The singer not the song

Do any constitutional changes provide Muscat with a future? Does he want to go down in history that, like Mintoff, he did the right thing in the end? Time will tell

The report on Malta made by the Council of Europe’s commission for democracy through law – popularly known as the Venice Commission – is no great shakes. Updating our Constitution has been on the cards for donkey’s years, but since Independence in 1964 and the declaration of the Republic ten years later, this happened only rarely and only to resolve some political crisis.

Nevertheless, it has come timely enough to help us understand a bit more the intricate politics of our small island.

The Venice Commission is an advisory body of the Council of Europe, composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law. It was created in 1990 after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time of urgent need for constitutional assistance in central and eastern Europe. That explains why after achieving independence, the Council of Europe accepted Malta as a member without finding anything wrong in our Constitution.

The Maltese are not all quite in agreement with the current political scenario. The majority call it ‘l-aqwa żmien’, whilst the minority justifiably gripes about the forgotten meritocracy promises, and about corruption and abuse of the rule of law.

An even smaller minority thinks that we are living a political tragedy within a booming economy and cannot explain why a Prime Minister elected twice with a landslide, is not adored as Mintoff was. They cannot understand why on earth he has to suffer the continued and daily humiliation of standing up for blatantly unelected ‘persons of trust’ and a particular minister whose adventures in Panama have been revealed.

This may therefore be the opportune moment to look into the history of what, for the sake of simplicity, I call the attempts at checks and balances in our system. Our heritage of constitutional checks and balances owes its origins to our colonial times. For 164 years, British colonialism was generally a win-win situation in a quasi-benign dictatorship, but the British never gave up their power to have the final say in case any Maltese ‘misbehaved’. For this reason, they concentrated the real political power that mattered in the hands of the Governor.

In 1964, this hold on power moved on, rather smoothly, to the elected Maltese Prime Minister. And so it came to pass that Maltese democracy was tantamount to electing a benign dictator every election – the benign dictator being the Prime Minister who inherited an extraordinary array of powers from the British.

To a large extent this worked well since 1964, even if one considers the glitch that led to Malta becoming a Republic in 1974.

Not all post-independence PMs were prudent in the application of their extraordinarily accumulated powers to rule. Under Dom Mintoff, a Labour government blemished its post-independence performance several times, such as when the Constitutional Court was left unconstituted for some three years.

Nor do we know what would have happened if the majority of the PN parliamentary group did not accept the compromise changes to the Constitution that were made in 1974 with Malta becoming a Republic. Things almost came to a head then and Dom did threaten to change the Constitution unilaterally. Whether this was just his brinkmanship, we will never know.

Subsequent experience has undoubtedly exposed some inherent weaknesses of our system of checks and balances as we slowly orientate our political scenario away from a fossilised British pattern, and start taking our cue more and more from Europe.

We ‘suddenly’ find out that our Attorney General has, throughout the years, been foisted with contradictory powers. We had five police commissioners in a very short span and some of them left a lot to be desired. The most glaring weakness has been in the area of public prosecution. This choice should not be left to the police as they might have other reasons militating for prosecution or otherwise. The position of the Attorney General’s powers on this issue is similar. His right to dismiss any call for prosecution (nolle prosequi) is practically unchecked.

The British sorted this out years ago when they set up the Crown Prosecution Office. Calls for similar action in Malta made by a few observers of the local scene, including Franco Debono and myself, were ignored. The Bonello Commission set up in the first days of Muscat’s first administration also recommended the setting-up of an office of the Director of Public Prosecution separate from the Attorney General. Muscat, however, left this report gathering dust somewhere, forgetting the enthusiasm with which it had set it up.

The Venice Commission actually said nothing new.

Everybody seems to agree that it is time to get on with the job but the Venice report has got a rather strange reaction. The Opposition calls it a condemnation of the current Labour administration as if the issues pointed out were some recent concoction.

The PM gave it a most positive reception, actually nearly ecstatic. His political track record is that of a skilful tactician, knowing when and where to strike and with an uncanny ability to get out of tight corners. Does he see this as a windfall opportunity to liberate himself from the clutches of the unelected? Do any constitutional changes provide him with a future? Does he want to go down in history that, like Mintoff, he did the right thing in the end? Time will tell.

But having said all this, there is no fool proof constitution if it ends up in the hands of some Machiavelli. History is full examples of brilliantly written constitutions gone wrong.

At the end of the day, it is the singer and not the song.

Christmas market

‘The charmless trading city of Yiwu in southern China doesn’t have elves or snow, but it’s as close to Santa’s workshop as you can get outside the North Pole.’

So begins an interesting feature in a recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek. Yiwu is unique. Nowhere else can one find the supply chain and manufacturing infrastructure to create Christmas lights and all things Christmas – mini-trees, plastic reindeer, glittery wreaths and flashing coloured lights. The Yiwu area manufactures 70% of China’s $5.6 billion business in this sector.

For Yiwu, Donald Trump’s 10% tariffs were water off a duck’s back with US consumers having to fork out more money to cover the extra cost. So, spare a thought for the industrious Chinese of Tiwu this Christmas!

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May I wish a happy and peaceful Christmas to all readers of MaltaToday as well as to the editor and staff.

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