Reflections on the Constitutional Convention

By Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, chairman Grand Harbour Regeneration Corporation

Malta’s road to self-determination was an uphill struggle which would not have been conquered had it not been for the vision of the country’s leaders who strived to see their country shed its shackles and become a free and sovereign state.

Our language, culture and traditions had shaped us into a distinct nation which was self-conscious and aware of its distinctiveness from the foreign coloniser. However, the different ideas held by all those involved had to be discussed and debated, as controversies, tensions and difficulties ensued before history could take its course.

On becoming independent, Malta gained a constitution that made it a sovereign nation, though short of its full capability of determining its own destiny. However, the Maltese did not rest on their laurels and yearned for having a fellow Maltese as their head of state and most of all, freedom in its fullest incarnation.

Malta’s independence was strengthened when it ceased being a constitutional monarchy and became a republic, following intense discussions. What happened over 40 years ago can be summarised in the all-important assertion that “Malta is a democratic republic founded on work and on respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual.”

There were numerous attempts at bringing further improvements to the constitution, some of which were successful thanks to consensus achieved amidst a period of intense political tension. Such amendments firmly established the principle that the party achieving an absolute majority of votes would be entitled to govern, which later was fine-tuned to cater for instances where the party which won the election only enjoyed a relative majority.

I firmly believe in the importance of discussing the renewal of our constitution, over 50 years after its promulgation. In the past, such discussions were in the exclusive realm of politicians, lawyers, constitutionalists and academics. I believe that the time has come for such discussions to break away from such ivory towers and let the people of Malta take a direct role in the renewal of our constitution.

The setting up of a committee which is tasked with promoting awareness of our constitution was a step in the right direction. The committee did its groundwork by commissioning a survey, which explored the level of awareness of the constitution among a representative sample. I was flabbergasted when I read that 21% of those interviewed did not know whether Malta had a constitution. Those who did know of its existence showed a varied awareness of its contents, with only 16% having ever bothered to look it up.

On a positive note, most respondents showed some knowledge of the rights and obligations which the constitution bestows on us. This committee has quite an arduous task to fulfil, though it is not an impossible one. The diverse themes found in the constitution serve as an ideal departure point for any informative publicity and awareness campaign.

The question of awareness is crucial at this point. How can we promote a bottoms up approach to any eventual changes to the constitution, if 21% of the citizens of Malta do not even know that it exists? The success of this committee’s endeavours will determine whether our country’s constitution will once again be decided by those who live in the ivory towers I referred to above, or by the people. I believe that a popular constitutional convention will answer the fundamental question of whether our constitution is catering for the aspirations of the people in this day and age, and whether it can continue doing so in the foreseeable future. However, such a convention will only succeed if it represents an informed public.

I strongly opine that the people of Malta should have a strong say on the answers to these questions and I think that this is a matter of urgency that should be attended to at the earliest.

Our constitution will mirror our beliefs, aspirations and needs only if we, the People of Malta, are given the opportunity of participating fully in the process leading to its updating, renovation and reinvigoration. Popular participation should be stimulated to ensure that the constitutional convention will be an expression of the people.

Dr Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi is chairman of the Grand Harbour Regeneration Corporation