Four institutional reforms proposed by the government were approved in their second reading along party lines on Wednesday evening, though three of them will need the support of Nationalist Party MPs if they are to become law.
All four were discussed this week, with Parliament holding daily morning and evening sittings between Monday and Wednesday to go through the bills ahead of Parliament’s summer recess.
A controversial ‘anti-deadlock mechanism’
In the order they were discussed, the first bill would reform the way the President is appointed, but PN MPs opposed it over its proposed anti-deadlock mechanism. While the President would require a two-thirds parliamentary majority, an absolute majority of MPs would suffice after two unsuccessful votes, and the bill would not explicitly require the government to present a new candidate after a failed attempt.
The second concerns the appointment of members of the judiciary, which would oblige the President to choose among candidates presented by a committee in which sitting judges and magistrates would form a majority. But the bill also foresees a new method for appointing the Chief Justice, with the same controversial mechanism included in the first bill.
The third bill governs the potential removal of members of the judiciary, shifting responsibility for this task from Parliament to the Commission for the Administration of Justice. But with a number of members of the judiciary expressing their reservations, the PN MPs once more expressed their objections.
The fourth and final bill introduces a number of reforms concerning the Permanent Commission Against Corruption, but once more, the same anti-deadlock mechanism included in the first two bills – this time for the appointment of the commission’s chairmen – led opposition MPs to object.
Amendments possible in committee
Though a simple majority of MPs will be enough for the fourth bill, the first three amend the Constitution, and thus require a two-thirds parliamentary majority to become law.
However, this quota will only be required at the third and final reading, which would follow debate in committee in which potential amendments would be presented.
As opposition whip Robert Cutajar confirmed the opposition’s intention to vote against each bill, he emphasised that it was done in the hope that their existing problems would be solved through such amendments.
PN to blame if reforms fail – Zammit Lewis
And while Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis expressed appreciation for what he deemed to be constructive criticism during three days of debates, the PN’s rejection of each bill clearly irked him by the end of the lengthy process.
The minister insisted that the PN would be to blame for any failure to bring about the reforms requested by the Venice Commission, and that he would make it a point to bring it up with the Council of Europe body, as well as with the EU’s Transparency Commissioner Věra Jourová and Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders.
“I will refer them to the opposition, and let them figure out who to speak to as I wouldn’t know who,” he said, in the wake of PN leader Adrian Delia’s loss of confidence votes among his parliamentary group and among the party’s executive committee.
In each case, the bills were approved in their second reading by 37 votes to 27.
MPs also approved a bill amending the Maltese Citizenship Act by the same margin: the bill seeks to introduce a replacement to the controversial Individual Investor Programme, though is somewhat vague on the new scheme’s details.
Reform should have been a single package – Said
In a statement issued on behalf of the Nationalist Party, MP Chris Said – the party’s spokesman on constitutional reform – said that party MPs voted against the proposed amendments for two main reasons.
One of these reasons, he explained, was the government’s failure to publish six other related bills and its failure to consult over them.
“The opposition was clear from the outset that these amendments and other laws that are being proposed following the Venice Commission’s report should have been presented in a single package and not in the manner most convenient to the government, which first seeks the opposition’s vote only to steamroll over everyone with other laws in which this vote is not needed,” Said said.
The second reason, he explained, was that important issues still needed to be addressed, stating that there was no reason why the President and the Chief Justice should ever be appointed by a simple majority.