Fighting about our own importance again, are we?

Now, the Chief Justice is ranked at only Number Five in the official Malta Celebrity Ego Charts… how could such an affront be borne in silence?

Of all the real and pressing issues affecting politics and the judiciary these days – the only one they consider worth actually arguing over is... their own importance in the general scheme of things
Of all the real and pressing issues affecting politics and the judiciary these days – the only one they consider worth actually arguing over is... their own importance in the general scheme of things

Uh-oh. It seems that the great institutions that lord over these fair isles of ours – the separate arms of the many-headed monster that keeps the whole ‘Republic’ shebang together, as it were – have started bickering among themselves again. 

Now: I don’t want to start a panic or anything, but that is generally not a good sign at the best of times... still less in this great era of uncertainty and upheaval, when none of the old certainties seem certain anymore.

And of all the institutions that make up the Maltese State, it had to be the Judiciary and the House of Representatives, too. Nothing to worry about, of course: it’s only the people who draw up the laws that bind you, me, and everybody’s dog... and the people whose job it is to interpret those laws and translate them into this thing called ‘justice’ (without which, civilisation as we know it would come crashing down about our ears).

What could possibly go wrong, when these two fundamental pillars of the State start snapping at each other like a pair of irate Chihuahuas? 

Let’s see now: in nearby Italy, showdowns between the judiciary and parliament have been known to bring down not just the occasional government here and there (which sort of happens all the time in Italy anyway)... but also entire political establishments. ‘Tangentopoli’, for instance, began in the 1990s as a magisterial inquiry into bribery allegations, and ended up as an outright war between the executive and the judiciary... bringing down Craxi’s government in the process, while also wiping out of existence the entire Democrazia Cristiana.  

Today’s political landscape in Italy is partly the result of this seismic event. And – no offence to any Italians reading this – it ain’t exactly what you’d ‘chiamare’ a ‘grande bellezza’, now is it?

Elsewhere, the delicate balance between judicial and political power has resulted in permanent ‘cold wars’ aimed at tilting the bias of the judiciary in one or another political direction. The USA is a good example of this, though it is beginning to happen here too. The composition of the Supreme Court is a constant tug of war between Republicans and Democrats, and the balance now looks set to tilt firmly in the former’s favour... with far-ranging possible consequences for the rest of the country.

So, all things considered, you will forgive me for gulping audibly in apprehension at what our own current dispute may portend. You never know: if it degenerates into an open brawl, some flailing limb or other might accidentally hit the ‘auto-destruct’ button, and the entire State may start slowly and inexorably unravelling before our eyes.

At this point, it becomes rather important to establish what it is that Chief Justice Silvio Camilleri and Speaker of the House Anglu Farrugia are actually at each other’s throat about. (Yes, yes, I know I could very easily just tell you now, and get it over with... but where’s the fun in that? It’s like a band-aid. You don’t just rip it off in one movement, do you? No! You slowly peel it off millimetre by millimetre, so you can feel each individual hair follicle being slowly ripped out by the roots...)

Let’s try guessing instead. Is it about the quality of the legislation enacted by our Parliament, by any chance? God knows it should be, considering how many times the judiciary has come up with wildly conflicting interpretations of the same laws.  Or how about blatant political interference in the appointment of judges and magistrates, so that – despite a recent ‘reform’ – the judicial bench still looks like it might have been carried there from the Labour Party HQ’s common room? No, wait, I know... it’s about political interference in actual cases, isn’t it? Like when certain political parties organise ‘spontaneous demonstrations’ outside the law-courts, just because they didn’t get exactly the verdict they wanted....

Or perhaps it is a question of court procedure... for instance, how the Chief Justice can possibly preside over the Court of Criminal Appeal, when (like most recent Chief Justices) he was appointed to that position directly from the role of Attorney General... which, in our system, also doubles up as chief State prosecutor. (Note: the answer to this one is simple enough. He just recuses himself every time he is faced with an appeal from one of his own earlier convictions.)

In any case, the answer is... nope. None of the above. It seems that – of all the real and pressing issues affecting politics and the judiciary these days – the only one they consider worth actually arguing over is... their own importance in the general scheme of things. 

Yes, that’s right: it seems that Dr Camilleri is terribly upset about a recent change in protocol, which has relegated his office to a rung below that of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. He even complained bitterly about it at his annual address: “Unfortunately, the end of the year left a bitter taste for the judiciary because of the treatment it received when the government, all of a sudden, changed the order of precedence and the judiciary, as represented by my office, was relegated to a position inferior to that which it has always been acknowledged to merit along the years...” 

And right he is to complain about it, too. Now, the Chief Justice is ranked at only Number Five in the official Malta Celebrity Ego Charts: languishing beneath the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker AND the Archbishop, in that precise order. How could such an affront be borne in silence? It’s a bit like Kanye West busting up the 2015 Grammy Awards Night, because Beck won instead of Beyonce. (And let’s face it: West was right... right?)

In other words, the two most important institutions of the State are arguing over the precise seating arrangements at the annual Grand Parade of Stuffy Pomposity. And don’t get me wrong, I fully support Dr Silvio Camilleri in his ongoing hunger strike. I mean, protocol is after all important. How can the human race be expected to fully resolve the great challenges of our times, if we can’t even get a measly little bureaucratic pecking order right? 

So let’s see now: how to fix things, so that absolutely everyone feels like they’re getting the importance they think they are actually due. Hmmm. The great dilemma of the 21st century. No matter, let’s hear what Mr Speaker has to actually say about it first. He is, after all, the one Dr Camilleri thinks has been unfairly promoted...

Well, Dr Farrugia is of the opinion that the changes to the national hierarchy are more reflective of Parliament’s standing as the highest institution of the land: “The Chief Justice being seen as ‘higher’ than the Speaker is a colonial leftover, from a time when the governor general came first, followed by the office of the Chief Justice,” he said.

Ooh, Ok, that does alter the landscape a little. So this ‘national hierarchy’ we’re talking about here ... this self-concocted little order of ceremonial self-importance, which is only ever trotted out at ceremonial pageants and national festivities – is supposed to be some kind of ‘mirror, mirror on the wall’... telling us who’s the ‘highest institution’ of them all, right?

If that’s the case, the first question I would ask Dr Farrugia (are you listening, Dr Camilleri?) is this: if Parliament is the ‘highest institution’ in the land... why doesn’t it BEHAVE like the highest institution of the land? Why do we witness more decorum and statesmanship in a bank heist caught on CCTV, than in a televised parliamentary session from Malta’s House of Representatives?

Or are we to understand that its importance is due only to its hierarchical position in a Constitutional order of merit... but that, in the meantime, it can get away with an endless series of kindergarten tantrums?  

So tell you what, Dr Farrugia. First get parliament to really act like it’s the highest institution in the land (hint: a good start would be to weed out at least the lowest of the low insults and jibes) and then we’ll talk about letting you nudge yourself a couple of positions up the billboard. 

Meanwhile, you’ll be relieved to know that I’ve hit on the perfect solution to our latest little protocol emergency. I say we scrap the old Constitutional hierarchy altogether, and come up with a new one based on the true importance of people and State institutions. No prizes for guessing the Number One slot... who else but Freddie Portelli? As for the remaining positions... well, I think it’s high time we got realistic here, and finally acknowledged the simple truth that we’ve been avoiding all these years. 

The rest of us just aren’t important in the greater scheme of things. Our place is with everyone else in the crowd, banging our heads to ‘Mur Hallini u Itlaq ’l Hemm!’

That way, nobody could possibly argue that they were positioned anywhere above or beneath their actual status in the universe’s natural order of importance. Except maybe Keith Richards, of course... but then again, he of all people should know that you can’t always get what you want.

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