The reform we do not need

The reform we do not need

Parliament is convening tonight to discuss an emergency motion by the Opposition to debate the situation in the country and presumably discuss the demands from civil society to remove the police commissioner and the attorney general. There’s a wider demand from civil society which seeks a shake-up of our constitutional model. It is not just about the people who occupy the current institutional offices. It is the powers the constitution give them, including the power to do nothing.

Someone commenting on this blog made a pertinent observation. What makes anyone think a two-thirds majority of parliament would make the right choice? If protesters are rallying against the consensual choices made by the political class, why would anyone think they would not make a consensual choice to perpetuate the current problems?

Two-thirds majorities are useful when two opposing sets of parties with normally opposing sets of views are forced by the rules to put their heads together and find solutions.

But there are two completely opposing risks with this system. One is paralysis brought about by a majority short of the two-thirds that seeks to enforce its own preference by waiting out for the minority to give up.

On the other hand there is the even scarier risk of enough of both sides colluding to run away with solutions that concentrate power rather than disperse it.

Joseph Muscat’s sudden enthusiasm for constitutional reform should be a warning of the likelihood of this. He may have in mind an Erdogan model, concentrating more power in the executive on a Presidential model that essentially crowns the head of government as head of state and makes him unassailable to all other branches in government, including the legislative assembly.

He may be finding this a good opportunity as he eyeballs Adrian Delia and finds the tempting weakness across the aisle. The offer of a Presidential solution to Adrian Delia might be lapped up by a party leader who does not enjoy the support of a large number, some would say even a majority, of his own MPs.

A prime minister in a parliamentary democracy is only as powerful as the support of the majority of the house and therefore of the unwavering loyalty of his parliamentary party. Adrian Delia does not have and is never likely to have that sort of loyalty and support. Surely he must have realised that by now. And therefore he must have realised he is virtually unelectable.

The offer of a constitutional reform that introduces a Presidential system might prove irresistible to Adrian Delia as a perceived opportunity for a political future without the need of wide and consistent parliamentary support. In his short political career Adrian Delia has had one success: his election to leadership in spite of the scepticism even outright resistance of his own political party. That would give anyone the confidence that by relying on themselves and on no one else they can actually win and take power.

A presidential system, particularly one designed by Joseph Muscat, would have no room for confidence motions and majority checks. Unless with an impeachment for crimes proven as if in a court of law and judged by cross-party consensus, it would be impossible to challenge a Maltese executive President during their term.

Effectively we’d end up with a system with deeper concentration of power into the hands of populist demagogues than we have now.

The pressure Adrian Delia is currently under would squeeze out of office most people. Yesterday’s The Times report about his taxes dispelled a number of optimistic myths. It has now been confirmed that he filed his taxes late and sometimes not at all. A spokesman of his was asked why Adrian Delia even missed the 2017 filing deadline, when he was already in political life, and the response was “for no particular reason”.

We are looking at a candidate prime minister of Malta who thinks that filing tax papers after the deadline set at law “for no particular reason” is perfectly ok. If it’s ok for him, then surely it must be ok for everyone.

The debate on how he is going to earn his keep now he’s out of his law practice is now over. No, his wife does not earn enough to make up for the shortfall. The tax returns reported by The Times show she earns a fraction of what he does. “His wife Nicky Vella de Fremeaux declared income of €12,660”.

For a while the sale of his interests and shares will cover the shortfall. Anyone can accept that. Except that surely then his financial advisors must have given him a burn-out rate by when he must leave politics to go back to earn an income that can keep up with his living. Because there’s no savings account that lasts forever if the money flows outwards rather than inwards.

From The Times report: “A financial expert who spoke to this paper questioned how Dr Delia was funding his lifestyle on his current income. The expert said Dr Delia would certainly struggle to meet his financial obligations if his sole income was a salary of €43,000 as Opposition leader.”

The financial expert is effectively asking if there is something we do not know.

The real issue for Adrian Delia is not just that he managed Daphne Caruana Galizia’s reporting on him exactly as Labour would: by calling her names, attacking her angrily, and filing a pile of law suits in the middle of the night to try to scare the bejesus out of her. Like that would work.

The real issue is that at least some of what she accused him of is by now checking out. His financials do not add up and raise more questions than answers.

This sort of thing cannot be wished away with a charm offensive. His apology to the Caruana Galizia family sent through The Sunday Times’s staffer was presumably sincere and well-intentioned. But it looked contrived and self-serving. I doubt that PR initiative helped him with a single person who was not already full-square behind him the day before.

And yet Adrian Delia seems intent to wait the present crisis out. At least one of his supporting MPs was heard by a trustworthy source saying “the Daphne thing will blow over soon” and Adrian Delia can then go on running the party as if this was business as usual.

A statement like that comes from a confusion between despair and denial. It is refusing to acknowledge that Super 1 is right about one thing concerning the people marching in Sliema yesterday or in Valletta last week: almost all of them voted PN in the last election and probably every election before that.

But with Adrian Delia leading the PN not many of them will do that again. And that, dear MP urging the PN to wait for “this thing” to blow over, you cannot wait out.

I have been criticised by PN supporters that in calling out Adrian Delia I am helping Labour to stay in power. This is the same logic of Labour telling me that in calling them out I am harming the country’s reputation abroad.

It does not work like that.

This is about truth to power. Someone has to say this even if nobody else will.

And if anyone is hatching the bright idea of concentrating more power in a presidential system, the current PN administration should understand that such an offer would not be made to save the career of Adrian Delia. It would be made to extend and entrench the concentrated power of a corrupt regime that finds even the weak institutions it has around its ankles right now a nuisance it wants to rid itself of.

If there is to be reform it must be to clarify and institutionally entrench the principle that democracy is not a weekend holiday every five years where ballots are cast to choose an absolute monarch for a defined period. Already with the checks and balances we have written down we have a prime minister who has redefined l’etat c’est moi and a substitute alternate across the aisle who thinks filing taxes late “for no particular reason” is kosher.

After the rolling of heads of the police chief and the attorney general – which Joseph Muscat can offer at any time – the discourse needs to shift to the real matter at hand here: that we need changes that protect the rule of law, enshrine institutional autonomy and mature political engagement.

I cannot see how Joseph Muscat and Adrian Delia could lead such a process.