Talkin’ about a constitution

A guide to the constitutional convention that will enact a reform intended to give birth to what Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has described as a ‘Second Republic’

President George Abela this week called for constitutional reform, echoing similar calls in the run up to the 9 March election.

With all three political parties having included constitutional reform in their electoral programme, reform is in the cards, however its legal nature and the country's detachment from its Constitution renders the whole exercise largely unpopular.

What is a constitution?

A constitution is a summary of the fundamental political principles on which a state is governed and declares the rights of citizens. Although the earliest form of a constitution dates back to the Sumerian civilisation of 2300 BC, most modern constitutions are based on the 1215 Magna Carta, which granted rights for both noblemen and untitled citizens in England. It established the principle that no one, including the king or lawmakers, is above the law.

When did Malta have its first constitution?

Maltese constitutions date back to 1813, with the Milner Constitution of 1921 being the first to grant Malta self-government, albeit with limited powers, since the major responsibilities such as defence and the public purse remained under the direct responsibility of the British governor. The current Constitution of Malta was adopted in 1964, replacing the 1961 Constitution. After it became an independent country in 1964, the Constitution declared Malta a parliamentary democracy within the British Commonwealth. It safeguards the fundamental human rights of citizens and outlines the separation between the executive, judicial and legislative powers.

What is a constitutional convention?

It is a meeting convened for the purpose of writing a new constitution or revising an existing constitution. Recent conventions were held in Ireland, Iceland, the Netherlands and at EU level.

Has the Constitution ever been changed?

Since 1964, the Constitution has been amended 24 times, most recently in 2007, with the entrenchment of the Office of the Ombudsman. On December 13, 1974, the Constitution was revised and Malta became a republic within the Commonwealth, with executive authority vested in a Maltese president. Other important amendments were made in 1987 and 2006, in the form of changes to the electoral system.

Why will the convention be held?

The convention will be held following Labour's electoral pledge to enact a reform intended to give birth to what Prime Minister Joseph Muscat described as a "Second Republic". However, the Nationalist Party holds that Constitutional reform should piloted by a Parliamentary select committee instead of a convention.

Who will lead the convention?

One of the new Labour government's first appointments upon being elected to office in March was that of former Nationalist MP Franco Debono as Law Commissioner and Constitutional Convention Coordinator. Debono's appointment received a negative reaction by the Nationalist Party, which has described the appointment as "divisive" and gone as far as threatening to withdraw from the constitutional convention. However, Debono has claimed that his track record in championing institutional reform over the years is more than enough to prove his commitment. Debono insisted that "the Constitution belongs to the people and not to politicians," and said that the Constitution is the foundation stone of democracy.

Who will be in the convention?

Franco Debono said that the composition of the convention will include representatives of the three political parties and the public. Although he said the make-up of the convention had yet to be decided, Debono cited the Irish model, which was made up of 100 members, including 66 randomly selected citizens of Ireland.

How will the members be chosen?

The government has yet to decide how the members will be chosen, however going by the Irish model, the political parties would be asked to nominate their representatives while the citizens would be selected randomly using the electoral register and on the basis of groups representative of society generally and balanced in terms of gender, age and region.

When will the convention be held?

The government has yet to set the term, however the convention could be given up to a year to present a final document. In 2011, the Icelandic Constitutional Assembly was given two months to finish its work, while the ongoing Irish convention was granted one year to present its recommendations.

What will be discussed?

All three political parties included constitutional reform in their electoral programmes, with proposals varying from electoral reform to party financing and from parliamentary autonomy to Malta's neutrality. Debono, who for years has championed reforms in the judicial system, the president's powers and elections, said that the terms would be set by the government. However he stressed that the convention would be wide ranging and discuss changes to the current Constitution and would also consider including events such as the president's speech at the State Opening of Parliament in the Constitution. Other issues up for discussion could include the Broadcasting Authority, lowering the voting age, church-state relations, gay marriage and the Referenda Act.

What will happen after the convention?

The convention's conclusions will be presented to the Speaker of the House, who in turn will present the final recommendations to Parliament. MPs will then have to shape the recommendations into questions, which will be posed to the country in a referendum. Once this process is complete, Parliament will have to vote on the reforms, depending on the referendum's outcome. Although certain sections of the Constitution need a two-thirds parliamentary majority, other parts can be changed by simple majority.

Il-konstituzzjoni giet emendata biex tinkludi l-ufficcju tal-Ombudsman: Prosit nghid lis-sur Ombudsman Dr. Said Pullicino ghax kien suppost li ma jaccettax post mal-gvern qabel ma jghamel tlitt snin penzjonant imma dan il-proxmu drit hataf post tal-Malta Broadcasting Authority minghajr ma qaghad ghal dak li tghid il-konstituzzjoni, u minfuq qieghed fuq il-panel biex jaggorna l-konstituzzjoni, l-istess wahda li ma jirrispettax!Ara report fuq il-Malta Today ta' xi 10 snin ilu, ftit wara li lahaq Ombudsman Dr. S.P.
"On December 13, 1974, the Constitution was revised and Malta became a republic within the Commonwealth, with executive authority vested in a Maltese president." Really?! I always thought that the President had a largely symoblic function. Are you sure that executive authority was vested in the President in 1974? !
Prosit Jurgen, concise & very clearly explained.