“It is also cause of displeasure for me that after the great deal of work done in collecting and evaluating suggestions from the general public and constituted bodies on the changes desired in the constitution, I was prevented from continuing the process of convening a convention, because despite all my best efforts, there was no willingness to agree on who should lead this convention.” That was President George Vella at his last Republic Day speech.

Let’s dig into that.

Firstly, it turns out that for the five years he’s been in office, the president wanted a constitutional convention. He thought it would be a good idea and yet it did not happen.

All the while he was putting on a brave face, coming up with excuses for delays in setting a date – COVID was the last excuse – he was being “prevented” from summoning a convention. Someone was stopping him.

Who wasn’t willing to agree on who should lead this convention? And perhaps more to the point, why?

This might seem trivial for you. Come to think of it, you might think constitutional conventions are esoteric games played by obscure lawyers who lost the killer’s hunger to work in courtrooms and fight battles over leaking boundary walls.

Why should you care about a constitutional convention that was never convened? Because, perhaps unwittingly, the president testified to the stultifying paralysis of our democracy. As excuses for not having a meeting about anything go, not agreeing who would chair the meeting is probably the feeblest.

Changing the constitution has a pre-set procedure. At the end of the day, a parliamentary majority is needed. Most of the sensitive part of the constitution requires a qualified majority, in other words the agreement of the opposition.

So, whoever ‘leads’ the convention, prestigious as the office might be, has very little bearing on the outcome. Ultimately the decision will rest with the prime minister, the leader of the opposition and their colleagues. The only thing anyone ‘leading’ the convention might be able to do that could cause displeasure to the party leaders is to force them to listen to somebody else’s suggestions before they, and they alone, decide.

The president goes on to remind us that even though a convention was never held, his term in office “was a wonderful time” for constitutional changes. They removed the prime minister’s discretion when choosing or promoting judges, split the offices of attorney general and state advocate, and they changed the way the police commissioner and the president are chosen.

The shared characteristic of all these changes is that politicians did them without first listening to the opinion of anyone outside themselves. The constitutional dabblers in elected office don’t mind if you think conventions are esoteric games for semi-retired lawyers.

They don’t want you to own the constitution. They don’t want you to be part of its writing. They want to make changes to it without you in the room.

Why is that? Because the constitution is their licence to exercise power over you which you grant to them with the conditions that restrict their authority and keep them in check. If you’re in the room when those conditions are set, you’re likely to impose rules they’d rather not have to comply with.

Imagine a second chamber for our parliament, not elected with the same financial and partisan biases of the first chamber

Even before Vella was sworn in, the day his name was announced, Repubblika mailed to his home our recommendations on how constitutional changes should be made. We recommended the convention should include a citizens’ assembly, chosen from the population like a jury would be, to consider proposals for constitutional change and to vote on them before parliament makes the final call.

We argued those semi-retired lawyers should take time to listen to what the schoolteacher, the labourer, the immigrant born in Bangladesh, the student, and the gaming consultant had to say about the way they want their country to be run.

Citizens’ assemblies were tested in Ireland before the abortion referendum. Ordinary people were found to have legitimate views and were capable of informed opinions after hearing the evidence and the arguments. The process of letting ordinary people speak and participate in the decision brought national unity over an inherently divisive decision.

In Iceland, citizens’ assemblies allowed the public to participate in the rebuilding of their polity after the gross humiliations of the crises that country faced, at least in part through the heritage of greedy or incompetent politicians.

The European Commission is calling citizens’ assemblies to hear the views of ordinary people about the cost of fighting climate change, regulating artificial intelligence, and several other crucial matters of public and community life.

Proponents of citizens’ assemblies around the world are promoting the idea as a rejuvenating injection for our dwindling democracies.

A discussion emerging in Britain is particularly interesting. Imagine for example a second chamber for our parliament, not elected with the same financial and partisan biases of the first chamber. Instead, it demographically represents our population by ‘sortition’, a combination of statistics and random selection.

This new upper house would debate and vote on the legislative measures adopted by the lower house (the existing chamber). If a measure is defeated in the sortition chamber, it is sent back to the elected parliamentarians for reconsideration.

We would have a House of the People in place of a House of Lords. When the lower house votes for a second time on a reconsidered measure, their second vote would be final and definitive. But this time, they’d have to approve the reconsidered measure by secret ballot.

These are not the sort of innovative suggestions our politicians want to hear. They can’t bear to imagine systems that would threaten their ability to keep their promises to the vested interests that fund them.

They prevented the president from setting up a room where these ideas might even be aired. The people who are dooming our democracy to a future under fascism are afraid of change, unless the change that happens gives them the power they crave.

That’s why they prevented the president.


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