The ghosts of Labour past

In the early 1970s, the then Labour adminstration failed to appoint the Constitutional Court as a means to pressure the Opposition into agreeing with the Constitutional changes that Dom Mintoff wanted

Dom Mintoff
Dom Mintoff

The Dean of the Faculty of Laws, Professor Kevin Aquilina, has gone on record commenting on the recent judicial appointments and a lawsuit that challenges them because of the current selection system. Professor Aquilina told a newspaper that Malta is in the “worst constitutional mess” that it has faced since gaining independence.

My path in life crossed that of Prof. Aquilina many moons ago and I have always known him to be a serious academic who studies thoroughly anything about which he is asked to voice a professional opinion. This is why I was disappointed by his statement that was spurred by the fact that government went on with these appointments while the amendments in our selection system – suggested by the Venice Commission – are still in the pipeline.

There is no doubt that this decision on the part of government was imprudent, but apparently Joseph Muscat feels that he can afford to be imprudent, just by looking at the polls. Indeed, the Minister of Justice, Owen Bonnici, was quoted as confirming that the changes in the system of appointing judges and magistrates will eventually see the light of day.

May I remind Prof. Aquilina of what happened in the early 1970s under the first Mintoff administration... talk of Constitutional messes!
Well for one thing, the then Labour adminstration failed to appoint the Constitutional Court as a means to pressure the Opposition into agreeing with the Constitutional changes that Dom Mintoff wanted.

The Court was appointed again only after a compromise about changes in the Constitution had been reached by the two sides of the House of Representatives. But that is another story.

In fact, originally the Constitutional Court was composed of five judges, including the Chief Justice as President, and a Vice-President, but in 1974 it was reduced to three judges, and the post of Vice-President was abolished.

Having taken more than one lesson, the PN also insisted for a Constitutional amendment such that the Chief Justice becomes automatically the president of the Constitutional Court if this post is left vacant. In this way, the government’s abusive power not to appoint the Constitutional Court simply disappeared. Mintoff accepted this change – indirectly accepting that he had somewhat gone overboard with his tactics.

Another abuse of power regarding the assignment of judges occurred shortly after the 1976 election. The election was rife with abuses by Labour supporters – the most blatant happened in St Vincent De Paule elderly home. Days before polling day, the place was flooded with nurses, and nursing aides who were known Labour activists. Polling did not take place in the institution (as it does today) and the nurses took it upon themselves to accompany the patients to the polling station while relatives were not permitted to do so. The net result of this abuse was that in the relevant box of votes there were only some 50 votes for PN candidates out of a total of some 900.

Guido de Marco, who had contested the seventh district – that had magically put Hamrun and Luqa as abutting each other in one geographical unit – decided to sue for corrupt practices in the district: a legal action made possible by the 1974 constitutional amendments, ironically at the insistence of Mintoff himself.

The court did not accept the preliminary submissions made by the Electoral Commission and government’s reaction was to change two of the judges that were assigned to the Constitutional Court. YES! At the time, the government had the right to assign judges to the different courts and play musical chairs with them at its pleasure.

The government removed Judges Maurice Caruana Curran and Victor Sammut from the Constitutional Court and replaced them with Judges Giovanni Refalo and Effie Mizzi. It changed two judges in the course of a controversial case with serious political implications, after the court’s decision ‘disappointed’ it. Talk of imprudence and of fishing for forums!

Guido de Marco decided not to continue participating in the farce and withdrew the case.

I do not know whether Kevin Aquilina had been born at that time. Although Malta was already a member of the Council of Europe, Venice was just a city in north-eastern Italy, built on a group of 118 small islands separated by canals and linked by over 400 bridges.

Ghosts of Labour past (2)

My namesake – the minister for the family, children’s rights and social solidarity – recently announced that the government will be amending the law so that foreign-born children would automatically become Maltese citizens on being adopted by Maltese citizens. Kudos for that, of course.

For me this is yet another blast from the past. It was a Mintoff administration that had enacted the law so as to stop adopted children from automatically becoming Maltese citizens. So, what the minister announced is the undoing of yet another Mintoffian law.

The story behind that law is curious. Those in PN circles at that time know of a certain Gordon from Floriana who was a Guido de Marco fanatic. Well, one fine day someone discovered that Gordon, being the son of a foreign father, was not a Maltese citizen as he had not made the necessary procedures when he was 18 years old. Incidentally Gordon has now passed away.

The police quickly informed Gordon that he had to leave Malta, giving him a short period of time in which he was to say his goodbyes. Now this was a cruel thing to do. The man had very limited education, only spoke Maltese, had never been abroad and did not have anywhere to go.

Guido de Marco quickly came to his rescue. In a short period, Gordon’s aunt – with whom he had always lived – adopted him. He changed his surname from that of his father to that of his adoptive parent and – hey presto – he became a Maltese citizen, thus reducing the effect of the police order to zilch!

When he heard of this story, Dom Mintoff was not amused. Apparently, he suspected that De Marco could do the same thing in the case of Mabel Strickland’s nephew and he sought to change the law ‘ad hominem’ so to speak. He also limited the age of adoption – something that makes some sense. Adopting an adult is rather silly and normally only useful for nefarious reasons connected with inheritance of property and assets.

Now, people who are adoptive parents are finding that at the age of eighteen, their foreign-born sons and daughters have to go through the process of requesting citizenship – a request that is accepted only at the pleasure of the powers that be.

This is a dictatorship and so it has always been.

Citizens are therefore obliged to express their gratitude for being conceded rights that had been taken from them in the first place.

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