The Malta Independent 5 August 2020, Wednesday

TMID Editorial: Venice Commission reforms - A reminder of what is needed

Wednesday, 19 February 2020, 09:27 Last update: about 7 months ago

Malta needs to get its act together on the Venice Commission recommendations, and quicken its step in terms of implementation.

Pieter Omtzigt, PACE rapporteur on the "Daphne Caruana Galizia's assassination and the rule of law in Malta and beyond: ensuring that the whole truth emerges", met with Prime Minister Robert Abela last Friday. During the meeting, Omtzigt took aim at the length of time it is taking the government to implement the Venice Commission recommendations.

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While it is true that some of the recommendations have already been taken on-board, others have not.

Since the Venice Commission’s visit a couple of years ago, Malta has, for example, moved to divide the functions of the Attorney General whereby the State Advocate will be a chief consultant to the government while the Attorney General will be the public prosecutor. Prime Minister Robert Abela had also said during the meeting with Omtzigt that the government is also in the process of splitting the functions of the Police Force, whereby the police will carry out investigate duties, and it will then be up to the Attorney General to lead the prosecution.

However, certain issues have still not really moved forward. One example regards the appointment of members of the judiciary. Among other things, the Commission had suggested that judicial vacancies should be published; that the Judicial Appointments Committee (JAC) should rank the candidates upon merit on pre-existing, clear and transparent criteria for appointment; that the JAC should propose a candidate or candidates directly to the President of Malta for appointment; and that its proposals should be binding on the President.

These are just some steps that can be taken to better assure judicial independence.

A main issue raised by the Venice commission was the balance of power. The Venice Commission had said: “The predominance of the Prime Minister and the concentration of powers enabled by the Constitution shows that the system of checks and balances needs to be reinforced.”

Indeed to counter this, the other constitutional bodies needed to be strengthened. While some action has been taken, more is needed, such as in the cases of the President, Parliament, Judiciary, and the Ombudsman. On the role of the President, the Venice commission had recommended that the office be strengthened by attributing him/her more powers of appointment without the intervention of the Prime Minister, notably as concerns judicial appointments. “In addition, the election of the President with a qualified majority could be considered and it should be possible to remove the President by a qualified majority only.” Other proposals were also made.

With regards to Parliament, the Commission had invited the Maltese authorities to reflect on the continued desirability of having part-time MPs.  It also recommended that serious thought be given to the fact that conflicts of interest should be avoided, inter alia by strengthening the rules on incompatibilities as laid down in the Constitution and tightening the rules as regards appointments of MPs to officially appointed bodies. It also said that MPs should benefit from non-partisan information to perform their role of critical controller of the Government, among other things.

In the case of the Ombudsman, the Commission recommended raising the rules on appointment and dismissals of the Ombudsman as well at his/her powers to the constitutional level.

On a positive note is that Omtzigt, after his meeting at Castille, said "I see a different attitude among this cabinet than in the previous cabinet. I feel that they have potential to make the right changes." This gives a clear indication of the change in attitude by the government since Joseph Muscat stepped down and Robert Abela took over.

It is understandable that Constitutional reform takes time, and a number of the Venice Commission’s recommendations require such reform. But perhaps there is a need to ramp up debate, and present clear options to the public in terms of what reforms the government wants.

 

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