Auto-goals galore

The unjustified unholy haste to nominate Farrugia Frendo smacked of carelessness although this paper ‘explained’ that there could have been a hidden reason

The hilarious Comedy Knights show staged during the festive season included a sketch in which Simon Busuttil gets a consultant for some advice on how to win the next election. The reply was: Just shut up! And let the Joseph Muscat administration keep on scoring own goals. It was all meant to be a piece of harmless fun, of course.

This ‘prophecy’ was not all off the mark. Barely five weeks later, the Joseph Muscat administration scored another auto goal when it announced that the Cabinet had approved the appointment of two new magistrates, both women. Incredibly this came about just a few weeks after Joseph Muscat promised that he intended to take the issue of good governance ‘head-on’!

The issue here was not the qualities and abilities of the two candidates. That would always be a controversial issue, whoever is nominated... and, frankly, I dare not tread on that sort of ‘hallowed’ ground. 

Within a few hours, doubts were raised about the Constitutionality of the two proposed appointments. In one case the issue concerned the seven-year period of practice as a lawyer that is a basic requirement for one to qualify to be appointed a magistrate. The problem was that the lady (as all lawyers do) graduated on one day, got her warrant on another and took the oath to be able to practise as a lawyer on yet another day. Obviously before taking this oath she could not practise as a lawyer and therefore the seven-year period started from that day. And the seven-year period from the day she took her oath elapses in March!

The unjustified unholy haste to nominate her smacked of carelessness although this paper last Sunday ‘explained’ that there could have been a hidden reason: the lady is the Speaker’s daughter and the Speaker was miffed because he expected to be the government’s nominee for the European Court of Auditors. In other words, the report implied that her appointment was the proverbial sop to Cerberus... and Cerberus could get restless and impatient. 

This problem was ‘solved’ by delaying the lady’s swearing in as a Magistrate until March – an open admission that, in her case, the Cabinet had jumped the gun.

In the other case, the problem was much worse. The nominated lawyer was Chairman of the Employment Commission and as such she was not eligible for ‘an appointment to, or (to) act in, any public office’ unless at least three years had passed from leaving her post. This legal condition exists to deter anyone in that Constitutional position to be tempted to give an unwarranted decision in favour of the administration by being lured with the prospect of a public appointment. 

The lady did the honourable thing by asking the Prime Minister not to be considered for the post of magistrate and so saved some of the Cabinet’s blushes.

One wonders whether any vetting about the qualifications of the two candidates was made before their appointments were approved by the Cabinet and the subsequent public announcement.

Simon Busuttil did speak up about the matter, of course, as he was obliged to do. Yet the ‘advice’ for him to shut up as the government can get into one mess after another on its own –  apparently running aimlessly on auto-pilot – strikes one as being more serious than funny.

This episode has once again brought up the issue of how magistrates and judges are chosen and appointed in Malta. This issue had been tackled by a commission set up by the current administration itself and headed by former European Court of Human Rights judge, Giovanni Bonello.

Most of the recommendations of this commission – that had been obliged to conclude its report in a very short time – have now been left gathering dust on the shelves of the Ministry of Justice. One wonders why the government has lost the sense of urgency with which it had been imbued when setting up its own commission.

According to that commission the current system of appointing members of the judiciary lacks transparency in the selection process and also lacks fixed criteria that enabled the country to select those who are most fit for judicial posts.

Meanwhile, the PN has committed itself to take on many of the Commission’s recommendations, if elected in power. Moreover the PN has proposed a new bill of laws that should lead to a radical change in the appointments within the judiciary.

I suggest that one does not try to work out the logic of how, as far as this issue is concerned, the two political parties switched their positions and adopted each other’s; more so in order to preserve one’s sanity.

Colonial inheritance

Our system was set up under British rule many years ago at a time when it was deemed to be expedient for the judiciary, the public prosecutor and the Commissioner of Police to be as near as possible to the powers that be. Most of them were invariably hand-picked faithful servants of the Crown and not of the people – a very convenient way to impose colonial rule.

On becoming independent in 1964, all the powers held by the British Governor (for which read the British Colonial Office) were passed on to the Prime Minister. This is why, more than a ‘primus inter pares’, the Prime Minister in Malta has powers that are akin to that of a dictator.

It is incredibly ironic that more than 50 years since attaining independence, we keep trudging along with a system devised by a colonial power for its ends… while our former colonial masters have today assumed different systems that treat their own citizens much more fairly.

In its document about restoring trust in our political system, the PN pushes forward the idea that certain important public service heads should be scrutinised by a Parliamentary Committee before their appointment is endorsed. Perhaps this should apply also to members of the judiciary.

Whatever it is, I feel it is about time that the Prime Minister’s powers are reined in and his proposals on important appointments are monitored before decisions are taken. 

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