The Malta Independent 4 December 2021, Saturday

Speaker or Gatekeeper? 10 times Anglu Farrugia has ruled in favour of the government

Albert Galea Monday, 9 August 2021, 09:54 Last update: about 5 months ago

Speaker of the House Anglu Farrugia has once again brought himself into hot water over a decision to not convene parliament to discuss a motion of no confidence into government minister Edward Zammit Lewis.

The decision has led many government critics to once again share the view that the Speaker is acting more like a gatekeeper for the government, rather than a neutral and impartial Speaker.

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The Malta Independent on Sunday goes back in time to analyse all the other occasions where the Speaker’s actions have come into question and criticism.

2016 to 2020: Parliamentary Privilege breaches – but not for what was said in Parliament

Three rulings which the Speaker made at different points concerning Parliamentary Privilege had also drawn controversy in the space of four years.

On each occasion, outspoken PN MP Jason Azzopardi was found to have breached parliamentary privilege – not for what he said in Parliament; but for what he wrote on Twitter.

In 2016, Azzopardi tweeted that Owen Bonnici had lied to Parliament over revelations that IIP concessionaires Henley & Partners received a 4% commission on the government bonds purchased by each new Maltese citizen – when Bonnici had told a parliamentary committee a year prior that this was not the case.

In 2018, Azzopardi tweeted, after a rowdy plenary session where PN leader Simon Busuttil was frequently interrupted by then PL MP Chris Cardona, that “Tonight you could all see how someone corrupt who rubs shoulders with killers, tries to silence those who expose his wrongdoing”.

In 2020, Azzopardi accused Cardona of being a liar and corrupt during a speech he delivered at a PN club, before then repeating the accusation in a Facebook post.

On each occasion, the Speaker had ruled that Azzopardi had breached parliamentary privilege – even though he had not made his claims inside Parliament’s chambers. 

Each time, Azzopardi argued that the Speaker was trying to censor him and to censor political debate by trying to regulate what politicians could say outside of Parliament, and that the offended parties could file libel cases against him if they felt that they had been defamed.  No such libel cases in any of the three cases were ever filed.

April & October 2018: Rejection of Parliamentary Questions

There have been occasions where Farrugia has rejected parliamentary questions posed by the Opposition.

Two of the most prominent such occasions came in 2018.

In April that year, the Speaker ruled that a parliamentary question which asked the then-Prime Minister on whether his Chief of Staff Keith Schembri was invited to and attended the wedding of the chairman of Pilatus Bank was not in the public interest.

In his ruling – which was blasted by the PN – Farrugia argued that one’s conduct outside public affairs should not fall under parliamentary questions.

Some months later, in October, Farrugia rejected two parliamentary questions regarding the publication of the full Egrant Inquiry, holding that such questions were not relevant within parliament.

PN MP Karol Aquilina, who submitted the questions, revealed that he had asked Prime Minister Joseph Muscat whether he would publish the Egrant Inquiry, and who has had access to the full unredacted unpublished version.

Again, Farrugia ruled that PQs directed at Ministers should specifically relate to their responsibilities.

This came at a time when it had recently been revealed that Justice Minister Owen Bonnici had been given a copy upon request.  It took a court battle spearheaded by then-PN leader Adrian Delia for the Opposition to eventually receive a copy of the report, which they duly made public.

25 November 2019: As Malta reels, Speaker refuses to discuss developments in Caruana Galizia case

As Malta reeled from the arrests made in the Daphne Caruana Galizia case, and as a sizeable portion of the country took to the streets to protest – Farrugia refused to hold an urgent debate on the political implications of the developments in the murder case in Parliament.

Businessman Yorgen Fenech was arrested in connection with the murder, but OPM Chief of Staff Keith Schembri had also been arrested – even if he was later released – in connection with the murder.

Schembri stepped down from his role on the day of his arrest, but Joseph Muscat’s government was coming under increased pressure to depart the scene given the developments.

However, at a time when it seemed like the whole country – and most of Europe – was discussing the new developments, Parliament was forced to continue with a sense of blissful ignorance of what was going on just outside its doors.

It was not for a want of trying: PN leader Adrian Delia had filed a motion for an urgent debate, but the Speaker refused it, saying that while the debate was of public interest, holding it at that stage of the police investigation would risk jeopardising the case and possibly the rights of the suspects involved.

16 June 2020: Former Police Commissioner placed under investigation, Speaker again refuses motion for debate

Speaker Anglu Farrugia rejected an Opposition motion for an urgent debate on former Police Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar in June last year, saying that there is no guarantee that the discussion could not be controlled in such a manner for it to not prejudice the investigation or Cutajar's rights.

The motion for the urgent debate came after a Magistrate ordered a formal investigation to be opened into Cutajar after it heard that Daphne Caruana Galizia murder middleman Melvin Theuma had, allegedly, received information from the former police chief over ongoing money laundering investigations.

Farrugia said that the request, made under Standing Order 13, had to satisfy three pre-requisites; that the issue is defined, that it is of public importance, and that it is urgent.

In his ruling, he said that while there was an agreement with the first two points, the House must be satisfied with the urgency of the matter as well.

He said that when consider the urgency of such matters, it must be taken into consideration on whether the discussion needs to be done in such a hurry that it cannot be done on any other day.

He quoted a similar ruling from former Speaker Louis Galea, and said that a discussion now may prejudice investigations which are at a critical stage and may also prejudice the rights of the individual who is under investigation.

11 January 2021: Speaker refuses to summon Joseph Muscat to face Standards Committee

Last January, the Speaker was again criticised over a ruling that Joseph Muscat could not be summoned by the Standards Committee following a probe regarding the appointment of Konrad Mizzi as an MTA consultant, days after Mizzi had resigned from the post of Tourism Minister on the basis that Muscat was no longer an MP.

In his ruling, Farrugia observed that the proceedings of the committee are regulated by specific legislation, and this legislation does not make reference to former MPs.

The report, which concluded that Mizzi’s 80,000 per year appointment was an abuse of power on Muscat’s part – was adopted, but the former Prime Minister did not face any sanctions because, by that point, he had already resigned as an MP.

4 March 2021: Speaker rules that Standards Commissioner shouldn’t have investigated journalists’ lock-up

On 4 March earlier this year, Farrugia ruled that Standards Commissioner George Hyzler should not have investigated the 2019 lock-up of journalists at Castille since the case was subject to a criminal investigation.

In his report, Hyzler has found former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to have breached ethics – the fourth time that the commissioner had found a breach of ethics by the former PM.

The report was set to be discussed by Parliament’s ethics committee, but the two government members and the Speaker voted against its publication. The Speaker later upheld a request by ministers Byron Camilleri and Edward Zammit Lewis to declare that Hyzler went beyond his legal remit when he investigated the complaint, which had been filed by the Institute of Maltese Journalists.

Hyzler has rebutted this claim in a letter sent to the Speaker and insisted that Farrugia was “led to issue a ruling he had no power to issue”, and saying that the Speaker was trying to restrain his role as Standards Commissioner through the said ruling.

The decision proved to be controversial: the PN noted that “impunity reigns” in Parliament and some NGOs even called for Farrugia to step down, claiming that he was working to protect Muscat and – by extension – the government.

28 April 2021: Speaker abstains on Carmelo Abela standards report

One of Anglu Farrugia’s most infamous – and criticised – decisions came last April, when he was faced with a Standards Commissioner report which had found government minister Carmelo Abela in breach of parliamentary ethics over a newspaper advert which used public funds to boost the minister’s personal image rather than provide any information of use to the public.

Farrugia chairs the Standards Committee, which has the final say over whether reports by the Standards Commissioner George Hyzler are adopted or not, and is joined by two MPs from the government benches and two from the Opposition benches.

This means that Farrugia has the casting vote in the case of a disagreement between the government and Opposition – something which, as you can expect, happens quite often.

The Carmelo Abela report was one such occasion of a stalemate, with Opposition MPs voting in favour of adopting the report and government MPs voting against.

Faced with this, the Speaker simply decided not to decide, and abstained from the vote.

Farrugia said that while he agreed with certain conclusions reached by the report, namely that Abela’s photograph on the advert was too prominent and that guidelines on adverts should be drafted going forward, he did not feel there was a breach of ethical guidelines and thus decided to abstain from voting.

As a result, the report was not adopted and Abela was allowed to go off scot free without facing any sanctions – or without having to refund the 7,000 or so of public funds spent on the advert.

24 May 2021: Speaker does not intervene as government insists on not naming persons of trust

Here Speaker Farrugia said that he could not intervene to get Ministers to disclose who is employed as a person of trust within their ministries – even if they were being faced with multiple PQs on the subject.

Persons of trust are a subject which the government has gone to significant lengths to try to keep a secret: The Malta Independent had Freedom of Information requests at each ministry seeking these same details rejected last year.

14 July 2021: Speaker votes for further investigation into Rosianne Cutajar report

Just last July, the Speaker again placed himself in the Standards Committee controversial hotspot, by refusing to endorse a report into Rosianne Cutajar and a property brokerage fee which she had failed to declare.

Cutajar, a Labour MP, was found to have breached ethics when she did not declare brokerage fees from a property deal involving murder suspect Yorgen Fenech.

However, the Speaker voted against a motion to adopt Hyzler’s report and instead asked to summon Tax Commissioner Marvin Gaerty so that the committee could investigate the matter further.  He however refused to allow the Opposition members of the committee to summon witnesses to further investigations as well.

The controversy has seen Cutajar permanently lose her post in Cabinet – but it’s still ongoing, with the Tax Commissioner yet to appear before the committee.

3 August 2021: Speaker deems no-confidence motion in Zammit Lewis as not urgent enough to convene Parliament

The latest act of protection was just this past week, when the Speaker refused a request to convene parliament to discuss a no-confidence motion in Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis.

The motion was filed by the PN after details of chats showing a very close relationship between Zammit Lewis and alleged murder mastermind Yorgen Fenech emerged.

The Speaker however determined the matter to not fit the description of “urgency”, noting that the details reported have been in the public domain for many months – something which is not the case: it was known that hundreds of messages had been exchanged between Zammit Lewis and Fenech, but their contents have only recently emerged.

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