Wanted: another quality leap | Michael Frendo

When Dr Michael Frendo delivered his inaugural address as Speaker of the House in April 2010, it is debatable whether he had an inkling of what lay immediately in store.

Speaker of the House Michael Frendo.
Speaker of the House Michael Frendo.

Frendo started out his career as Speaker with an entreaty for a livelier debating style in the House: ideally, peppered with the sort of humour one associates with debates in the UK's House of Commons, among others.

Yet the words had barely left his lips, when the political climate of Malta's national legislative assembly seemed to take a sudden turn in the very opposite direction. Far from cultivating a sophisticated sense of humour , the general mood seems to have turned very serious indeed.And in the two years since his appointment, the new Speaker found himself drawn inexorably into one controversy after another: asked to give contentious rulings on (among other things) the 'misinterpreted' vote of Justyne Caruna, in a motion of no confidence in a Cabinet minister... as well as presiding over numerous pivotal votes for the government, including two which terminated the careers of former Justice Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici and EU ambassador Richard Cachia Caruana.

On top of all this, Dr Frendo found himself in the quite possibly unprecedented situation (at least, since Independence) whereby a single-seat majority government transformed overnight into an impromptu 'coalition', after a government MP (Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando) resigned from the party but retained his seat as an independent candidate.

And even as I meet Dr Frendo for this interview in the rather lavish offices of the Grand Master's Palace in Valetta, there is a whole new controversy threatening to reach boiling point in the background: an impending impeachment motion against a serving judge (Lino Farrugia Sacco).

"This will most likely land on my desk, too," Frendo says with a smile that also reflects resignation to the inevitable. "In fact I am looking into the standing orders as we speak, brushing up on all the procedures involved..."

All in all, this is probably not what he envisaged with his call for an overall lightness of touch...

"Not exactly, no," he begins with a thoughtful look. "But at the same time, parliament is also often criticized for being boring, for lacking real debate, for not being dynamic and relevant enough... I think it is fair to say that, with everything that has been happening recently, our Parliament today is more vibrant than it has been in recent years. You certainly can't call it boring..."

This, he goes on, in itself marks a positive development for the House of Representatives: it reaffirms its role as a fulcrum for debate, and also dispels the possible perception of a forum which serves to ultimately rubber-stamp the decisions of the government of the day.

But even if the daily functions of parliament seem to have assumed a whole new national relevance in recent months and years, there are levels at which our national assembly falls short of the stature accorded to such institutions in other democracies.

Though his own efforts are often overshadowed by the political controversies that have erupted on his watch (and here the media, including our own, are perhaps a touch guilty for emphasizing only the controversial and contentious aspects of Parliament's work), Dr Frendo assures me that he has been working patiently in the background to address some of the more glaring shortcomings: among them, the lack of complete autonomy.

"Parliament should be completely autonomous," he asserts. "I say should be, because as things stand today, it isn't..."

Indeed, once parliament is dissolved on 7 January, among the 'unfinished business' before the House will be a motion for the full autonomy of parliament, tabled by former House leader Dr Tonio Borg.

Frendo explains that the draft bill came about as a result of a White Paper, which in turn folowed his own repeated calls for autonomy.

"I have been campaigning for this for some time now. Malta has taken some very important steps forward in recent years, on a wide variety of fronts. But we need another quality leap: people need to realise that Parliament is not just a talking shop for politicians; it is also their house..."

Nor is this is the only area where Parliament is often misrepresented or misunderstood. Despite 50 years of independence and almost a century of self-rule (Parliament in fact celebrated its 90th anniversary in February last year... though the event went largely unnoticed), there are still grey areas concerning the distinction between the various arms of the State.

Frendo tells me how part of his own tenure of office as Speaker has been dedicated to a pet project which would bring Parliament directly into schools... an initiative which has already resulted in a publication, complete with CD Rom, to be distributed among schoolchildren.

Entitled "Malta's Parliament: How it began, what it is and what it does" [my translation], the booklet aims to redress an apparent lacuna of information regarding the institution of Parliament. Anything from widespread confusion between the role of the national legislature - even the word is often misused to refer to any government's five-year term of office - and that of the executive (i.e., government itself); all the way down to the nuts and bolts of how the institution operates.

This initiative forms only a small part of a much wider drive for Parliament to assert its own autonomy from the government: parliament being itself one of the three supposedly distinct branches of the State, along with the Executive (govenrment0 an the Judiciary... even if this same distinction seems to exist only on paper.

Dr Frendo outlines a few of the basic efforts undertaken on his watch to emphasise this selfsame distinction.

"Among the first things I did was to change the email addresses of parliamentarians, from '@gov.mt' to '@parlament.mt'. It may seem like a minor detail, but it was important to make the point that members of parliament are not necessarily members of government; that the two entities are distinct, and have to be recognised as such..."

Another immediate difference was that Parliament no longer makes use of the office of the Attorney General, as it tended to do in the past.

"As speaker I decided to use different legal services from the services used by government. This was important because, apart from providing legal services, the AG is also government's chief legal advisor. I felt it would be more prudent for Parliament to have its own legal team which is independent of that of government..."

Elsewhere, however, efforts to attain financial autonomy proved elusive, at least to date.

"On the subject of financial autonomy, we set up a plan of action along the same lines as the 'Ombudsplan'," he points out. "Parliament should for instance be independent to recruit its own staff; we should be our own legal entity, and this should be reflected in the facilities at our disposal, and so on..."

Paradoxically, this in turn requires parliamentary approval, and - not least because of all the intervening problems that have since arisen - parliament never quite got round to legislating on the subject of its own autonomy.

But while Frendo may not have seen the full fruition of his own plan for autonomy, he can nonetheless derive some satisfaction from the fact that his efforts have not exactly gone unnoticed.

"I was very pleased that President spoke about the autonomy of Parliament earlier this year. The issue has been given quite a lot of importance recently, even if the legislation itself has not been passed..."

The same autonomy is also underscored in other, more symbolic ways. For instance: on the occasion of Sette Giugno - as things stand, a national holiday... even though there is now talk of condensing Malta's five national days to only two - it is the Speaker of the House who traditionally addresses the nation during the ceremony, and not the President of the Republic or the Prime Minister.

This because (as the educational booklet I refer to above also takes pains to emphasise) the events of June 7 1919, divisive though they may have been, were nonetheless perceived as instrumental in attaining responsible self-government in 1921... without which parliament would not even exist today.

All well and good, but still the question remains: in practical terms, has autonomy been achieved?

Dr Frendo shakes his head. "No, not at all. What has been achieved was a white paper leading to a draft bill, and that was tabled in the House some months ago. But with everything that happened there was no simply time to debate the bill. That is the stage we are still at today..."

Meanwhile there is room for improvement in other areas, too. Another of Dr Frendo's initiatives - arguably his most ambitious, in fact - was to embark upon an exercise to collect all the rulings made by the various Speakers over the years, with a view to compiling Malta's own compendium of parliamentary protocol.

"As things stand we have a wealth of over 90 years of experience of our own when it comes to interpreting the standing orders and delivering rulings. Yet when there are question marks over procedure, we still tend to look to other parliamentary models (mainly those of the House of Commons, upon which our own standing orders are based) for advice. What I would like to see is a public database of rulings by the Maltese parliament, which would give us the benefit of 90 years of experience to base our own decisions upon. This way, we would not have to be so totally reliant on Erskine May (as the existing 'bible' of parliamentary procedure is known) as a safety valve each time there is disagreement on any specific procedure..."

On the subject of quality leaps forward (and the need thereof), I can't help but note that Frendo's drive for parliamentary autonomy seems to chime in quite neatly with other initiatives (by the President of the Republic, for instance) for Constitutional reform.

There seems to be broad consensus that Malta's Constitution does, in fact, need updating on various points... even the impending impeachment motion, alluded to earlier, falls within the parameters of those areas that may need revisiting.

What with the recent scandals affecting the law-courts (with an Appeals Court judge currently facing criminal charges for bribery, so soon after two other judges had been convicted on very similar charges a few years ago), voices have been heard debating whether the present mechanisms to appoint and remove judges should be revised.

Both would involve Constitutional amendent, and this can only be done through Parliament itself.

"Our Constitution has served us well since Independence, but this does not mean it does not need to be updated from time to time," Frendo observes. "Having said that it is important to note that Parliament, as such, has nothing to do with the appointment of judges. It does however have a lot to do with their removal...."

While acknowledging that the existing provisos may need fine-tuning, Frendo urges caution when it comes to affecting radical changes driven by specific circumstances.

"At present, removing a judge requires a two-thirds majority in the House. What's important to bear in mind is that this, too, forms of part of the overall checks and balances aimed at safeguarding the independence of the judiciary. Naturally this does not mean that the existing provisos do not need to be revisited or cannot be improved upon... but we have to always bear in mind that the same checks and balances must also be protected, whatever the changes we make."

Frendo himself is clearly conscious of a potential minefield here... just as he himself campaigns for greater autonomy of parliament, the judiciary - which likewise forms one of the three pillars of the state, along with parliament and the executive - is understandably just as keen to preserve its own autonomy.

Any changes would therefore have to be undertaken with the utmost care to preserve and protect that same independence of the judiciary.

As for the appointment of judges - once again a topic of national debate - Frendo defends the general idea that (in our system) judges are expected to have served as lawyers for a number of years.

"The idea that a magistrate or judge should be expected to have experience of the law-courts makes sense."

But he also acknowledges that ours is not the only model available; in other countries like Italy, judges are not necessarily picked from the legal profession at all... on the contrary, the judiciary represents a specialization unto itself, and as such individual candidates have to qualify as judges.

"I'm not saying we should follow this model or that model, but consideration would have to be given to the various possibilities..."

Either way, however, Dr Frendo himself is not likely to be part of those future quality leaps. After Parliament dissolves on January 7, he plans to bow out quietly from politics, after a career lasting more than 26 years.

"No, I have no plans to contest the next election. I've been active in politics since 1987. Now it's time to make space for others..."

My we have short memories in this country ... but who is forgetting that Frendo himself is another failed PN miniter - whose ministry was riddled with corruption. Remember the bus ticket machines for over 1 million maltese liri - and the winning tenderer had a copy of everyone elses tender submissions? Instead of throwing him in jail we made him a speaker in parliament - giving Gonzi another free vote to save his government when things got desparate - which was most of the time.