Defending the honour of the House | Michael Frendo

While lamenting the ‘PR disaster’ that was the MPs pay rise, Speaker of the House Michael Frendo believes ministers need more support

Speaker Michael Frendo defends the Maltese political class, condemning the populist bashing of politicians but does not mince words in describing the MP pay rise saga as “a public relations disaster” for the institution.

“It was a PR disaster. As a speaker I also found it to be very harmful to the image of parliament.”

In January, Frendo had already described the method used to increase honoraria as “anomalous” in a letter addressed to former Labour leader Alfred Sant in which he had made it clear that such a decision should not be taken again in the best interest of relations between the House and the executive.

For Frendo, it was “very confusing for people” that there was a raise granted two years ago and “that in the case of members of parliament it was going to be paid back in arrears since they had not been informed two years before.”

Despite his criticism of methods used to grant the pay rise, Frendo defends the principle that MPs should have a good remuneration.

He points out that in other parliaments, the idea behind granting an “independent wage” is aimed at making MPs less “influencable” by lobbies.

But he admits that the idea of an independent wage does not apply to Malta, where MPs work on a part time basis and still have their own full time jobs.

However, a full-time parliament could become “inevitable” in the future as the load of work for MPs is increasing.

Yet he expresses mixed feelings about this.

“When you come from a working environment you come to parliament being more in touch with daily life. If you are restricted to parliament you could become airy fairy… so there are pluses and minuses.”

One idea he floats is the EU model, through which those working for it work four days out of five for its institutions and one day for their own concerns.

But what is clear is that MPs need more support.

“Every MPs needs a constituency office.  But all expenses related to running such an office comes from the pocket of the MP.  If we want democracy to mature we have to coldly and objectively discuss these things.”

Frendo would like to see the establishment of a transparent mechanism to assess matters related to the honoraria of MPs.

“A parliamentary mechanism has to look at these things objectively. In terms of principle, both sides agree on this although they do not agree on the modalities. Such a mechanism is needed to ensure transparency.”

He also considers this essential to avoid situations which lead to “politician bashing.” 

“At the end of the day, democracy is made of the people we elect. No one else is else is responsible for parliament except all of us. So we have to blame ourselves if we disagree with the political class we elect.” 

He also finds attacks on the local political class unjustified.

“I think that our political class is not any different from that in any other European country…We have a good record of debate and commitment.  Bashing politicians is a populist approach which is definitely not the right one.”

For Frendo, one clear sign of the maturity of the Maltese political class was the way the two parties tackled the serious  crisis in Libya.

“As speaker of the house, I am very happy of this situation… I think it is remarkable that there is this continuous conversation between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on this issue.” 

He recalls that a few days ago he couldn’t find the Prime Minister and the Opposition leader among the MPs during question time.

“Than I discovered that they were actually behind me, talking to each other behind the speaker’s chair.”

He also thinks that this attitude has left a positive impression on foreign observers.

“Yesterday I met a foreign expert in international relations who expressed his admiration for the Maltese political class which in serious moments like these can rise to the occasion.”

He also notes the growing consensus between the two parties on matters related to foreign policy.

“Today the two parties have come closer to each other in matters related to foreign affairs… there are more disparities of accents than disparities of substance. This is very important.”

He also believes that there should be moments when the foreign affairs committee should meet to discuss security issues in camera outside public scrutiny.

“This should be an exception, as we have to be transparent and open to people listening to us but sometimes especially in consultative moments it could be useful to have foreign policy briefings outside the dynamics of the normal political scenario.”

Frendo, himself a former foreign minister, is deeply inspired by what in happening in the Arab world but is also extremely worried by the deteriorating situation in Libya.

He also thinks that the current crisis has questioned the conventional wisdom that autocratic regimes served as a bastion against Islamic fundamentalism. 

In fact, it is the failure of these revolutions which could galvanise fundamentalism.

 “If these revolutions –which in the case of Tunisia and Egypt seem to driven by the liberal middle class and working class – do not succeed or are not allowed to succeed, an Islamic fundamentalist revolution could become inevitable… so there is an interest for all those who believe in a multi-party secular state for these revolutions to succeed.”

But he makes a distinction between what happened in Tunisia and Egypt and what is happening in Libya.

“In Egypt and Tunisia, you had two leaders who had been there for a long time but which had a system of government and political parties, trade unions and an element of civil society. The rulers themselves acted as people of the state who resigned and left without a complete breakdown in administration.”

But in Libya’s case, Gaddafi (as leader of the revolution) does not even have a formal post from which to resign.

According to Frendo, the way things flared so suddenly have practically eliminated the possibility of an orderly transition which could have seen Gaddafi’s son Saif al Islam take a more prominent role in introducing reforms.

Was the West too quick in rehabilitating Gaddafi from pariah, only to dump him when he became unsavoury again?

“It is a question of how things flared up so much since Bouazizi (the university graduate turned hawker whose self-immolation sparked the turmoil in Tunisia and the Arab world) burned himself… when the wave spread to Libya there was confusion amidst defections from the regime… it is a question of how this immediate wave of change in the Arab world struck Libya.”

Frendo’s concern is that a civil war in Libya will create wounds which will take a long time to heal.

“If it is still possible all players should do everything to avoid this from happening.”


“In a way through which there can be some form of structured reform and dialogue…”

But he acknowledges that this is nearly impossible because at this moment there is no interlocutor and no communications and “things seem to follow the inevitable pattern of revolutions.”

One of the options being considered in a no-fly zone to offer protection to civilians from attacks by the regime.

 “This will be a major decision as it would involve attacks on the ground to deactivate and destroy anything which interferes with the no-fly zone.”

What is clear is that any such decision needs a security council mandate.

“Everyone is agreed on that… international law requires such a mandate.”

Surely the situation remains very worrying for Malta, both for the impact on the economy and the need to “be clear that the constitution is upheld.”

But not being a NATO member Malta will have no role in enforcing a no-fly zone, contends Frendo.

“One should emphasise that Malta’s neutrality clause in the constitution remains paramount and Malta always needs to respect that.”

He thinks that the current crisis vindicates the validity of his initiative as foreign minister: to launch a Euro-Arab dialogue.

“We had called for a constant dialogue between European Union and the Arab world and we had a meeting in Malta in February 2008 which was unfortunately not followed up in 2010. What is happening in the Arab world shows us how much Europe needed to keep up a constant dialogue because things have happened so fast that really the approach of Europe towards the Arab world became immediately out of date.”

When elected speaker, Frendo declared that he wanted a livelier debate in the house. Surely he can’t be disappointed on this count, considering that in 2010 alone he was asked to issue 15 rulings.

“Apparently I got a better deal than I bargained for…” Frendo sarcastically replies.

This sharply contrasts with the number of rulings which previous speakers had to issue. For example, only three rulings were issued in 2003, only one was issued in 2004, four were issued in 2005, seven were issued in 2006 and only five were issued in 2007.

I point out to Frendo that three of his rulings have been contested by the Opposition.

The Speaker is quick to rebut this, insisting that none of his rulings were contested according to established parliamentary procedures.

“There is a method to contest a ruling. You have 48 hours to contest a ruling and you can contest through a motion which has to be discussed by the whole house. This never happened. ”

But despite the increased pressure, Frendo considers it as positive that since his election to parliament, “the leader of the opposition gives clear and fair importance to parliament and its procedure.”

On 16 February, during a very tense sitting, the speaker ruled against taking a vote on when to discuss the opposition motion proposing a divorce  referendum, infuriating Labour MPs who described the ruling as “partisan”.  The speakers’ rulings came after Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando threatened to vote with the Labour Party to schedule a discussion on the party’s divorce referendum motion for the next day, threatening the government’s one-seat majority.

He is quick to point out that despite being described as partisan, the ruling was not contested.

“Probably there is a difference between what one says in the heat of the moment and what one actually does after reflecting.”

He proceeds to give a detailed technical explanation on the two rulings issued during that particular sitting. 

He insists that the first ruling, asking the house to debate the Opposition’s motion on a Thursday was based on the current procedure according to which parliament does not meet on Thursdays.

After that, a second ruling was requested on whether an opposition motion asking for a debate on Thursday could be discussed.

“My point was that the second  ruling was demanded after the business of the house was over.”

Frendo also refers to three previous rulings on this matter. While former speaker Jimmy Farrugia had ruled that a motion could be brought after  that time, on two other occasions, both Lawrence Gonzi and Miriam Spiteri Debono had ruled that a motion cannot be brought at that stage.

“So basically I based myself on the Gonzi and Spiteri Debono rulings, stating clearly that motions cannot be presented after the business of the house is over.”

Frendo points out that these rulings were motivated by “practicality” as acceding to the opposition’s demand would have meant that from then onwards any issue could be raised after the house business is over.

“It was an issue on when to raise the motion. It was a purely procedural decision.”

Back in November, speaker Michael Frendo ruled that members of parliamentary committees could object to the summoning of people to give evidence and also request a vote on the issue.

Dr Frendo’s decision was taken on a request by Dr Mangion, after government MPs objected to the summoning of witnesses during the hearing by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on the power station extension contract.

Since the government has a majority on the committee, some interpreted this as a way of undermining the scrutiny of this committee whose chairman is chosen by the opposition.

Frendo insists that this is not the case, and  that he was simply following procedural rules.

He points out that on that particular occasion, he had also ruled that it was the chairman of the committee (which in the case of the PAC) is chosen by the opposition who should set the agenda. “This gives a lot of power to the chairman. This was the first time that a ruling stated this”. 

His second ruling was on whether members of the committee  could correct the agenda prepared by the chairman. 

He notes that in every committee meeting, the first thing a chairman  brings for discussion is the adoption of the agenda. “This means that one can decide not to adopt the agenda.”  He also refers to a rule in the standing orders stating that all decisions in the house are to be taken by the majority of those present.

He insists that since the regulations said nothing on the adoption of the agenda in parliament, he had to go back to the normal rules which say the majority has to decide.

What irks Frendo most is that the third point he raised in his ruling was not even reported.

But that was not all he said, insisting that he had also warned all the members of the PAC to “use the rules in the spirit  in which they were promulgated which is to ensure scrutiny in parliament”.

“This was a clear message…you have the right to a majority but this right should be used as sparingly as possible. But this could only be a recommendation, as I am bound by the rules. ”

Respect is earned. Abusive attitudes earn disrespect. You get what you earn.
Sur Frendo, jekk me tridx thoss is shana politika warrab min nofs. Hadd mhu qieghed izomm xi xkubetta ma rasek hlief forsi dawk li hemm go tal Pieta buex taqdiehom mill koxxa. DIN IL GAZZETTA ghamlet din l'osservazzjoni,'Speaker Michael Frendo defends the Maltese political class, condemning the populist bashing of politicians but does not mince words in describing the MP pay rise saga as “a public relations disaster” for the institution. “It was a PR disaster. As a speaker I also found it to be very harmful to the image of parliament.” Veru ghandek wiccek u sormok xorta. Because to the hard working citizens of this country that pay rise was not a PR disaster but outright thievery formulated by Castille and its band of thieves.
Luke Camilleri
AND what is Dr. frendo doing about "Defending the honour of the house "? Just comment? Does the Yes vote by Dr. Justyn Caruana, interpreted as a No Vote vy the leader of the House RING a bell for Dr. Frendo? Quote by Dr. Frendo“the leader of the opposition gives clear and fair importance to parliament and its procedure.” What about the rest, including Dr. Tonio Borg Leader of the house on the Dr. Justyn caruana Issue? Why does Dr. Frendo always seem to put his decisions to future sittings and not give direct rulings? Does he consult with the Prime Minister first? That is the ongoing perception......
Keith Goodlip
If MPs don't like the (entirely justified) bashing, they shouldn't became MPs in the first place