Speaking of the Speaker

Grech did not enter into the merits of where in the world the three ‘independent’ persons would be found and who would take this veritable poisoned chalice

Anglu Farrugia (file photo)
Anglu Farrugia (file photo)

The office of the Speaker is a very important post in the institution of our Parliamentary democracy. Those who occupy the post are expected to behave in a serious non-partisan way. Yet they are human and subject to error.

Our Speaker has been pilloried recently because of two issues – his leniency in dealing with the breach of ethics of Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar, and his mishandling of a letter sent to him by Matthew Caruana Galizia by sending him a legalistic and punctilious reply through his lawyer. Both episodes could be considered as a faux pas, but I do not think that the situation merited a call for his resignation.

The Opposition failed to take the usual route of proposing a vote of no-confidence in the Speaker, signifying that in their judgement they also did not think that the situation merited that extreme step. In fact, they only requested the adjournment of the House of Representative to discuss the Speaker’s behaviour – certainly not a motion of non-confidence.

Speaking in Parliament after his request was granted, Bernard Grech insisted that the composition of the Standards Committe is to be changed. His proposal is that the Speaker will no longer chair this committee, which will be composed of two members representing the two sides of Parliament and three independent members chosen by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, one of whom would be the Chairperson.

Grech did not enter into the merits of where in the world these three ‘independent’ persons would be found and how many such persons would accept to take on this task – a veritable poisoned chalice in the context of Maltese society.

The PN, of course, did not miss this opportunity to send mixed messages and openly supported the NGOs who organised a demostration asking for the Speaker to resign.

Nobody is perfect, and if all the calls for resignations made by so many NGOs were heeded, the current Labour government would be left with no one to take up the serious responsibilities that our democracy demands.

From my experience, tiffs between Opposition MPs and the Speaker are no rare occurances, but I only recall one instance in which the PN Opposition presented a motion of non-confidence in the Speaker of the day. Incidentally, I had a finger in that pie as well.

When Guzè Abela – then Mintoff’s serious minister of finance – resigned from Parliament, the news was kept secret for some days. The Speaker had received the letter of resignation but did not inform the House immediately. As luck would have it there was a parliamentary question tabled by me to the finance minister and – awe and behold – the ‘minister’ gave me a written answer in Parliament after he had resigned and was nowhere to be seen.

The Speaker of the time – the late Kalċidon Agius – had not informed the House of this resignation immediately as he was duty bound to do. Apparently, he had gone out of his way by giving some time to Abela to reconsider his decision, most probably at the behest of the Mintoff administration. This led to the serious situation where a non-minister – who was no longer an MP, let alone a minister – gave a reply in Parliament.

This was a very serious issue and reflected negatively on the Speaker’s respect to his own duty and to parliamentary procedure. It did merit a vote of non-confidence, which was subsequently overturned by the government side.

It must be said that, in my days, MPs of both sides normally respected the Speaker as they should. This does not mean that the House was free of incidents following dubious decisions taken by the Speaker, but that normally those disagreeing with the Speaker do so in a courteous way and do not organise demonstrators – outside the Parliament building – calling for his resignation.

Over-dramatising such situations does not help the cause of those who disagree with what the Speaker decided. Insisting for the ‘rule of law’ in this way is counter-productive in certain circumstances.

And the PN is only being hindered – rather than helped – in its mammoth task of trying to shrink the yawning gap between voters who intend to vote labour and those who intend to vote PN.

Rule of law issues in the EU

Last month Germany, on behalf of EU member states, reached an accord with EU lawmakers to subject payments from the bloc’s budget and stimulus plan to democratic standards. Poland and Hungary, opposing the move to subject cash grants to whether member states adhered to the rule of law, threatened to veto the move.

This week, Germany brokered a compromise by convincing Poland and Hungary to abandon their veto.

But these countries won a concession that will delay the use of this new means to target rule-of-law breaches.

The new rules, which are due to be formally adopted next week, give the European Commission the power to propose the suspension of payments to countries that undermine judicial independence or fail to prosecute corruption.

That means that Hungary and Poland, which have both been accused of such breaches, could stand to lose tens of billions of euros in EU funds.

Hungary and Poland will now be able to directly challenge the move in the EU’s top court in Luxembourg, where rulings on such direct actions take on average 19 months. However, this could be shortened with a request for a fast-track procedure.

The Commission will use the extra time to “further analyse the situation in all the member states and prepare the ground for possible triggering of the procedure,” according to Vera Jourova, the European Commission Vice President.

Thanks to this compromise, the EU managed to create the means how to subject its funding to rule-of-law standards in a way where a unanimous vote from all EU states is not required.

On the other hand, Hungary and Poland also bought time, which was important for Viktor Orban, who will be facing tight Hungarian elections next year.