Speaker rules out urgent debate on Ombudsman dispute

Leader of the opposition requests an urgent Parliamentary debate on the “Constitutional crisis” following Ombudsman’s judicial protest against government, Speaker says debate does not require urgency and should be held at a later date 

Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia
Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia
The Ombudsman Joseph Said Pullicino
The Ombudsman Joseph Said Pullicino

The Speaker today ruled that despite the dispute between the Ombudsman and government was important and of public interest, it did not heed the urgency which the leader of the opposition cited.

He said that after taking into consideration the arguments put forward by both sides of the House, the matter does not require an urgent debate and ruled that the date for the debate should be set by the House Business Committee.

The opposition today described the ongoing legal wrangling involving the Ombudsman and home affairs minister Manuel Mallia as a ““Constitutional crisis” and asked Speaker of the House to give a ruling on its request to hold an urgent debate.

The sitting was suspended following the leader of the opposition Simon Busuttil asked Speaker Anglu Farrugia to give a ruling on whether an urgent debate should be held on Monday. 

On Friday, Mallia filed a counter protest against the Ombudsman who last week filed a judicial protest against the minister and the ministry’s permanent secretary Kevin Mahoney over their refusal to uphold requests for information.

The Ombudsman has been investigating complaints raised by army officers on appointments and promotions. The investigation came to a standstill after the Home Affairs Ministry claimed the Ombudsman did not have jurisdiction to cover complaints raised by members of the Armed Forces of Malta.

In the judicial protest, the Ombudsman said he was “surprised and worried” by the Ministry’s negative reaction to the investigation. 

Insisting that the “unprecedented” protest filed by the Ombudsman “puts democracy in this country at risk,” Busuttil said that the matter should be discussed with urgency.

However, while noting that government was not opposed to holding a debate on the issue, government whip Carmelo Abela said that the debate should be scheduled by the House Business Committee.

“Since the leader of the opposition himself said that the debate should address events which happened over the past few weeks shows that there is no urgency, thus the Standing order cited by the leader of the opposition is not applicable,” Abela said.  

In reaction, Busuttil said that the minister’s counter protest was only filed on Friday and the earliest Parliament could debate the issue is today.

“I call on the speaker to protect the Ombudsman which is a Constitutional body,” the PN leader said.

In a brief address to the House, the home affairs minister said “I don’t know why the opposition is making such a fuss, after all there’s no difference between the government’s current stand to that taken by previous PN administrations.”

In the protest, the Ombudsman asked the court to give a ruling on the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. In his judicial protest, the Ombudsman argued that it was his role to defend citizens and investigate allegations of injustices and discrimination. 

The complaints with the Ombudsman were lodged in September 2013, following the promotions awarded to Majors and lieutenant colonels. Fellow army officers complained that they had unfairly lost the promotions to other officers who had less experience, fewer qualifications and lower seniority.

In a statement issued two weeks ago, the ministry explained that while respecting the Ombudsman’s institution, “the minister wants to make it clear that he never denied AFM members the opportunity to lodge their complaints and have these addressed, but this must be done in respect of the law.”

Moreover, the ministry insisted that new avenues have been created, including the Board of Injustices, which it said had concluded that the majority of complaints lodged were justified and these will be addressed in the coming days. 

While reiterating that the Ombudsman “can investigate all complaints filed by all members of the army below the commissioned officer rank, the minister will fully cooperate as he has always done.”

A non-commissioned officer is a military officer who obtain their position of authority by promotion through the enlisted ranks and not by appointment.

On the other hand, the ministry pointed out that commissioned officials have other avenues to file their complaints as outlined by the Armed Forces Act.

Mallia argued that, according to the AFM Act, complaints should be brought to the attention of the President of Malta by the Commander, through the Minister.