The Malta Independent 6 December 2016, Tuesday

Constitutional convention: I am a unifying factor, Franco Debono insists

Sunday, 10 January 2016, 09:00 Last update: about 12 months ago

With the government and Opposition apparently at loggerheads over the holding of the constitutional convention as long as the government’s appointee, former Nationalist MP Franco Debono — seen as a divisive factor by many considering his chequered history with his former party — remains at the helm. In this interview on the subject, however, Dr Debono insists that he is, in fact, a unifying figure, at least as far as the convention is concerned, since the vast majority of people out there agree with his constitutional proposals for which he had fought so hard

 

There are those who have put your appointment to chair the constitutional convention down to a matter of spite, with the government having appointed you just after the last election.  Others have called it a case of meritocracy.  What is your opinion on why you were chosen by the government to lead this process, and what, in your opinion, makes you the best man for the job?

Constitutional reform should have been high on the country’s agenda for the last 10 to 15 years, but, unfortunately, it wasn't. 

As soon as I was elected to Parliament, in 2008, as the PN government’s youngest MP, I started making calls for a new or updated Constitution. For example, I proposed a two-thirds majority for the appointment of the President and to discuss the possibility of a smaller Parliament of full-time MPs.

I proposed amendments to the method of judicial appointments, discipline and removal from office within the ambit of a wide-ranging and detailed justice reform (2011) - the greater part of which constitutes the later so-called Bonello Report (2013).  This also included proposals to review the Attorney General’s dual role of public prosecutor and counsel to government and to also review the AG’s exercise of discretion in some cases. I proposed the removal of criminal libel and filed a private members’ motion that also paved the way for another fundamental change now cemented in our system - the split between justice and home affairs portfolios, without which the other reforms would be harder to implement.

I also drafted and presented in Parliament the Bill on Party Finance that has since been unanimously approved by Parliament; proposed an overhaul to the outdated Parliamentary Standing Orders; campaigned for a greater autonomy and better communication facilities for Parliament and made a number of calls for ministerial accountability and responsibility to be shouldered. 

I voted accordingly in Parliament and campaigned assiduously for the introduction of the fundamental human right of legal assistance for arrested persons.

This is only to name a few, and these are all matters of a constitutional nature and with the purview of constitutional reform.

So, in light of all this, my only defect was that I was apparently not only thinking ahead of the times, but I was also not conforming to an outdated political model, where backbenchers would be just their leaders’ parrots.

Ironically, that is one of the fundamental reforms this country needs - understanding the role of the Members of Parliament as representatives of the people and not party parrots, thus strengthening Parliament as a mechanism of scrutiny on the government of the day.

Most of the time, I was the only person speaking incessantly about these topics. It is only by keeping in mind all this work I did in Parliament that one can objectively answer the question - is the appointment one based on meritocracy or spite?

With the coming into force of the Law on Party Finance, constitutional reform has started, since this is a law of a constitutional nature, concerning as it does political parties. Moreover, the process leading to its coming into force shows that this country can work in a spirit of unity and co-operation.

The law also represents an element of continuity - drafted and presented in Parliament by myself during the last legislature as a Nationalist MP. It was taken on board by the current Labour administration as the basis for discussions and, in fact, the law that eventually came into force a few days ago is almost identical in substance and form to my original bill. Obviously, the public consultation and passage through Parliament further refined and enriched the Bill thanks to suggestions from the PN and Alternattiva Demokratika.

In this sense, this very important law shows the way ahead - a spirit of unity and continuity and yes, I think we can do it.

Moreover, in the past three years we have heard constant calls for meritocracy, some of which were justified, and I have no doubt that for the sake of consistency all those who have been so vociferous about meritocracy for the past three years, and rightly so, will be as vociferous about meritocracy regarding constitutional reform. Meritocracy should be one of the main values animating this process.

Having stated all these facts, I leave it up to you to decide.

 

Do you see the political divisiveness that many associate with you as an obstacle for this remit? After all, should the discussion on making changes to the country’s very building blocks be a partisan issue?

If you look at the way the Law on Party Finance, which I had drafted as an MP, was not only recently unanimously approved by Parliament, with the PN voting in favour, but also the spirit of co-operation and unity during the public consultation process as well as during Parliamentary committee stage, in which AD also gave a considerable contribution, you would immediately realise that the word ‘divisive’ is completely out of place and irrelevant when it comes to most of the reforms I have proposed.

I am a unifying figure, since the vast majority agree not only with the proposals I made, but they also tend to agree, either publicly or in private, that they should have been implemented before. Past tensions and divisions were, in fact, a consequence of neglecting such fundamental reforms and surely I am not the one to blame!

The PN today has made it clear it is turning a fresh leaf, and it has endorsed all the proposals and it perhaps even went further in some areas. My impression is that AD is also on the same wavelength and I see no cause for divisiveness.

One has to let bygones be bygones and look forward to the future in the national interest. Everyone, including myself, has to focus on what unites us rather than the small differences we may have.

No one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes, but that should not hinder progress in this regard.

 

How important is it, in your opinion, that the convention is held? What are its aims, terms of reference and the main areas of constitutional legislation that it will be considering?

How important is this reform? It is crucial, fundamental and long overdue. The Constitution of any country is the most fundamental and basic law.

Some two years ago I had presented the government with the terms of reference and the convention’s proposed composition.

First of all, constitutional conventions are not dominated by political parties but by society, the people. In any case, Parliament and the parties represented therein would eventually have the final say when the conventions’ deliberations eventually come to the vote in Parliament.

But at convention stage it is usually society’s turn to make proposals and parties’ representation within conventions is usually minimal.

The terms of reference I proposed touch on a wide variety of subjects, and the composition includes a number of constitutional experts and geographical representation together with party delegates - in all adding up to approximately 100 members.

In the meantime, since no progress was made, I have been chairing a committee I had proposed during the last legislature to focus on an informative campaign of constitutional awareness, which would also help the upcoming convention. How can people contribute to the convention if they are not fully or adequately informed about the topics?

It has been a pleasure working with committee members Martin Scicluna, Andrew Azzopardi, Veronique Dalli, Clare Bonello, Ray Mangion, Trevor Zahra, Oliver Friggieri, Austin Bencini and Saviour Chircop. We have been working hand-in-hand and under the auspices of the President of the Republic and the Speaker of the House, both of whom have pledged their full support.

Next week we should be launching an informative website about the Constitution, and presenting the findings of a survey on constitutional awareness that we commissioned some months ago.

And this is precisely the reason why I am positive that consensus will be reached, since recent declarations by the Opposition show that we are on the right track.

This could be an opportunity for those who did not give enough room to my proposals to not repeat the same mistake. I am sure that reason and the national interest will prevail.  I think it would be appropriate to also point out that, like everyone else, I am not perfect and some things could have been done in a different way.

I am not referring here to the reforms for which I fought, which I think most agree were reforms that our country needs.  The PN also seems to have acknowledged past mistakes and is now trying to turn over a new leaf. The PN’s recent Proposals for Good Governance document embraces a number of reforms I had proposed as a Nationalist MP.

Yes, I am convinced that national interest will prevail, a consensus will be found and the Convention can start its work soon.

As Thomas Paine once said, “time makes more converts than reason,” and I think this country is now fully prepared to embark upon this fundamental constitutional reform in a spirit of great unity, by leaving aside our differences and focusing on what unites us so that we can continue our journey in the footsteps of our predecessors, who worked so much for this country.

This convention should also be held in the spirit of appreciation of all those who worked so hard in the past to make our country a success.

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