The mother of all motions

The success of the Richard Cachia Caruana vote to be taken today in the House on a resignation motion is much in doubt. Is this the last act in the PN’s parliamentary troubles?

The Richard Cachia Caruana motion could spell an end to eight months of political uncertainty
The Richard Cachia Caruana motion could spell an end to eight months of political uncertainty

Today's vote on the Opposition's motion calling for the resignation of Richard Cachia Caruana is the last episode in a six-month political impasse which could prove to be the final instalment of PN's recent troubles... unless, that is, it turns out to be a prelude for further uncertainty.

In April, the Labour Party tabled a motion of censure calling for the resignation of Malta's Permanent Representative to the European Union, Richard Cachia Caruana, for his 'behind-the-scenes' role in bringing Malta into Nato's Partnership for Peace in 2008 and bypassing the parliamentary procedure for this decision.

Although maverick MP Franco Debono has gone on record stating that he would not vote for the Opposition's motion, the jury is still out on whether other government MPs could do the unthinkable and abstain or vote with the Opposition.

Despite this scenario being highly unlikely, doubts were raised on how Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando - who has repeatedly clashed with Cachia Caruana - will be voting.

On the remote possibility of more than one Nationalist MP abstaining, the government will still lose the vote and Gonzi would once again be forced to ask for a vote of confidence - the fourth since November. This would create further uncertainty and calls for early elections will be renewed.

If the government defeats the opposition's motion, Joseph Muscat and Labour will once again run the risk of being accused of opportunism.

Compared to the other motions tabled by the Opposition since November - namely the no-confidence motion in transport minister Austin Gatt - the January vote of no confidence in the government and the more recent motion on the former home affairs minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici motion, the Cachia Caruana motion was the least appealing for the electorate.

However if Labour loses the vote, it is very unlikely to have a significant impact on its electoral strategy and its popularity. Moreover, it would spell an end to eight months of political uncertainty, which brought Gonzi's government to the brink.

However if the motion does pass, one should expect serious repercussions for the Nationalist Party.

This would allow both parties to enter the summer holidays knowing that elections will most probably be held in 2013 and excluding any surprises, both parties will have ample time to calmly plan their electoral campaigns under the summer sun.

Background

Shadow foreign minister George Vella cited the contents revealed in US embassy cables by Wikileaks in 2011, which showed Cachia Caruana had actively lobbied the United States as early as 2004 to reactivate Malta's participation in the PfP.

Vella - who in 1996 signed an "unconditional withdrawal" from the PfP after Labour was elected to power - said the PL was always suspicious of the "dubious" way in which PfP membership was reactivated.

Coincidentally, Labour's motion comes just a week after Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando raised opposition against the government's support of Turkish membership into the EU - the same country had opposed Malta's participation into NATO-EU security meetings, because the island was not a NATO member.

With no public pronouncement ever made on his intention to rejoin PfP, and possibly no electoral mandate, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi even informed former US ambassador Molly Bordonaro that he would join PfP if he won the election as early as 31 January 2008 - two months before the general elections.

One of the revealing aspects of the cables is the key role played Cachia Caruana in pushing for Malta's entry to PfP.

As early as 2004, he complained about Malta's inability to attend EU defence meetings where NATO-classified information is discussed, which meant that Maltese officials had to leave the room during such discussions: "something that has been a source of embarrassment for the government since EU accession", Bordonaro notes in one cable.

But the Maltese government faced two major hurdles both home and away. The first was that popular sentiment on joining the PfP was split right down the middle after Labour prime minister Alfred Sant withdrew Malta's PfP participation in 1996 - his first major foreign policy decision.

The second dealt with Turkey's actions blocking both Malta and Cyprus from joining the NATO-EU fora: specifically as retaliation for the isolation of Turkish Cypriots after the rejection of the Kofi Annan plan for reunification by Greek Cypriots.

On 9 November 2004, Bordonaro wrote that Cachia Caruana had told the Americans that he was advocating that Malta should declare it had "simply ceased active participation" in PfP, but not that it had formally withdrawn from the agreements, making it possible to say that the prior PfP agreement 'remained in force'.

This was in direct contrast to what George Vella had described as an "unconditional withdrawal" from PfP back in 1996 when he told ambassador Douglas Kmiec that it would have been "improper for NATO to have characterised the action as a suspension" and that the government had no basis to "reactivate" Malta's PfP membership.

This raises the question of whether Vella was right when he told Kmiec that the government had circumvented Malta's Treaties Act, and that joining PfP again required a parliamentary resolution. But left rudderless after their defeat in the March 2008 elections with Sant's resignation, Labour sat silent as Gonzi and Tonio Borg rushed to Brussels the day after victory to sign the PfP agreement.

Cachia Caruana's strategy gave Gonzi a unilateral approach that meant he did not need the House's approval - but most importantly, bypass the Turkish stumbling block of signing a NATO security agreement.

The procedure

The process to decide how Parliament was to discuss the motion was characterised by a number of heated meetings in both the House Business committee and the European and Foreign Affairs committee.
In April, both the Labour Party and government MP Franco Debono insisted that the vote should be taken at the earliest date possible. However, after a couple of rowdy House Business committee meetings, the government - led by deputy prime minister Tonio Borg, who displayed impressive oratory skills which often floored the opposition's  protestations - managed to put off the vote to 18 June.

Following this decision, the two parties could not come to an agreement over the procedure to be followed by the European and Foreign Affairs committee, which was entrusted with carrying out the grilling of Cachia Caruana before having the 18 June vote. 

In his testimony, Gonzi described the motion as "grave" and added that it is insulting for anyone to take a unilateral report by a foreigner as the truth while ignoring the government's version of events.

The prime minister explained that he "can never accept to be accused of treason" and said that "I have the duty to counter these unjust accusations which are factually, ethically and procedurally unfair".

Throughout the three sittings, a calm but combative Gonzi appeared to be well prepared for the grilling and at certain moments, the Opposition members sitting on the committee were visibly exasperated by Gonzi's stoic performance.

He explained that all documents show that Cachia Caruana recognised that the final decision had to be taken by politicians. "The government's position was always consistent and this is proven by all the documents. An accusation of treason has been made against Richard Cachia Caruana and I haven't heard a single piece of evidence to substantiate it," Gonzi said in defence of his most trusted aide.

During the three grilling sessions, the Opposition appeared ill-prepared and their feeble arguments reinforced suspicions that they had chosen the wrong pretext to shoot down the government's eminence grise.

Cachia Caruana's grilling

The most salient moment in Cachia Caruana's testimony was his surprising claim that he had been 'unaware' of Gonzi's intention to reactivate Malta's participation in the PfP programme at any point before the 2008 election.

"I didn't know the Prime Minister had told the US ambassador he intended to take Malta into PfP," Cachia Caruana said in reply to a specific question by Labour MP Owen Bonnici. There is no reason to doubt his claim - made under oath - to have been unaware of government's intentions, but it did raise a few eyebrows.   

During his grilling, Cachia Caruana consistently denied acting behind the government's back and 'colluding' with the United States on this controversial issue, as alleged in the Labour Party's motion against him.

Cachia Caruana echoed the Prime Minister's stance that despite all the hype surrounding the motion, the Opposition failed to produce one convincing piece of evidence that he was in fact guilty of bypassing Parliament or took any unilateral decisions which placed the interests of other countries ahead of Malta's.

AG ruling on Parliamentary ratification

The third testimony heard by the committee was that by the Attorney General Peter Grech,  who affirmed that the reactivation of Malta's participation in the PfP programme did not require parliamentary ratification.

Grech said that both the original adhesion in 1995 and the withdrawal in 1996 did not fall within the requirements of the Ratification of Treaties Act.

He explained that the 1996 Security of Documents agreement between NATO and Malta did not constitute an international treaty and so did not require ratification by parliamentary resolution or by law.

He added that no reference to the Ratification of Treaties Act had been made when Malta first signed the PfP Framework Document in 1995, when Malta withdrew from PfP in 1996 and when it rejoined in 2008.

The AG said that the framework document was different from a regular treaty because it did not impose specific requirements on Malta, which was only agreeing to cooperate with other states within the PfP framework.

He said the decision to exit the programme in 1996 was flawed because this was not approved by Parliament and the subsequent re-activation in 2008 did not require Parliamentary ratification.

Asked by Labour MP George Vella to qualify the PfP agreement, Grech said it was not an agreement between States, and this kind of agreement did not require Parliamentary ratification. 

Vella retorted that the doubts about the validity of this legal interpretation are justified by the preamble of the agreement which reads "We the heads of State and government..."

Grech pointed out that his legal interpretation was that the security agreement did not fall within the definitions of the Security of Treaties Act. The Act spoke of treaties between States, but this was a treaty with a single international organisation. 

More in National
avatar
Franco Debono tghidx x'ma qalx ghal RCC. Imma qal ukoll li l-mozzjoni tal-PL hija kwistjoni differenti minn tieghu u minn dak li qal fuq RCC. Allura Dr Franco, illejla ghandek ghax tivvota doppjament favur il-mozzjoni tal-PL u ghar-rizenja ta' RCC ghax mhux biss qed jaghmel hazin skond kif qed tirraguna inti, imma aghmel hazin ukoll li dahhalna fil-pfp minghajr il-go ahead tal-parlament u anke tieghek s'intendi. Allura, issa c-cans, x'qed tistenna?
avatar
I was never in favour of having the GWU represented in MLP's cabinet meetings, even though, the GWU represented the interest of thousands of people. But neither do I understand why an non elected PN strategist like Richard Cachia Caruana, should be present for PN's cabinet meetings! Kienu tant jghajru lil MLP il-PN....issa ghamlu aghar minnhom? X'ippokresija grass!
avatar
The vote to be taken in Parliamnet today will pass 35 - 34. This would confirm RCC as an absolute UNTOUCHABLE. This is very serious and scary for any democratic country because nobody should be untouchable. But are we really deomocratic, or is Malta a camouflaged dictatorship; an oligarchy; a hijacked statte under the rule of a few unscruplous men? Evidently RCC knows too much on too many PN MPs for them to cut him down to size! The Cardinal will win, today, but transparency and accountability will AGAIN be kicked in the teeth. And will that clown of Franco Debono show his support for RCC after he insulted him with all sorts of insults, adjectives and titles on his Facesbook - calling him also a ' mad man' ? Veru pajjiz imn......jek!
avatar
I thought the elections have to be held in 2013 anyway as that is the five year term up. So the election is coming within the next 9 months anyway.
avatar
Luke Camilleri
With the new Gonzi's voting benchmark at not accepting ABSTENTIONS, will Franco Debono stand by and show what he used to comment and is on record to have said about RCC? Or he has a change of mind and takes back what he said about the Hidden Hand, the Cardinal, the oligarchy, the Clique etc., etc., etc....?