The Malta Independent 24 January 2022, Monday

Opposition calls for overhaul of Standards committee which would exclude Speaker of the House

Kevin Schembri Orland Monday, 29 November 2021, 17:08 Last update: about 3 months ago

Opposition Leader Bernard Grech called for an overhaul of the Parliamentary Standards Committee, which currently consists of Two PL MPs, two PN MPs and the Speaker of the House.

The Speaker is the committee's chairman. The Nationalist Party on Monday filed a motion in Parliament calling on the House to urgently discuss Speaker Anglu Farrugia's behaviour in, among other things, the Rosianne Cutajar ethics breach saga. As Parliament was being held, a protest organised by Repubblika and Occupy Justice took place outside, calling for the resignation of the Speaker.

The Cutajar situation revolves around the PL MP's breach of ethics regarding an Mdina property deal she allegedly received a brokerage fee for - which she denies - and a €9,000 gift she did receive from Yorgen Fenech. The Standards Committee in Parliament had adopted a report by the Standards Commissioner which found Cutajar in breach of ethics. 

During the Standards Committee meeting discussing the kind of action to take against Rosianne Cutajar, Farrugia and the PL MPs had voted against a request by the PN committee members to suspend Cutajar from Parliament for a month. Farrugia and the PL MPs voted to admonish Cutajar instead, with the PN MPs voting against this option not because they disagreed, but arguing that they expected that Cutajar would at least be asked to fix her declaration of assets as well.

The son of Daphne Caruana Galizia had then written to Speaker Anglu Farrugia calling for his resignation for failing to really reprimand Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar. He took the Speaker to task, saying that he (Farrugia) had simply asked the Clerk to send a letter to Cutajar to inform her that the Standards Committee had decided to reprimand her, meaning that the former PS was not actually reprimanded, let alone sanctioned. Caruana Galizia accused the Speaker of protecting Cutajar.

The Speaker then sent Caruana Galizia a legal letter penned by Professor Ian Refalo. The lawyer said the Speaker was rebutting the "unfounded" allegations, and invited Caruana Galizia to brush up on the law, saying that he should not have written directly to the Speaker.

In Parliament, Opposition Leader Bernard Grech filed the motion on Monday, requesting that Parliament be adjourned to discuss the Speaker's behaviour urgently.

"Speaker Anglu Farrugia, in a letter sent in his name by a lawyer who has his trust to Matthew Caruana Galizia, said that he is in his Constitutional role to defend the government interests, and consequently declared himself not impartial."

Grech said that "the Speaker, through decisions he took regarding cases investigated by the Standards Commissioner in which breaches of ethics by MPs were found, through his decisive votes and rulings, hindered or rendered useless the work of the Standards Commissioner and the Standards Committee."

The Opposition Leader said that Parliament must be, at all times, presided over by someone who has an impartial, independent attitude who is able to ensure that Parliament is "truly democratic", to keep watch over the government and hold it accountable. Grech said that through his actions, Farrugia went against his oath to be loyal and faithful to the people, the Republic and the Constitution.

Farrugia recused himself from deciding on this ruling since it concerns him directly and Deputy Speaker Claudette Buttigieg took over, delivering a ruling that the motion passed and the issue could be discussed.

Grech was the first to speak. He said that "people must be the only sovereign in Parliament."

Grech mentioned how MPs from both sides of Parliament are meant to scrutinise the government. "But how can they (PL MPs) open their mouths when they are chairpersons of authorities with a higher income than ministers. What kind of scrutiny can you expect from a bought MP?"

He said that it must be the Speaker of the House, first and foremost, "to do his duty and abide by his oath (...) We view the letter sent by Farrugia to Matthew Caurana Galizia as unacceptable in a democratic society. I must say that through his letter, the Speaker confirms that he has not understood his constitutional role."

Grech said that when an MP breached the ethical code and had to be admonished, "she was not really admonished, but sent a vague letter instead." On the other hand, he said, the Speaker "brought out the cannons" and sent a legal letter to a citizen who criticised the Speaker's actions.

Grech said that over the past months the Speaker repeatedly voted and gave rulings defending the government, even after ethical breaches were found by the Standards Commissioner against PL MPs. "We need to strengthen the work of the Standards Commissioner, not weaken it, otherwise this would just become another fictitious role to pretend as though we have good governance."

"Unfortunately, that is what Farrugia is doing, weakening roles."

Grech made a proposal to change the way the Standards Committee is formed. He recommended that the Speaker of the House no longer chair the committee. Instead, the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader will each select a single person to sit on it, and three more will be chosen through a 2/3rds Parliamentary majority, with one serving as the Chairperson.

Prime Minister Robert Abela took aim at the Opposition over a variety of issues. He said that "a few days ago a PN MP wrote and said that 'Labour has a Speaker in the house'.  Tonight I might be justified in saying that the PN has a Speaker in the House," he said, taking a political swing at the Deputy Speaker.

Abela took aim at Grech, implying that he is not the real Opposition Leader, and slamming him for not having taken part during the Cannabis reform debate in Parliament.

He said that the PN has returned to its old tactics, of attacking the Speaker. "It was the rule of the day under Simon Busuttil," he said, adding that the people will give the same verdict.

Abela said that when Speaker Farrugia issued rulings which favoured the PN, the PN clapped for him. He said that there were 35 such rulings.

He also took aim at the Opposition for praising the courts when a judgement is in their favour, but then accusing the government of controlling the courts when a judgement is not.

"You don't respect institutions just when it suits you. You either believe in them or not."

"People don't have faith in you Bernard Grech. I'm not the one saying it. This was said by a former PN minister, who said the PN has not yet found its leader."

Abela spoke about the reforms his government has made in Parliament, such as by changing the way Police Commissioners are appointed, requiring the candidate to go before a Parliamentary Committee and respond to questions. He said, however, that the PN abdicated from its duty when the last Commissioner was chosen, by not taking part in this process.

He mentioned that Chief Justices, Auditor Generals and other posts now require a 2/3rds Parliamentary majority to be appointed.

Abela added that since January 2020, the government put forward 140 bills. "Most of them passed and are laws, the rest are at an advanced stage," he said, speaking about the government's work.

"We strengthened parliament through all of this," he said.

Abela said that both parties agreed on the Standards laws. "Suddenly, the Opposition today wants to censure the speaker for moving according to the law you voted in favour of."

He said that the Speaker and PL MPs both voted in favour of adopting the report that found Cutajar in breach of ethics. He said that Cutajar had given up being a Parliamentary Secretary, the taxes owed on the gift were paid, and so the reprimand was not the only thing done.

"I can agree or not agree with the way the Speaker decides, but I cannot go to this extreme. This strategy is extreme and this side of the House can never agree with it," Abela said.

Speaking outside Parliament, Grech said that Speaker Anglu Farrugia should resign if he fails to prioritize the interests of the public as well as the constitution.

 

 

 


 

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