Parliament has unanimously approved a series of constitutional reforms on Wednesday evening after a last-minute compromise achieved on Tuesday brought the opposition on board.
MPs voted on six of the ten bills presented by Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis to carry out structural reforms in line with the recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, of which five amend the Constitution – and thus required the support of at least 45 MPs, or two-thirds of Parliament.
The constitutional reforms concern the method of appointment – and removal – of the President and members of the judiciary, including the Chief Justice, provide for judicial review of certain decisions by the Attorney General, and seek to strengthen the Office of the Ombudsman.
The one bill which did not amend the Constitution concerned the Permanent Commission Against Corruption, but it was also met with unanimous approval.
But the opposition had planned to vote against all six until Tuesday, with a controversial anti-deadlock mechanism proving to be a key source of disagreement.
Compromise removes anti-deadlock mechanism
The bills propose a new, identical method for the appointment of various senior posts, namely the President, the Chief Justice, the Ombudsman and the chair of the PCAC, which would require the approval of two-thirds of Parliament.
Originally, however, they included a mechanism which would be used should MPs fail to agree on a candidate.
After two unsuccessful attempts, an absolute majority of MPs would have sufficed to approve a candidate, and the government was not obliged to propose a different candidate in subsequent votes.
On Monday, three of the bills had been debated in the Consideration of Bills Committee, which can amend the bills before the final vote, but neither the government nor the opposition budged, suggesting that the bills were doomed to fail.
However, informal talks continued on Monday and on Tuesday, and an agreement was reached by Tuesday evening.
Incumbents to stay on until replacement agreed upon
The government pledged to propose amendments on Wednesday, and followed suit when the bills were all sent back to committee.
As it had promised, the mechanism was removed: the new solution is to allow incumbents to stay on until their successor was chosen. In the case of the Chief Justice, the amendment explicitly states that the incumbent would be allowed to continue serving beyond the mandatory retirement age of 65.
.The mechanism was also removed in the bill concerning the PCAC, which does not amend the Constitution, with Zammit Lewis describing this move as a sign of goodwill matching the opposition’s own.
The new method would appear to address the government’s stated concerns about removing the anti-deadlock mechanism: that political disagreement could leave important posts vacant for a long time.
President welcomes parliamentary consensus
The votes were welcomed by the Office of the President, which expressed satisfaction at the constitutional changes achieved.
Citing the compromise achieved during discussions between the government and opposition, the office said that “this was the democratic means through which the government and opposition should work together to achieve results for the benefit of the nation.
“The President augurs that this sense of cooperation continues to reign in future discussions which are required so that other constitutional reforms that are needed can succeed,” the office conluded.