The guest post below is the warning the overwhelmingly enthusiastic need to heed. If Joseph Muscat is agreeing with you about something you’d better wonder why he’s doing that. When the women of #occupyjustice visited him in Castille he disagreed with everything they said except one: yes we should have constitutional reform. What are the chances he is backing reforms that reduce his powers to perpetuate the abuse those women were protesting about? Absolutely zilch.
People must remember that in between constitutions, as an old one is discredited and a new one is being drafted, there is a fragile and perilous interregnum where someone like Joseph Muscat can fully exploit the vagueness that plagues critics of the present constitution on what should replace it and how.
The author of the guest post below is known to me.
It has become a bit of a mantra for those who are unhappy with the current state of affairs, to hang their hopes on a Constitutional Convention which, in an unspecified manner, will reform the country … in an unspecified way.
Let’s look at the proposal first. The proposal for a Convention was in Labour’s 2013 electoral manifesto. But it goes earlier than that. Following the 2008 a Parliamentary Committee on Strengthening Democracy was established. Its slow and modest progress came to an abrupt halt when the Labour Opposition withdrew from the Committee.
For those who imagine a disinterested, supra-partes Convention it’s worth recording that the withdrawal was one of those political tit-for-tats: it happened because Labour was unhappy at how things were panning out … on the Public Accounts Committee. The act would have been judged immature were Muscat not ready with a proposal for a Convention which, incredibly, would have succeeded in achieving consensus where a small Select Committee, subject to Parliamentary discipline, failed.
The proposal was a hit. Especially when it became clear that the incoming Labour government had no qualms in using and abusing the wide berth the Constitution grants to the Executive. The idea of a Convention found its way in the 2017 electoral programmes of Nationalists, Democrats and Greens. Unfortunately, although maybe not unintentionally, the proposal still lacks any meat. We have not heard anything about membership, chairing, procedure or agenda. So far it’s little more than a magical abracadabra by which we hope to call the genie from the bottle to sort our woes.
This not only suits Muscat but fits perfectly with his track record. His “reform” agenda — the removal of time-barring from cases of corruption, freedom of information, party finance, proposal for parliamentary review of appointments — is all a game of smoke and mirrors. Each of those laws either contain a loophole or they were enacted in a way that’s just so much window dressing.
Let’s not forget that we’re in this predicament thanks largely to the Prime Minister. Judge Giovanni Bonello described the Constitution as a document written by gentlemen for gentlemen. Problem is when it falls in the hands of scoundrels. The Prime Minister could have exercised some restraint and circumspection in the exercise of his power. Amendments the Constitution needs would have taken place without the current feeling of institutional failure which is entirely the Prime Minister’s doing.
Muscat chose not to. It is significant that the second law passed by Parliament under the incoming Labour Government was a law which removed the few prohibitions on MPs sitting on Government bodies (it was only the second because Budget 2013 had been waiting for some six months and its passage was a matter of utmost urgency). Those asking for better separation of powers would do well remind themselves that they’re making their appeal to the man for whom the blurring of powers was such a high priority after a quarter-century in opposition.
Or take the instance where the Court found that the Competition Act, which allowed the government-appointed Competition Authority to impose fines of a criminal nature, breached the Constitutional principle that only independent courts can impose such penalties. Do you think Muscat followed the sensible route to amend the Competition Act? No. Instead he tried to remove the right from the Constitution! Luckily, he lacked the Parliamentary majority to deprive us of that right.
Now we’ve heard it before that Muscat intends to retire from national politics before the Parliamentary term is out. He might be thinking of a legacy (and the perpetual title of “Father of the Second Republic”) and he might be ready to introduce reforms which, after all, will only restrict his successors. And keeps his present goons in place.
That’s the best case scenario which assumes that a successor — someone from the Labour Party — is politically masochistic enough to allow that the position he’s gunning for comes with less political power. Which, added to the assumption that Muscat would be ready to let go even if no EU job is offered to him (a possibility that’s even more likely now in view of recent events), makes for some very low chances.
It’s way more likely that, if a Convention is ever called and comes to some sort of successful conclusion (not to be taken as certain), Muscat will make sure the outcome is one that’s to his liking. That includes covering his tracks after he leaves, whether that happens sooner or later. And a few of the usual tokenisms probably concealing the actual removal of safeguards. The fact that the Government has moved from “amending” or “updating” to “rewriting” should send a chill down our collective spines.
At the moment, things are in Muscat’s favour. There has been little thinking of what specific measures are required. Excluding red herrings under which heading I include things the method of appointing the President or the establishment of an official religion, there is little besides the requirement for a two-thirds Parliamentary majority for certain appointments. Other than that it’s generalities like “rule of law” and “separation of powers”. Muscat will have a field day.