I agree that Malta should openly embrace any comments or recommendations that serve to further strengthen our democratic credentials, including those by Dutch politician Pieter Omtzigt.

I must admit, however, that I am disappointed with the approach adopted by  Omtzigt in his recent opinion piece (August 5) on the constitutional and institutional reforms spearheaded by Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis after ‘a structured dialogue’ with the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. 

At first, I was glad to hear that Omtzigt welcomed the historic reforms that were approved unanimously by parliament - itself a rare occurence. However, his unbridled attacks on these reforms leads me to suspect that he may not yet be fully aware of their true significance, or that his agenda does not tally with the good of our nation.

I acknowledge that these historic reforms are merely the beginning, as opposed to the end, of a long process of much-needed change. Some reforms have been overdue for the last quarter of a century.

However, to do what Omtzigt has done, and dismiss the bold and unparalleled steps taken by the government as mere “paper reforms”, is both factually and morally incorrect.

These amendments are among the most significant that our nation has seen since Independence and are in the same league as the 1974 changes that made Malta a Republic and the 1987 amendments that enshrined proportional representation and neutrality in our constitution.

For the first time in decades we have taken action on dozens of contentious issues that had been pointed out long before the 2018 opinion of the Venice Commission, yet had been ignored by various governments from either side of the political spectrum. It was never convenient for any government to cede so much political power and prerogative.

From now on, and for the first time in our nation’s history, the President of Malta will only be appointed by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, as opposed to a mere simple majority in the House, which means that the head of state will now have to be agreed upon by both the government and the opposition.

Moreover, the prime minister will also be stripped of further powers, which will now become the president’s prerogative. Judicial appointments will now fall under the president’s remit, as the head of state will be responsible for choosing a candidate from a three-person shortlist of the most suitable candidates to be prepared by the newly reformed Judicial Appointments Committee.

I consider these constitutional and institutional reforms as the third fundamental step in our democratic journey- Veronique Dalli

Additionally, the president will now also be in charge of appointing the chairperson of the Permanent Commission Against Corruption, so as to further distance this office from the government.

These are merely a fraction of the reforms that the government put in place, but already it becomes difficult to see how Omtzigt’s claim of “paper reforms” can be substantiated.

It becomes even harder, if not completely impossible, for one to do so if they were to look at the amendments that are being made within our judiciary. As of now, the chief justice can only be appointed by a two-thirds majority in parliament, while any matters concerning the removal of judges or magistrates will no longer be handled by parliament, as used to be the case, but will now be under the sole remit of the Commission for the Administration of Justice, with a right of appeal before the Constitutional Court.

In his article, Omtzigt implied that the government may have no interest in the opinion of the Venice Commission, yet how can this be when the same government kept the recommendations made by the Venice Commission as its main guidelines throughout the entire process?

It is true that the government did not adopt the Venice Commission’s proposals word for word, but that is both our right as a sovereign nation, as well as an obligation of a responsible government to ensure that the reforms make sense within our local context and respect our legal traditions.

Moreover, Omtzigt claims that the government never consulted with anyone outside of government or parliament on these reforms. This is certainly untrue. Positions on these reforms have been clear for years. It’s just no one had the political guts to carry them out.

Moreover, the government initiated a “structured dialogue” with the Venice Commission where everyone had the opportunity to contribute to the process. Consultation is important, but expediency to implement reforms is equally important.

Finally, Omtzigt accuses the government of dawdling and of failing to act, which is ironic, since it is this administration that has have taken action on these matters. For decades before us, while Nationalist administrations governed this country, there was no attempt to implement the kind of bold and historic reforms that this administration, led by Prime Minister Robert Abela, is putting into place.

Ultimately, constructive criticism and healthy advice is always welcomed and greatly appreciated, irrespective of their source. However, unjustified criticism for criticism’s sake, on the other hand, is another thing altogether.

I consider these constitutional and institutional reforms as the third fundamental step in our democratic journey, since Independence. I am convinced that this will continue enhancing our reputation both from a European perspective, and within the international community.

Veronique Dalli is a lawyer.

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