The Malta Independent 28 June 2022, Tuesday

Speaker prefers unanimous backing for nomination, but indicates he would accept without PN support

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 1 May 2022, 07:30 Last update: about 3 months ago

Speaker Anglu Farrugia is likely going to be nominated for his third term as Speaker of the House, and while he would prefer to have unanimous backing, he has indicated that he would accept the position even without the backing of the Opposition.

Prime Minister Robert Abela previously said that he sees no need for change in the Speaker position, thus meaning that Farrugia is expected to be nominated on 7 May.

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In an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, Farrugia expressed his hope that if nominated, the Opposition would back him.

“I have a great respect for many of the MPs and Bernard Grech himself, as they did a lot of good work in the previous legislature. We did a lot of good things together.”

A nominee for the position of Speaker needs a simple majority vote in Parliament.

Asked whether he would accept the nomination if he is not supported by the Opposition, he said: “Why not? This is the Constitution speaking. When I was nominated in 2013, former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi was against my nomination and he asked for a division. I was elected with a majority of MPs. In the following legislature, in 2017, I was unanimously elected. Simon Busuttil supported my nomination.”

Speaking about his rulings, he said that research showed that more than 25% of his rulings were decided against the government, in favour of the Opposition, assuring his impartiality.

He also defended the wording of his letter reprimanding PL MP Rosianne Cutajar during the last legislature, after she was found to have been in breach of ethics over a failed property deal involving Yorgen Fenech.

 

Arguments have been made that there are just too many MPs, that we should have an even smaller Parliament than we had before. What's your take on this?

Malta became one of the first countries in Europe, back in 1947, where the right for women to vote became law. Unfortunately between 1947 and the last election, the percentage of women elected to Parliament remained very low. It was, at max, 13-14%, when the average in European countries is over 25%. When looking at African countries, many of whom gained independence after Malta, the percentage of elected women MPs even goes up to 60%.

In my opinion, if we want to address a fault to someone it is the political parties themselves. You have to involve, not only by encouraging but also by ensuring that you have more women candidates in elections. I think they started late. To be fair, there were initiatives by both parties.

The Constitutional amendments were made regarding the gender corrective mechanism and it was agreed upon by both parties.

Should it remain in place for the elections in the future? Recently, I had a meeting with the President of Kosovo and she asked me about this mechanism. She told me that this was introduced in Kosovo when it became independent (...) But they introduced it once, in order to kickstart, then they stopped the quotas.

We had to kickstart in order to have more women representatives in Parliament, ideally reaching 40%. Now we have over 20% as we have 23 women MPs from the 79 in Parliament.

 

What about the idea of full-time MPs. Where do you stand on this idea?

When I was nominated for the post of Speaker in 2013, even the post of Speaker was part-time. Former Speakers retained their professions and presided over Parliament. I opted to be the first full-time Speaker, with the same salary. I didn't ask for a higher salary. I was convinced, and had no problem doing that, because there were many things that had to be addressed and, being part-time, one could never address them as you would not be focused enough.

With regards to MPs, it’s another question. In a small country like Malta, it is impossible for Parliamentary candidates to completely relinquish their profession or their involvement in business and just become full-time MPs. Doing that would kill the institution.
We have to go for a hybrid formula. For those who opt to become full-time MPs, one must address a good financial package for them.

If you have a lawyer who is doing well in his/her profession and they want to dedicate themselves full-time to Parliamentary service, one cannot expect them to do so with an annual remuneration package of around €22,000. So we have to give the right to choose as there might be, for example, elected MPs in their 50s who would want to dedicate their remaining years of service in Parliament.

 

The Standards Committee has been criticised over the way it operates, with it having two PL MPs, two PN MPs and the Speaker with the casting vote. The arguments made are that an MP facing an ethics breach is defended by the MPs on the committee from their party. There have been cases where an MP would be found in breach of ethics, but then questions arise as to the punishments given.

I don't agree with you on the punishments. Punishments are stipulated within the law itself.

 

But they tend to go for weaker sanctions

The law is clear. We are speaking about sections 27 and 28. When there is a breach, it depends on what kind of breach it is. If it is a breach where you have to refund funds, where you have to take further actions to counter that action, it is all defined. When that is absent, then the law is very clear.

I'm sure you are talking about the Rosianne Cutajar case.

 

Not just that, I'm talking in general

Whenever I take a decision, I don't decide by just saying yes or no and stop there; I go for an explained decision. I can state now that it has been accepted also by the Council of Europe when it comes to, for example, Rosianne Cutajar. Of course they are dealing with another aspect of it.

There were not just the two or three reports where there was some kind of criticism in the papers. It’s a right to criticise. I was a lawyer and I would have disagreed on many cases, but those are the judgements. The important thing is that a judgement is explained.

In the Carmelo Abela case, when I decided to abstain from agreeing in totality with what the Standards Commissioner Hyzler said, it was not because I didn't agree. I said in the ruling that I am in agreement with most of the report, the problem was that you cannot punish a person when the law is absent with regards to the guidelines of that case. What happened was that the guidelines were later published by Hyzler and every MP now has the guidelines to follow with regard to advertising.

Most of the reports were all agreed upon unanimously. They were endorsed with regards to publication, etc.

 

But there were times where there was disagreement on the type of punishment…

The type of punishment is explained in the law.

 

The law leaves it open, gives a number of options…

No. There are various heads with regards to punishment and you have to start from the first category and see whether that falls under the punishment that has to be addressed.

The others all have to be explained. For example, if an MP is found to have misused Parliamentary services, he or she has to refund that. If that is not the case, then you cannot apply that.

The law regarding the punishments for public standards breaches saw unanimous agreement. If you don't agree, you have every right to present an amendment.

When we had the Joseph Muscat case, regarding the journalists being detained in Castille, the fact that there was a pending appeal meant that it could not be discussed.

In the other Muscat case regarding the wine bottles, the law clearly states that it is applicable to serving Members of Parliament. Once Muscat resigned, when it came to applying sanctions, they couldn't be applied as he was no longer an MP. The law is clear in that when it applies to MPs. In my decision I explained that similar situations occurred in Scotland and they amended the law to apply also to former MPs.

 

Do you think the law needs to be amended?

Of course. I had said this.

 

Going back to the Rosianne Cutajar report, you were heavily criticised over the reprimand you gave, just sending a letter saying 'you are being reprimanded'. Do you think that was a weak letter, should it have been stronger?

No. It is the letter, word by word, of the law.

 

The law leaves it quite general. You don't have to just say 'you are being reprimanded' you can word it anyway you like...

But the fact is that the committee did not agree on how that reprimand should be drafted. It was left up to me so I have to apply the law as it is.

 

But the law leaves it open to you to decide how the reprimand is written...

That is an argument you can make, but the law is very clear. I applied the law exactly as it is worded.

 

So in hindsight, would you have changed the wording?

No. The reprimand was administered according to Section 28 of the law.

 

Matthew Caruana Galizia asked for your resignation and you replied through a legal letter. Do you think, in hindsight, the legal letter you sent was too much? You were criticised for attempting to silence him.

No, listen. In the letter that was addressed by Matthew Caruana Galizia, he not only said that I should resign because of what I decided on the Rosianne Cutajar case – he has every right to say that. But he accused me of harassing his mother both when she was alive and when she passed away. That was a personal accusation that I had to answer and I did. What was alleged was completely untrue.

When I was a police officer I investigated his mother. She had written an article on the day I contested the PL leadership in 2003 which I believe was in the Independent, I had initiated proceedings to protect my integrity. The court had found her guilty and fined her. She then appealed, and the appeal again confirmed I was right.

The fact that I was accused, I had to defend myself.

I had the legal advice not to answer it personally, but it was answered by our legal consultant.

 

You were criticised by former PM and Speaker Lawrence Gonzi over this.

Well that is up to him.

 

So you deny it was an attempt to silence...

Absolutely. Silence for what? I don't want to discuss Gonzi, but I remember when he was Prime Minister and Speaker that there were many things that should have been done and were never done. Ask Franco Debono about it.

 

The election for Speaker will take place on 7 May. You need a simple majority to be appointed correct?

Yes

 

You've already expressed your interest in continuing on as Speaker

Well, I'm prepared to continue on doing the job in this Constitutional position.

 

The Opposition has yet to declare whether they will support your nomination or not. If they don't support you and you are nominated, with the Labour Party obviously having a majority, would you still accept it or not?

Why not? This is the Constitution speaking. When I was nominated in 2013, former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi was against my nomination and he asked for a division. I was elected with a majority of MPs. In the following legislature in 2017, I was unanimously elected. Simon Busuttil supported my nomination.

What I can say is, with regards to rulings for instance, research showed that more than 25% of rulings were decided against the government and in favour of the Opposition. So on the question of impartiality, it is something I can vouch.

I am no longer a PL member. I resigned in 2012, not only because I fell out with the then leader, but I resigned from any political membership which is contrary to other former Speakers, some of whom are still active today and remained active also while being Speakers. I decided that, in order not to be conditioned in what you decide as a Speaker, then you should not have any affiliation with or belong to any political party.


What about the accusations that you have been a gatekeeper for the Labour Party. Do you deny them?

What can I do if you want to accuse me?

I really laughed when I read an editorial in the Times of Malta, where they accused me of using public expenditure to justify some of my “warped rulings”.

It is not true. I can promise and I request any journalist to come here and see how much I spent on writing my rulings. I published 12 volumes of my rulings and most of the rulings are discussed in the Commonwealth, not in the Times of Malta. I remember a particular ruling where they misinterpreted it completely, and I said that someone needs to teach them how to read in Maltese.

When a ruling is written, it is written in detail while being well-researched about other situations that had taken place in other Commonwealth countries – as you know under the Standing Orders, we are bound in the absence of direction from the Standing Orders, to consult the House of Commons or other countries in the Commonwealth where there is a precedent.

All my rulings are discussed because they are published. Other Speakers never published their rulings. I published mine online. Where are they discussed? We have the Speakers Conference in the Commonwealth.

By the way, I am the only Speaker in the Commonwealth to have been elected twice in the Speaker's conference. Generally you would only have one term. I was the chairperson of the Commonwealth of the Small Nations. I was the first Speaker to present a report about the oversight of Parliament.

You can criticise me, I don't really worry about that, but you have to know the facts.

 

It’s not just about rulings. When there were calls in the past for an urgent debate, such as in November 2019 when Malta was dealing with the latest findings in the Caruana Galizia murder case at the time (the arrest of Yorgen Fenech), you refused a request by then PN Leader Adrian Delia for an urgent debate...

When you are speaking about urgent debates, there are criteria that have to be followed, according to rulings given by Louis Galea and others, where it is not just a question of urgency. There has to be an urgency that cannot wait.

 

How was that not an urgent situation that cannot wait? Yorgen Fenech had just been arrested at the time

There was also another reason – you should not debate issues that are before the court. There was a judgement by the European Court of Human Rights. They delivered a judgement in the case of the judges who were accused in Malta years ago, at the time against Fenech Adami and Gonzi where they had allowed comments in Parliament when the case was sub-judice.

 

You said that even if the PN disagrees with your nomination, that you will still accept the post...

Hopefully that will not be the case. I have a great respect for many of the MPs and Bernard Grech himself, as they did a lot of good work in the previous legislature. We did a lot of good things together.

 

But shouldn't the Speaker of the House be someone who is accepted by both parties? It’s a simple majority required but as a Speaker you are representing Parliament, so technically you are representing the Opposition as well...

Well that is a question you can ask, but it’s across the Commonwealth – the majority decides. That is why there is democracy. Democracy means the majority has the right to decide. Of course if it’s unanimous it’s even better. I would like to be unanimously elected.

 

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