Reform by plebiscite

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2018-02-10T15:56:51+00:00Sat, 10th Feb '18, 15:56|0 Comments

Joseph Muscat gave a rare interview today.

From the Times report: “Dr Muscat also spoke at length about the changes to the constitution and did not exclude a referendum to get a strong mandate once the discussions are concluded and the changes proposed. He said work was underway behind the scenes to ensure there is a structure all parties are comfortable with, and that could reach the desired goals.

“The prime minister said he was happy to hear that the Archbishop would not oppose the removal of Catholicism from the constitution, stressing that while Malta was a predominantly Catholic country, the constitution’s wording could do with some changes. He insisted that it will be President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca who will lead the drive towards the necessary changes.”

Number of questions please, prime minister.

Before we get a new constitution, we still have the old one in place. That constitution defines very specifically the role of the president who is a guardian of the constitution, not the precursor of its change. Why do we think the president is the right constitutional role to “lead the drive towards the necessary changes”? I don’t.

It will continue to bring our president into controversy, which she should never be in if she is to bring unity where there is discord. Unless we’re expected to agree with anything the government proposes just to stick to protocol and not embarrass the president with controversy.

Marie Louise Coleiro Preca has repeatedly put herself in situations which are controversial and then expected that her status makes gives her immunity from objection. She got very prickly in court a few days ago when she insisted she was above accountability for the Paqpaqli incident even as her staff sits on the organising committee.

Imagine her piloting some constitutional notion like increasing power to the executive and expecting everyone, including me, to be polite enough not to criticise her for it. I am respectful of the symbols of my state and am fully aware that my behaviour should show that respect. But if incumbents forget their duties or abuse the privileges and the decorum of the functions they temporarily occupy, no one should let themselves be too repressed by the sight of ceremony.

But this is a matter of form.

Can we turn to the substance please? What are the changes the prime minister deems “necessary” to the constitution? Because we really have not heard much in the way of substantial proposals, have we? If this is about no longer having an official religion of the state and no longer being neutral in matters concerning the USSR (because, you see, that is in our constitution), the whole exercise is purely symbolic and changes nothing in people’s lives.

It is not far from the big debate in New Zealand about changing their flag which took them through two referenda and an enormous expense only to leave them where they started.

Surely the prime minister has more in mind. But what? How long is work going to remain “behind the scenes”?

And how is it the prime minister is so confident he can secure constitutional change and have the opposition’s consent to it (which he needs) when we are not getting any open discourse about the matters proposed for change? How is it he seems assured the opposition would agree with his proposals?

Come to think of it why am I just asking the prime minister?

Why is anyone asking for constitutional change? I’m not seeing any debate within our political parties? What changes does the Labour Party desire? And the PN? And the PD? And AD? Where are their position papers and the conference papers of their internal discussions? Where are their vision documents going an inch beyond the vague ambition of constitutional change and actually saying what they want to change it to?

The Archbishop was not out to please the prime minister when he said he was in no mood of a crusade to retain the reference to Catholicism in our constitution. The prime minister today said he was pleased anyway. Presumably because he wanted to pretend he was not picking up the implication of the Archbishop’s message.

Catholicism does not need a constitutional reference to exist. But the protection of rights, the rule of law, equality, social justice, environmental protection, distribution and division of power, administrative transparency, ethical public administration: all these do need constitutional protection and the Archbishop is signalling that these are the areas that will need thorough debate.

Trusting Joseph Muscat to work behind the scenes on a constitution to protect citizens from the concentration and abuse of power is like trusting a vampire with a blood bank. He is gone way beyond what the present constitution was intended to allow him to. What can we expect he would do with a constitution he writes himself?

And trusting our only two parliamentary parties with the power to negotiate “behind the scenes” a constitution that is supposed to liberate us from a state of being where they monopolise information, and cancel each other out in parliament to allow a zero-sum-power-grab after an election, is like trusting a pair of vampires with taking virgins to church on time.

Which is why I turn to civil society, such as it is, to academics, to journalists, to churches and congregations, to retired parliamentarians and judges: when do you start telling us why you really want a change in the constitution and what you want it to look like?

When do we start disagreeing so we can really anticipate the errors we could make? When do we start combing through details so that we can talk about where this could go wrong?

I’ve said this before but the dangled idea of a referendum mentioned today by the prime minister really makes this a matter of greater urgency.

Constitutions are the populist’s nightmare. Referenda make up for that. And populists do not want details ahead of a referendum except as they serve to confused issues. If we are going to wait for a referendum campaign to start before debating provisions of a new constitution we are going to have an exercise intended to prove just how irresistibly popular Joseph Muscat is and how his will is law.

Constitutions are intended to tamper the mood swings of the mob and provide rules that apply withstanding the popularity of incumbents. Well, that is what they are meant to do.

Against that you get plebiscites where rationality disintegrates. I’ll give you a contemporary example. I was 16 once and I was about as ready to vote at the time as I was when I was 18. So I have nothing specifically against 16 year olds voting.

But I disapprove strongly of the fact that lowering voting age means the electoral battleground has now been extended to 11 year olds who will be first time voters at the next ballot. I was 11 once and I was not ready to think for myself.

But who would dare suggest the vote for 16 year olds is a terrible idea if they will need their vote to survive? Confronted with a vote no one steps up to object to an idea that at face value extends enfranchisement and can be argued to be growing democracy.

Such early talk of a constitutional reform referendum without any clue of what that reform will entail anticipates just such a situation.

Indulge me here.

The argument of a direct nationwide election for the presidency will be presented as a greater democratic legitimacy. Today only people who live in the districts where the party leaders contest get the opportunity to vote for the head of government. Why not make things more democratic and have a president elected nationally run the government with accountability to the people rather than a parliament?

This will sound even sweeter to those happy to be swept away by the sort of hero worship party leaders so inclined can simulate here. We’re in a country where the national orchestra organises a concert to play the prime minister’s favourite songs and instead of the hospital’s A&E being overwhelmed by split sides, they get overbooked and run the stupid show for a second extra night.

If our prime minister can get people to buy tickets for a fawning concert of his favourite songs, do you think it will be hard for him to get them to vote him over-bearing presidential powers?