The Malta Independent 17 December 2018, Monday

Michael Frendo gives 33 rulings as Speaker

Malta Independent Monday, 28 January 2013, 12:58 Last update: about 6 years ago

Michael Frendo admits that he had never foreseen the possibility of being Speaker but Louis Galea’s nomination for the European Court of Auditors in 2010, presented him with this unexpected opportunity.

Even by his own admission he says that in the beginning he was slightly concerned that this experience would be much less active if not boring, when compared to the life of an MP or member of cabinet.

However he was to be proven wrong, as parliamentary life during this legislature was characterised by uncertainty, and full of twists and turns.

“It was very demanding and innovative. I had to give no less than 33 rulings which is more than all the rulings handed down by his three predecessors. In addition I had to use my casting vote on several occasions”.

He also refers to the fact that the Divorce Act was introduced

through a private members bill, which is quite unusual in the Maltese parliamentary system. Dr Frendo remarked that having dissenting MPs in government ranks, as well as in those of opposition on certain issues like divorce and IVF meant that it was far from an easy ride, but nevertheless a fulfilling experience.

The Speaker does not mince his words about the lack of autonomy which parliament enjoys at present, remarking that during his tenure he sought to instil a change in mentality that parliament was not simply a “government department”. He says that parliament should not depend on the public service for funding and recruitment, but be autonomous.

This pressure led to fruition with the drafting of a white paper on parliament’s autonomy which was presented last autumn. Unfortunately this white paper never made it to the second reading, as in due course parliament was dissolved following the government’s defeat on the budget vote on 10 December.

He says that he endeavoured so that MPs have better access to information, including online archives of local newspapers, university databases and free access to well renowned global publications such as ‘The Economist’. The aim it to facilitate MPs to keep themselves abreast of current affairs.

Dr Frendo’s vision is that every MP has his or her assistant and their personal office to meet with constituents. However he acknowledges that such changes cannot happen overnight, even with the new parliament building which will greatly improve facilities at hand.

He says that for the first time ever parliament is represented in all major EU institutions such as the European Parliament. He adds that parliament has presented three opinions on subsidiarity, including on the Financial Transactions Tax and the Common Consolidate Base, stressing that these were unanimously approved by parliament.

Other initiatives include guidelines on how to present testimony in the Public Accounts Committee.

 

Dr Frendo also stresses that the revision of standing orders is one of the most pressing issues which need to be tackled. However this particular aspect would need a separate interview as there are a plethora of aspects in which one can delve in.

Meanwhile the House Business Committee is considering two memoranda – one for the creation of a permanent committee on economic matters, and a committee for public petitions.

Regarding the latter, he said that the aim is to establish clear timeframes for parliament to respond within three months. Such mechanisms exist in Australia and were recently introduced in the United Kingdom.

Dr Frendo reveals that next month will see the launch of a Parliamentary Foundation which will be responsible for the permanent exhibition about the history of this institution. This foundation also aims to promote this institution locally and abroad through conferences and other initiatives.

Dr Frendo explains that next month, the first two volumes of a detailed history of parliament’s rulings will also be published. These will focus on the first legislature from 1921 to 1924. The aim is to have all rulings handed down over a 90 year period, which will serve as an important reference material to the Speaker whenever he or she is asked to give a ruling. Till now such decisions are normally based on the standing orders of the House of Commons, the Erskine May, the Clerk of the House and his team of legal experts as well as the legal team under the supervision of Prof Ian Refalo.

 

Making MPs more accountable

During the election campaign parliament was again under the spotlight, following a Labour proposal which aims to make MPs more accountable for their attendance to plenary sessions. While everyone welcomed this move, it is yet to be seen how practical this would be as the role of an MP is not simply to attend, but rather participate actively and not just in plenary session. This is closely linked to the debate whether MPs should be on a full-time basis or not.

Dr Frendo says that nowadays parliament is streamed online as well as on the radio, and this maybe one of the reasons for the low attendance during certain plenary meetings. However he also remarks that MPs are actively involved in parliamentary committees, which are rather time consuming as they deal with hands on issues. He adds that these committees are very well attended by MPs.

Probably parliament’s attendance is at its lowest during the committee stage when the debate is very technical, such as the case when the House spent countless hours debating the ratification of the European Stability and Fiscal Governance Pact, with a handful of MPs present.

While in this particular circumstance the Speaker concedes that MPs may not be so eager to participate at committee stage, he takes a completely different stand when it comes to question time. Dr Frendo says that both government and opposition MPs should be present. 

Back to the original question about linking allowances to participation he says that MPs have a tight schedule to be able to keep in touch with constituents, active participation in the media as well as commitments abroad linked to EU matters.

He says that the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Foreign and European Affairs have been very active during this legislature.

“MPs today have much more on their plate, than previously” he says. While the issue of full-time MPs is debatable, Dr Frendo has strong views in favour of allocating an assistant to each and every MP, as well as assigning him an office to be able to perform his parliamentary duties. This will greatly help MPs to prepare themselves better for debates and as they have more resources at hand to do research on the issue at hand. He says that abroad, MPs are handed a brief prepared by the parliamentary staff about the bill on the agenda.

He welcomes a recent initiative through which MPs are being continually briefed from Brussels by a representatives of the Maltese parliament whose remit is to keep the House in touch with European institutions.

 

More time for Opposition motions and private members bills

The speaker believes that more time should be dedicated to debate private members’ bills as well as items moved on the agenda by the opposition. As a matter of fact Dr Frendo had made this point in one of his last rulings before the dissolution of parliament. He says that even though government was in a position to postpone some of the items on the agenda, the vast majority of motions were debated. He cites the fact the some motions which from the very beginning sought to oust a member of cabinet or an ambassador were eventually debated, after both sides reached agreement on the timeframe of the debate.

He remarks that in previous legislatures it was considered acceptable by some for a motion to be left gathering the dust. “Nowadays it is a completely different story.”

“Having the parliamentary agenda at the mercy of government is not an ideal situation, and hence it is important to have fixed dates to debate private member’s bills and items tabled by the opposition”.

Asked about the government’s strategy following the onset of the political crisis, Dr Frendo says throughout parliamentary history governments always had a strong hold on the agenda.  Elaborating further on this point he says that there is nothing wrong in government setting the agenda as it is bound to implement its programme. “However it would be wrong if government has an absolute control, since the rights of MPs have to be safeguarded as well. This is the ideal balance which should be sought not overnight but in an evolutionary manner.”

In a nutshell Dr Frendo believes that parliament should be held accountable to the electorate not just once in every five years to elect MPs, but on a constant basis through petitions, civil society and direct contact with MPs. “Parliament is the key to preserve democracy”.

 

Parliamentary immunity

Another hot potato is the issue of parliamentary immunity.  Dating back from colonial times this privilege is meant to protect MPs to come forward and encourage them to serve as whistleblowers. However there is nothing preventing MPs from abusing of their immunity to tarnish the reputation of third parties with unfounded allegations. 

Last autumn government has presented a white paper, which was hailed as a step in the right direction, calling for the appointment of a commissioner whose remit is to investigate abuses of parliamentary immunity. To date one of the most vociferous but solitary voices in favour to abolish parliamentary immunity, is that of PN MP Censu Galea, who coincidentally is also deputy speaker.

Dr Frendo is of the opinion that rather than ditching parliamentary immunity, the way forward is to revise its terms of reference and the appointment of a commissioner is a very interesting proposition.

He explains that contrary to popular perception, parliamentary immunity in Malta when compared to other countries is very limited. As a matter of fact in some countries it is forbidden to take legal and criminal action against MPs, which in Malta is not the case. In our case immunity covers MPs only when parliament is in session, and while representatives are on their way or leaving the parliament building.

 

Reasons for parliament to reconvene after dissolution

Even though parliament has been dissolved, there is a possibility of it reconvening in case that there is need to debate an impeachment motion against Judge Lino Farrugia Sacco, whose case is still being looked into by the Commission for the Administration of Justice. This has prompted questions whether parliament is really dissolved or not.

Dr Frendo points out that the constitution stipulates that parliament may meet even when there is a caretaker government, in extraordinary circumstances. He explains that the Prime Minister may recommend the President to reconvene parliament if he feels that there are urgent matters of national importance, such as an impeachment motion or circumstances of war.

This also explains why the Speaker remains in office even after parliament has been dissolved. As for the outgoing MPs their status is rather complex to define. While technically their term of office has expired, in case that parliament has to reconvene urgently, they are the ones called upon to participated in the debate and decide and so their status may be described as one of ‘suspended animation’.

The Speaker took the opportunity to point out that the country can no longer afford to have parliament dissolved for months, since there is a danger of missing out on important decisions especially those related to the EU. “Having the Committee of Foreign and European Affairs unable to meet since parliament is dissolved, is putting us at a disadvantage when it comes to scrutinise European legislation and give our feedback, especially in those cases when there are set timeframes.”

As a matter of fact at the end the month he will be attending an EU meeting specifically targeting national parliaments with economic governance on the agenda. He said that being the only representative of the Maltese parliament to be still in office, he feels obliged to attend.

 

Life after retiring from politics

After the general election which will mark the end of his political career Dr Frendo he will be going back to the legal profession as well as engage himself in consultancy.  However he will stay on a president of the Foundation of Parliament for a transitional period while remain actively involved in public fora. He also looks forward to keep a presence in the media by contributing regularly in newspapers through opinions and interviews.

 

 

 

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