A chance to pull our socks up

This legislature opens at a time when its services are most needed. Unfortunately it also opens under a cloud of mutual antagonism and distrust. But this provides another opportunity: this time, for both sides to truly demonstrate that they hold the country’s best interests to heart

25 June 2017, 8:00am
This is an occasion for Malta’s House of Representatives to pull its socks up, and elevate the entire country in the process
This is an occasion for Malta’s House of Representatives to pull its socks up, and elevate the entire country in the process
Yesterday’s official inauguration of the 13th legislature since Independence was unusual for several reasons. It was the first time this ceremony took place in the ‘new’ House of Parliament designed by Renzo Piano. Although in use since 2015, the ceremony seemed to finally lend an air of ‘legitimacy’ to an issue which had – up to a point – divided the country. At a glance, this seems a hopeful omen. Perhaps other divisive controversies may also be similarly laid to rest.

Nor is this the only ray of optimism surrounding the new legislature. For while uncertainties still seem to hover over the interpretation of the election result – in particular, concerning the two seats won by Marlene and Godfrey Farrugia: who represent the PD, though they contested on the PN ticket – the fact remains that there is more pluralism in today’s composition than at any other time since Independence.

The presence of two PD members as MPs – even if technically representing another party – can only serve to broaden the nature of discussion, and hopefully dilute the otherwise purely bipartisan approach to political debate.

All the same, the terms under which this new form of Opposition will actually function have yet to be hammered out. For this reason, it was somewhat incongruous that the Nationalist party would already announce its Shadow Cabinet, omitting to appoint any PD members in the process. If the whole point of the ‘Forza Nazzjonali’ coalition was, as claimed, to alter the way we do politics in Malta, this would have been the perfect opportunity to make an effective demonstration of the new style.

Nonetheless, even the confusion that surrounds this configuration can itself be interpreted as a promising sign. One of the many defects of our country’s Electoral Law is that it has been amended over the years to reflect the traditional bi-partisan template... and inconsistencies inevitably arise, in cases where this template changes.

The new reality of today’s Parliamentary composition, which has a more pluralistic party representation, makes such problems more visible. This gives rise to a unique opportunity – the opening of a brand new legislature, which is indeed unlike any previous one – to finally undertake the reforms we were promised: started, but by no means limited to, the issue of electoral reform.

Another factor overshadowing the opening of this particular legislature is the unusual circumstances of the recent electoral campaign. Though the Labour administration was elected by a large majority, it remains under official investigation over a number of very serious allegations of maladministration.

Enough has been written about the allegations themselves – which in any case still have to be proven – but the entire episode also highlighted serious shortcomings and flaws in various institutions. Regardless of the outcome of the magisterial inquiries, we can all agree that the country would benefit greatly if the authorities and institutions responsible for checks and balances on the executive were to be more reliable and dependable in exacting their functions.

Again, this points to several areas requiring legislative reform. And ‘legislative reform’ is the precise responsibility of any National Parliament.

This legislature, then, opens at a time when its services are most needed. Unfortunately it also opens under a cloud of mutual antagonism and distrust. But this provides another opportunity: this time, for both sides to truly demonstrate that they hold the country’s best interests to heart.

What this newspaper expects from the 13th legislature since Independence – and hopefully that will not turn out to be an unlucky number – is that our representatives in parliament rise to the challenges before them. There are serious legislative changes that are required – some of them have been discussed and promised for years. The country has meanwhile seen and calculated first-hand the cost of leaving such issues unaddressed. Clearly, we can no longer postpone a serious debate on Constitutional reform very much longer.

But for these issues to be addressed, we also need a fully-equipped, functional Parliament that is ‘modern’ not only in its architecture. The structures and facilities of Malta’s Parliament are still redolent of bygone years. This newspaper has in the past declared its belief in the importance of a full-time Parliament, offering proper remuneration for an important job.

Apart from attracting the services of much-needed professionals to the political fray, an upgrade of the profession of MP would also lessen the financial scope for corruption. Naturally, this would have to be counterbalanced by a proper system of checks and balances, and the enactment of serious anti-corruption legislation that would deal serious punitive measures where appropriate. The removal of prescription for politicians was a good start, but it is nowhere near enough.  If this legislature is to be serious in its promises, we expect nothing less than a thorough root-and-branch reform of the country’s entire institutional set-up.

There are other areas which need attention: not least, the behaviour of parliamentarians themselves. In recent years, parliamentary engagement has often degenerated into name-calling and mud-slinging; even the quality of the speeches – often overly-long – leaves much to be desired.

This is, in brief, an occasion for Malta’s House of Representatives to pull its socks up, and elevate the entire country in the process.