The Malta Independent 20 November 2018, Tuesday

Opposition's motion on Speaker's ruling defeated - 35 against, 30 in favour

Helena Grech Tuesday, 24 May 2016, 18:42 Last update: about 3 years ago

The Opposition’s motion to amend the Speaker’s ruling to allow a motion to censure Keith Schembri has failed, 35 against and 30 in favour. The vote on the motion to censure Mr Schembri was amended to censure the Prime Minister and will take place tomorrow night in Parliament.

Parliament this evening debated that the Speaker’s ruling, which found Independent MP Marlene Farrugia’s motion to censure Keith Schembri was not admissible because he is not an elected official. The Speaker instead ruled that the motion was to be amended to censure the Prime Minister, who can then in turn ask for Mr Schembri’s resignation. His decision was that only ministers can be censured for their employee’s behaviour, but not the employee themselves.

In the end, the government voted against the Opposition's motion, which means that the debate to censure Mr Schembri will not take place and, instead, there will be one to censure the Prime Minister, who employed Mr Schembri is a position of trust.

Equal time was allotted between the Opposition and the Government, where a number of arguments were made for and against. The Opposition argued that if a motion of no confidence was allowed to take place for Richard Cachia Caruana, then Ambassador to the EU, in 2012, then the same can be done for the PM’s chief of staff. It also argued that Mr Schembri holds a very important role within the one of the highest institutions in Malta, playing a central role within multimillion negotiations – where no contracts have been made available for scrutiny.

Government ministers argued that the case was completely different, because Mr Cachia Caruana held a Constitutional role, whereas Mr Schembri’s allegiance lies with his surperior, Dr Joseph Muscat.

They also argued that allowing motions to censure employees rather than the Ministers responsible for them could set an ugly precedent.

Parliamentary Debate

Deputy Leader Mario de Marco argued that there is no article, sub article, clause or any piece of legislation which does not allow the House to directly censure the executive arm of government.

Parliament should not have the right to ride roughshod over the rights over individuals, however this should not muzzle the Parliament’s ability to debate, he said.

“This House is not the only authority which scrutinises Government, however it is the highest level of scrutiny,” Dr de Marco said.

“Our work is to see that tax payers’ money is being spent in the best possible way. We discuss not only finances of government departments, but also of all government agencies. When a public official makes a mistake, there are civil procedures to correct this. Apart from public officials, there are also political appointees.

“This ties into today’s motion – under Maltese law, the secretariat of a Ministry is directly responsible to the Minister in question. The secretariat is not subject to the same scrutiny as public officials. In the case of today’s motion, the importance continues to grow. We have a person who is not the chief of staff of some Parliamentary Secretary, or of some Minister.

“We are talking about a person who is the chief of staff in the secretariat of the Prime Minister. This person played a prominent role in million euro negotiations, paid for by tax payers, which till today remains hidden without public scrutiny. Till today no contracts have been published or tabled in Parliament.”

Dr de Marco slammed the PM’s chief of staff Keith Schembri for not responding to the many questions put to him, and also criticised the PM for becoming Mr Schembri’s lawyer. In addition to this, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said that Mr Schembri “holds my trust,” Dr de Marco added. He quipped that surely this was not a Freudian slip.

Dr de Marco stressed the need for an ad hoc committee which would hear the testimony of all relevant witnesses.

“We are not interested in witch hunts and inquisitions. We just want to know that all people playing a central role in leading the country, are doing so in line with the law,” he said.

“Let us really be the voice of the public,” he concluded. 

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici accused the Opposition of taking opportunity on three occasions to “attack the Speaker,” as well as the Government.

Dr Bonnici alleged that it is probably the only Opposition to try and delay debating the motion being discussed today. Dr Farrugia raised a point of order, saying that Dr Bonnici is not being accurate in his declaration, and that the Opposition only requested four days so that the public can read and understand the “public debate” before them.

Justice Minister Bonnici said that two administrations ago, the PN government of the day did not bother to debate any of the five motions put forward by the PL Opposition of the day. He appealed with the Opposition to work with the Government in the Parliamentary work ahead.

He said that he is not in agreement with the Opposition’s protests against the Speaker’s ruling. He said that the Speaker’s ruling was fair and just, and that he is convinced that had Parliament been a court room, the Opposition would lose their case and be ordered to pay “double” the court expenses.

Dr Bonnici said that this case is different to the motion of no confidence in Richard Cachia Caruana due to the way he was appointed. He argued that the motion should be to censure the person employing Mr Schembri, and not Mr Schembri himself – since the only person who can remove Mr Schembri is his employer, Dr Muscat.

He reiterated that the motion should be to censure who is responsible for Mr Schembri. He said that if Parliament starts debating to remove individuals it does not employ themselves this will be starting a negative precedent.

Dr Bonnici pleaded with the Opposition to stop attempting to diminish Malta’s highest institutions. He made reference to a financial ratings agency, Moody’s stellar performance of Malta. Dr Farrugia emphasised however Moody’s, and other ratings agencies, pivotal role in the 2008 financial crises by failing to downgrade bad debts, leading to further investments in junk.

Minister Bonnici questioned how Dr Farrugia, or anyone else, could second guess the rating given to Malta by Moody’s, asking who the public trusted more.

He said that when people set up trusts abroad they are actually distancing themselves from their funds/assets. He made no mention of Mr Schembri's secret Panama company which Malta has no exchange of information agreement with or the fact that politicians tend to employ ‘blind trusts’ where they are truly removed from personal wealth management decisions. Such trusts have added safety measures in place which remove the possibility for abuse to occur and tend to be set up before the politician holds office. 

Shadow Minister for Justice Jason Azzopardi spoke about what Mr Schembri has not disclosed rather than what he has in various statements.

Providing examples, he emphasised the source of revenue provided for opening up offshore holdings – where Mr Schembri stated it was for estate planning but e-mail exchanges between Nexia Bt, the corporate service provider chosen by Mr Schembri, and Mossack Fonseca – the Panamanian law firm at the centre of the Panama Papers scandal, revealed that remote gaming recycling as the source of revenue.

He questioned why Nexia BT insisted on totally secrecy in the process of setting up offshore companies and bank accounts.

“Those who have nothing to hide, do not hide,” he said.

“This is a textbook case of suspected money laundering,” he said, questioning why no authorities such as the Financial Investigative Analysis Union or the Police have investigated this case.

“This coming month, tax returns are due to be filled by thousands of Maltese. I appeal the public to remember that when they are signing their cheques to the Inland Revenue Department others have done all possible to avoid paying tax. Remember how others have committed themselves to depositing €800,000 in an offshore bank accounts, and you will be paying your taxes,” he concluded.

Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela, making reference to Dr Azzopardi’s statement regarding money laundering, stating that all the elements mentioned by him all pertain to the secret debt scheme being offered by the Opposition.

“You cannot criticise others when what you are doing is much worse.”

He said that the Opposition leader attacks everybody who does not happen to agree with him, such as the Police Commissioner and the Attorney General.

Referring to comparisons drawn with the motion of no confidence of Richard Cachia Caruana, who filled the role of Ambassador to the EU, he said that there is a massive difference between somebody who has been appointed to represent Malta and somebody who has been appointed to manage internal affairs within the OPM.

Turning to Opposition Leader Simon Busuttil, Dr Abela said that Dr Busuttil does not respect the highest institutions of Malta. 

Newly appointed Environment Minister Jose Herrera argued that the Speaker’s ruling was fair because he decided to keep in line with standard practices, allowing impeachment proceedings only for elected officials. He added that this scope has been widened to those with Constitutional roles.

“You cannot impeach my chief of staff, because he is loyal to me,” he said.

Independent MP Marlene Farrugia, questioned why there has been so much resistance to launching a committee which would investigate in full the allegations brought against Mr Schembri. She questioned why the government is not trying to save the last morsel of credibility it has left by refuting any form of transparent investigations.

“When is the Labour government going to stop laughing in the face of the public,” she questioned.

Dr Farrugia said that if the persons within the highest positions cannot be exemplary, we cannot expect the rest of the public follow suit.

She said that she did not expect to hear that her motion was ‘inadmissible’ and could not be debated as is. Dr Farrugia slammed the Prime Minister for not having the “courage” to take the necessary action, and the highest institutions of Malta for failing the public. She said for this she is demanding that Mr Schembri be brought before a committee and answer for himself.

“I appeal for common sense to reign, and that action is taken against Keith Schembri, so that the Labour government can continue to govern without such serious black spots,” she concluded.

Nationalist MP Francis Zammit Dimech argued that when Dr Cachia Caruana was called before a committee to answer for the allegations made against him, he responded to the call.

“This is seriousness,” Dr Zammit Dimech exclaimed.

He made a number of questions he said he would put forward should Mr Schembri be brought before a committee, such as why he felt the need to open up another secret offshore company when he was politically appointed?

“Why was so much work employed to open up an offshore bank account? Do we have a right to ask these questions,” he said.

Referring to the statement Mr Schembri sent to all independent newsrooms in Malta over the weekend, Dr Zammit Dimech said that he was shocked when he noticed the word ‘Panama’ did not appear once.

He made reference to the Cypriot company owned by Mr Schembri, Malcolm Scerri and Adrian Hilman – questioning whether “we” have a right to question Mr Schembri on this matter?

"The government has a choice between transparency and secrecy. The government has a choice between taking action, or sweeping things under the rug," he concluded.

***

Background

In the Speaker’s ruling, Dr Anglu Farrugia said that Parliament has the right to censure ministers for the behaviour of their employees, not the employees themselves.

Opposition Leader Simon Busuttil took exception to this ruling, arguing that when Parliament had moved to censure Richard Cachia Caruana there were no objections to this effect.

“Since what took place in the House in this case resulted in a change of the nature of the original motion...without any valid reason which derives from the Parliamentary Standing Orders or from the Constitution of Malta,” the Opposition’s motion says.

“Consequently, the Parliament of Malta is not being allowed to offer a voice for what the population is demanding, the direct censure of Keith Schembri himself,” it continues.

Mr Schembri was found, together with no-portfolio Minister Konrad Mizzi to each hold a trust and a company in New Zealand and the financially secretive jurisdiction of Panama respectively.

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