in politics are very loosely defined and that the code is not enforceable through any statutory legislation.

Farrugia has already suggested establishing what he calls a "committee of ethics" to address this problem.

"Ideally this should be chaired by the party in Opposition, and the position would rotate accordingly. One thing the committee should establish is a clear definition of 'proper' parliamentary behaviour. When there is a complaint against an individual MP, the committee will have the power to investigate the complaint and, more importantly, to suggest remedies in case it proves justified. After all, a situation which provides no remedy is in violation of the most basic norms of democracy..."

Speaking of norms of democracy, I ask Anglu Farrugia - who, as already pointed out, cut his political teeth back in the early 1980s - for his own view of this still-contentious period of Maltese history.

Without going into too much detail, let's just say that the last election was partially fought on memories of those years, yet the result suggests that the 'dark days of Old Labour' simply no longer have the power to frighten voters any more.

Would Farrugia agree that the 2013 election drove the last nail into the coffin of the 1980s?

He pauses before replying. "I think what the result shows is that people have moved beyond those years. A lot has been done since then; there has been new legislation, reforms in the police, the judiciary... and let's not forget there were problems in the judiciary very recently, too. These things are not just part of the 1980s. Ultimately however, people just want to keep moving forward."
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Got to know him recently, a very good man, polite and respectful gentleman.
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Why the time spent in the Police Force during the 1980s have to be brought out every time.So have others ex Police Officers who were PN supporters ,but these are never brought up.Dr Farrugia was right that the PN are very carefull when not to accuse him of any illdoings while in the Police Force.Just immagine if he was implicated in frame ups or torture and be promoted after the 1987 election.Why not interview those ex PN MPs that where with the gakketta blu and are now retired,not even for any questions.