Government turns down request for discussion

Miguela Xuereb

Opposition leader Adrian Delia sought an urgent parliamentary debate on what he described as an “unprecedented institutional and constitutional crisis,” this evening.

However, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat insisted that the time was not yet ripe for such a debate before Speaker Anġlu Farrugia suspended the sitting to deliberate and eventually turned down the call for dialogue. In his ruling, the Speaker said that while the request by the opposition fulfills the criteria of national interest, it does not fulfill those which require the matter to be urgent. In the light that discussion may prejudice investigations, the Speaker ruled against the request. 

Dr Delia invoked standing order 13 of the House of Representatives, through which an MP can request an adjournment of the house so that “matters of definite urgent public importance” can be debated.

He argued that recent developments concerning the investigation into the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia – not least the arrest of the Yorgen Fenech, the owner of Dubai-registered company 17 Black – through which, Dr Delia insisted, he was caught
bribing Minister Konrad Mizzi and the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Keith Schembri.”

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Dr Delia said that as Prime Minister Joseph Muscat continues to defend them and refuse to dismiss them, and noting that even Minister Chris Cardona has been interrogated as part of the investigation, with a number of members of his secretariat arrested, the country is being precipitated into an unprecedented constitutional crisis.

“These shocking and unprecedented events show that organised criminality has infiltrated the highest corridors of power and is keeping the government hostage.”

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, however, reiterated that while he was willing to have a full debate on the matter, he did not wish to do so while the situation was still developing and risk prejudicing judicial proceedings, noting that President George Vella had just confirmed that he would follow his recommendation to pardon Melvin Theuma, the alleged middleman in Ms Caruana Galizia’s assassination, and another request for a presidential pardon – by Yorgen Fenech – was pending.

He insisted that the wait would be a matter of “hours or days,” not “weeks or months,” and argued that the standing order invoked by Dr Delia only applied in cases where debate could not reasonably be held at a later time, as the opportunity would be lost. Since the matter was ongoing, he said, this was not the case.

In reply, Dr Delia said that the Prime Minister was refusing to understand that the urgent issue did not concern the investigation or any criminal or judicial responsibilities, but the actions of the government itself.

Government whip Byron Camilleri then argued that Dr Delia’s request should be dismissed on an apparent technicality, citing standing order 17, which sets the order of proceedings for the house. According to this provision, the request for leave to make a motion under standing order 13 had to be made before ministers make motions relating to the business of the House. He noted that Dr Delia made his request after the Clerk of the House asked whether any ministers wished to make a motion.

Mr Camilleri also insisted that the justification for a motion under standing order 13 was not present, citing a 1999 ruling by then-speaker Lawrence Gonzi which emphasised that such a motion not only required an urgent matter, but one which could not otherwise be debated in a timely manner.

Just before Speaker Anġlu Farrugia suspended the sitting for deliberations, however, Dr Delia insisted that the government’s argument that a debate would prejudice the case was perverse, stating that on the other hand, the opposition wished to discuss the matter now to prevent the government itself from prejudicing proceedings.

“We want to make sure that our institutions are allowed to operate properly,” Dr Delia said.