‘Not such a foregone conclusion, that Labour will win’ | Jason Azzopardi

If Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi's predictions are correct: the Opposition’s legislative reforms might go some distance towards healing Malta’s many institutional wounds (as well as, possibly, mending the Nationalist Party’s own electoral fortunes…) 

Of the PN’s 12 legislative proposals, one concerns what Alfred Sant had famously described (after the 2003 election) as the ‘power of incumbency’. Isn’t this a bit ironic: given that the PN never did very much to curtail the same form of abuse, for the full 25 years it was in government?  

That’s a legitimate question. And I can answer it in two ways: either in the typical, pedantic, ‘partisan-political’ way… or in another way.  

If I were to answer in a purely partisan manner, I would tell you that: whenever a Nationalist government called an election, and parliament was dissolved; there were strict orders from Castile - actually, a directive issued by OPM – that, for the duration of the campaign, all appointments, promotions, and transfers within the public service, had to immediately stop.  

This was a practice introduced by Eddie Fenech Adami in 1992; and maintained by Lawrence Gonzi after 2004. But during the last election – in May 2017 – the power of incumbency was taken to unprecedented levels. Because – credit to [MaltaToday journalist] James Debono, for pointing this out – the amount of permits issued by the Planning Authority, during those five weeks alone, was simply stratospheric. Much, much more than in the preceding months…  

Secondly: three-quarters of the AFM was given a promotion, during those five weeks…  

Excuse me for interrupting, but… it wasn’t all that different in 2008: when – as James Debono’s article also points out – the number of PA permits had likewise sky-rocketed, on the eve of an election... That brings me to the second, ‘non-partisan’ way I should be replying. Did we make mistakes in the past?  

Yes, we probably did. But what we have all learnt from the [Daphne Caruana Galizia] public inquiry – for, whether we like it or not, I look at that inquiry as an X-ray of our institutions – is that the X-Ray shows us a patient who is in need of very urgent surgery.  

Because or national institutions have been either corroded, eroded, killed, compromised, or raped.  

Now: we should not – even as parliamentarians – get into the ‘I-am-less-black-thanyou’ game…  

But that is precisely what you seem to be doing yourself, right now…  

No. What I’m saying – and what my party is saying – is: let us all agree, that the country needs certain reforms that should be considered ‘basic’.  

When an election is called, for example: there should be no such plethora of appointments, or AFM promotions… or any decisions, of any kind, which would in any way bind a future Cabinet. (Because that is the way we have worded the bill itself). So it’s not just jobs or promotions: it could be amnesties… or entering into international treaties… or bringing new legislation into force… whatever it is: government would have had ample time to do all that, before the electoral campaign.  

So the main raison d’etre, or ‘leitmotif’, of this bill is… let us ensure, as far as humanly possible, that the elections are conducted in a fair manner.  

Would you concede, then, that past Nationalist governments have not always been very ‘fair’ when it came to conducting elections?  

I beg to differ…  

Before the 2008 election, then-Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi (and his wife Kate) had organized private meetings with constituents – behind closed doors, in Villa Arrigo – to address their concerns. Isn’t that exactly the same sort of ‘vote-buying exercise’, that you are now complaining about from Labour?  

No, sir! Those meetings did happen – I can confirm that myself – but it was a completely different situation. It is, after all, the duty of all candidates, and members of parliament, to meet their constituents, and listen to them, during a campaign. But sorry: you can’t compare that to the whole-sale buying of votes we saw in the last election…  

Can’t you? Wasn’t the whole point of those meetings to ‘give people what they want’… just to win their votes, ahead of an election that the PN was widely predicted to lose?  

No, no, it wasn’t like that at all. I was not involved, or present, in any of them myself: but we do know that the scope of those meetings was to hear out the ‘pain’ – or disappointment; anger; call what you will – of Nationalist voters, at the time. Certainly, it is not the same thing as dishing out a thousand AFM promotions, literally on the eve of an election. There not just a ‘sea’… but an ‘ocean’ of difference, between those two things..  

Because otherwise, by that argument: quite frankly, we may as well not hold any election campaigns at all. There would be no point in knocking on people’s doors… if we cannot even listen to what they have to say…  

With all due respect, however: Lawrence Gonzi was wearing the hat of Prime Minister – not just ‘any old candidate’ – when holding those closed-door meetings…  

I disagree. He was acting in his capacity as Nationalist Party leader… but let us at least admit that we need to move forward, now. Wouldn’t you agree that we do need this law, to curtail the power of incumbency… and all the abuse of this power, that happens before every election? Because that’s what our proposals are ultimately about.  

And not just that: it’s a whole package… there is also the proposal of an independent magistrate, with the power and resources to investigate corruption, for instance…  

But there could be problems with that proposal, too. At the risk of an exaggerated comparison, the Italian ‘Tangentopoli’ scandal has often been compared with a judicial ‘coup d’etat’: a single magistrate, wielding enough power to bring the entire State to its knees. Now: without questioning whether Antonio di Pietro was right to actually do that, at the time… wouldn’t this proposal create the same conditions here? What safeguards are there, anyway, against abuse of power by the ‘special inquiring magistrate’ himself?  

First of all: I, and my party – and I have no doubt, the vast majority of this country – have full trust in the honesty, work ethic, seriousness, and sense of duty of our judges and magistrates.  

Secondly: the law itself provides that, when a magistrate finds that there is enough reason to commence a prosecution against a public officer … he has to send a detailed report – what we call a ‘proces verbale’ – to the Speaker of the House, to be immediately tabled in Parliament.  

This way, the people would know exactly how the magistrate had come to his conclusions; what evidence he had collected; all the testimonies he had heard; why the charges are being pressed… the entire process would be transparent, from start to finish…  

With regard to your first point, however: are you so certain, that the vast majority shares your ‘full trust’ in the judiciary? You seem to be forgetting about former Chief Justice Noel Arrigo, who was convicted and imprisoned for bribery; or the many questionable rulings that have sapped public faith in the law-courts ever since…  

All I can say to that is: God forbid, that we were to ever again go through a tragedy – or ‘earthquake’ – of the magnitude that you just mentioned: which is, to this day, a wound that hasn’t fully healed.  

But the fact remains that, when your job is to draw up legislation…. you do have to believe that everyone will at least try to fulfil their obligations, as far as humanly possible; and that otherwise, everyone will have to face up to their own responsibilities, and to their own conscience.  

But there are no guarantees; just as there is no guarantee that I will not be hit by a car, while crossing the street … no matter how many precautions I take.  

Now: what this proposal does, is give to a single magistrate: not so much the ‘power’ - I wouldn’t even use that word, myself – but the ‘responsibility’, for six years, to investigate government corruption; and where necessary, to commence such investigations himself, on his own initiative.  

It shouldn’t have to take an article in MaltaToday – or The Times, or Lovin Malta, or whatever – for the authorities to take action. We are, after all, talking about public officials here. And public office, means public trust. So to corrupt a public official, is to corrupt public trust. It’s as simple as that, really.  

So it’s a responsibility, yes: but the fact that the magistrate needs to give a full, transparent account to the Speaker, of all his actions and decisions… I think that’s an important safeguard, right there.  

Let’s turn to one of the more contentious proposals. The PN is now suggesting an overhaul of the ‘Presidential pardon’ system. My understanding is that, with the new legislation in place, the President of the Republic will have the power to decide on whether to grant such immunity to prosecution… ‘on his own judgment’. Once again: aren’t we giving far too much discretionary power, to what is ultimately supposed to be only a ‘ceremonial’ role?  

For the sake of accuracy; yes, the President will be given the power – or responsibility, or authority: call it what you will – to decide, on his own judgment, whether or not to issue ‘a certificate of immunity against self-incrimination’, to anyone who will be able to reveal corruption.  

But what that means in practice is that the President will no longer have to consult with government (as is the case today). Instead, it would be a magistrate to demand it; and the President would use his own judgment, to decide whether or not to acceded to the demand.  

At the end of the day, however, the entire process will be transparent. Once again, the Speaker will have to present all the documentation, and relevant details, in the House… and of course, there will be all the public scrutiny required, to see if that certificate of immunity was really needed, or not.  

Personally, however, I have no doubt that no President of the Republic would ever even dream of granting a certificate of immunity, to someone who is not deserving…  

Come on, you’re being naïve now. What about all the controversial pardons of the past? What about Zeppi l-Hafi? Melvin Theuma..?  

Thank you, how sweet: that’s exactly the situation we wanted to avoid. For with the system we have today, the President of the Republic can only offer a pardon ‘on the advice of the Prime Minister’. So for the first time ever – and this is major – we are giving the President of the Republic the full autonomy to decide such cases… ‘on his own judgment’. And this would ensure that those experiences you mention, will not be repeated…  

Again, however, it boils down to ‘faith’… this time, in the Presidency. But let’s face it: all our past Presidents (except the first) have been former Cabinet ministers. They obviously all have their own political biases, too. Besides: they now have to be appointed by a two-thirds majority. What would happen if the Nationalist and Labour Parties simply fail to reach that consensus, in future?  

Let’s just say, I’m not as sceptical as you. During the appointment of the last President, the Nationalist Opposition – even though there was no need for a two-thirds majority, at the time – gave its full support to Dr George Vella….  

But you yourself just said: there are no guarantees. What would happen, in the (admittedly extreme) event that Prime minister Robert Abela were to nominate, say, Joseph Muscat as Malta’s next President? Would the PN offer its ‘full support’ to him, too?  

You have to make a distinction, though, between what is ‘possible’, and what is ‘probable’. What you’re suggesting now is certainly possible… but I don’t see it as very probable, myself.  

But I do see what you’re driving at: for yes, the law is ultimately something that is ‘made by human beings… for human beings’. It can be abused by human beings, too.  

So our duty, as legislators, is to propose the best possible law, under any given circumstance. We cannot predict the future; but, in clear conscience, we can say that we have done our utmost – our very best, in fact – to produce the best possible legislation: against abuse of power; against power of incumbency; and against institutionalized corruption, which has become so rampant in recent years.  

And in clear conscience, I think that: yes, the Nationalist Party can say that…  

Fair enough: I’ll close with this, then. Will the Nationalist Party be just as keen on enacting this legislation, if – to cite another improbable future event – it were to actually win the next election?  

Let me answer you this way: I remember that former Justice Minister Tonio Borg – in one of his last speeches, before taking up the post of European Commissioner – had suggested that ‘the time had come, for the country to seriously consider the possibility of a full-time inquiring magistrate against corruption’ (or words to that effect, anyway). Now: I may be incorrect on some of the details… but Tonio Borg was definitely still part of Gonzi’s cabinet, when he said that.  

So I do believe that I come from a party which… OK, I admit that we have not always been perfect, in the past; but we are definitely in a position to state that: we have no difficulty whatsoever in curtailing the power of government… or making politicians more accountable.  

And it’s not just a question of “curtailing the power of Robert Abela’s government”, either: because, with all due respect – and whatever the polls may, or may not be saying – there is every chance that the Nationalist Party will, in fact, be in government again later this year.  

I have both my feet planted firmly in the ground; I do my house visits, and I know what people out there are really saying…. so please: it’s not such a foregone conclusion, that Labour will win the next election….