The Constitution of Malta is to be amended to “facilitate the participation of Maltese citizens who live abroad in the political, social, economic and cultural life of Malta”, according to a Bill to establish a council for Maltese living abroad which Parliament unanimously approved in second reading yesterday.
Introducing the Bill, Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg said the council would give advice to the minister on any Bill that affected the rights, entitlements or interests of Maltese living abroad; budgetary and administrative measures affecting Maltese communities and any transmission on, and production of, public broadcasting services relating to programmes for Maltese living abroad.
The council would be made up of 17 members – 12 of whom would be appointed, two each from the states of Victoria and New South Wales in Australia, from the US, Canada, and EU countries.
One member each would be appointed from among Maltese living in the UK and in any other state in Australia.
The other five members of the council, who had to have specialised knowledge on emigration and related affairs, would be appointed by the Prime Minister in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition.
The Foreign Minister said the 2010 convention for Maltese living abroad had agreed on the setting up of a permanent mechanism that represented their and which was recognised by the State.
Dr Borg said that during the last 15 years, the government had given new importance to Maltese communities abroad and embarked on citizenship reforms that led to the end of discrimination between Maltese living here and those living in other countries.
The functions of the council would include monitoring the quality of life of Maltese living abroad; strengthening and cultivating ties between these communities and Malta’s political, cultural, economic and social life; ensuring effective protection of the rights of their rights and facilitating the maintenance of the cultural and linguistic identity of these communities.
The minister would preside over the council but would have no power to vote. The council had to meet annually in Malta.
The Foreign Office would also have a director and desk officers responsible for these communities. The government was also considering holding the convention for Maltese living abroad every five instead of 10 years.
The government accepted the opposition’s suggestion to set up two registers – one for NGOs established outside Malta involved in the promotion and protection of the interests of Maltese living abroad, and another for prominent Maltese nationals living abroad who had distinguished themselves.
The Bill established also a Malta Cultural Institute to promote Maltese culture abroad.
Dr Borg said the council would be effective if it enjoyed the support of these communities and if government department, agencies and Parliament recognised that it had certain rights.
The opposition’s main spokesman on foreign affairs, George Vella, said there was a need to let the Maltese living abroad feel as much Maltese as those who lived here.
One should not think that Maltese living abroad were only those in Australia: there were others who lived in Canada, the US, France and Egypt among others.
Dr Vella said the Maltese Cultural Institute should not only serve to hold exhibitions. The late Frans Sammut was already working on this idea in 1996 under the Labour government.It was agreed that the chairman would not have the right to vote. This, he said, was decided in order to have a non-partisan committee.
One should promote the idea of the greater Malta as opening this vision would also be beneficial with regard to tourism.
The council should have an organised committee to have continuity in everyday contact. This would also help Maltese children to understand the circumstances that led Maltese to emigrate. It would also help them understand that Malta was not only a dot on a map.
Dr Vella said this council would make the Maltese living abroad feel more a part of Malta even though the Maltese never rejected them.
Owen Bonnici (PL) said Malta should make use of Maltese descendants’ knowledge to export Maltese culture. Recently one could see the concept of a greater Malta in play when the national rugby team, made up mostly of Australians of Maltese descent, succeeded in winning a game against Latvia. It was wrong to think that sport was not a proper medium for culture.
He said that even in the case of Sharon Spiteri, Malta should make use of her talent because she could also contribute greatly to Malta’s musical sphere.
The Maltese cultural institute should not be limited to the traditional arts and folklore but should also work on sport and pop culture. The biggest challenge would be to spread Maltese culture with people who were not of Maltese descent.
The Bill would also include a new amendment to the Constitution. The clause made reference to the contribution to Malta’s socio-political and cultural spheres by Maltese citizens living abroad. Their contribution must be fruitful and should not be limited to mere participation.
Dr Bonnici said that this norm was non-enforceable in a court of law notwithstanding it was a constitutional norm.
Information material should be sent to Maltese communities and one should also create opportunities for Maltese to be taught as a foreign language.
The Maltese Cultural Institute should also strive to strike deals with foreign universities which would help in bringing foreigners to study Maltese studies.
Moreover, Dr Bonnici said there should not be duplication of roles once other organisations established in Malta worked to spread the Maltese culture. Resources should be allocated wisely, he said.
Dr Bonnici said that one should not limit oneself by focusing on Maltese who had emigrated abroad 60 years ago, but reference to Maltese who were going abroad to work should also be made. A different perspective should be adopted with regard to the latter, he said.
Labour MP Noel Farrugia said there were some 370,000 Maltese persons currently living abroad. However, the younger generation was again unhappy with the employment situation in Malta. Salaries did not match those of other EU countries and the cost of living was high. Many sought better opportunities in foreign countries.
It was the economic situation that had prompted them to leave the country and that it was thus very important to ensure that the highest welfare state be present in Malta.
Winding up the debate, Minister Borg said he had taken note of the small amendments suggested, particularly with regard to the council’s composition. These would be tackled at committee stage.
Dr Borg said that the opposition would be consulted when it came to nominating the 12 representatives of the communities.
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