The Malta Independent 4 August 2020, Tuesday

TMID Editorial: Parliamentary privilege – More responsibility, less abuse

Friday, 3 July 2020, 08:58 Last update: about 2 months ago

The case raised by former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat against Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi has once again brought parliamentary privilege to the fore.

Our system allows our MPs to say whatever they like in Parliament, giving them total immunity and protection against civil or criminal liability for statements they make during the course of their legislative duties.

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We do not want to go into the merits of this particular case. On Tuesday, Speaker Anglu Farrugia ruled that Azzopardi was prima facie in breach of the rules of the House when he said that Muscat called an early election in 2017 because he knew about the plot to assassinate Daphne Caruana Galizia, an accusation that Muscat vehemently denied. Azzopardi has refused to withdraw his claim, has contested the ruling and the matter will now take its course within the parliamentary structures.

The incident has re-opened a long standing debate on parliamentary privilege, and whether it should still stand. Joseph Muscat himself, writing on Facebook the day after the Speaker’s ruling, has questioned its validity, strongly suggesting that it should be removed. He quoted from the Labour Party’s electoral manifesto, which speaks of the idea to revise the way parliamentary privilege is used, and bring it in line with modern requirements. Although progress has been made, he said, the proposal is yet to be implemented.

The intentions behind MPs having immunity for whatever they say in Parliament may have been originally good. The regulations pertaining to parliamentary privilege were established to give MPs the freedom to bring up any subject without the fear that anything they say could be used against them. Over the years, such a privilege enabled them to expose scandals, shortcomings and irregularities, at times also leading to investigations.

But, as in all good things human, there is the downside of such a privilege. Some MPs have misused and abused it, at times resorting to personal insults and insinuations against rival MPs. We have often heard the phrase “Repeat what you have said here outside the House”, a clear meaning that legal steps would be taken if allegations made under the wing of parliamentary privilege are stated without such protection.

There have been MPs whose statements in Parliament, even on matters of public interest and national importance, were far from the truth and aimed solely to gain political advantage at the expense of the other side of the House.

There have been also cases where third parties, people who have never been MPs, were attacked in speeches made in Parliament without having the right to defend their name and without the possibility to file for damages in the courts of law.

The irony of it all is that MPs then place themselves at the forefront of the battle against hate speech, little realising that their own statements (in and out of Parliament) are at times in themselves verbal abuse and instigate improper behaviour. MPs should understand that they are – or should be – role models, and anything they say carries more weight than the average person, more so if they say it in Parliament.

It would certainly be a solid step in the right direction if parliamentary privilege as we know it today is revised to instil a stronger sense of responsibility in MPs as well as give better opportunities for redress in case of abuse, especially if the injured party does not have the Speaker’s protection.

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