Judge Giovanni Bonello’s book Misunderstanding the Constitution should be made compulsory reading in our schools. It should be given to all law students and it should be placed on every bench in Parliament.
Judge Bonello, a man of unparalleled legal expertise yet impish wit, is capable of taking legal complexities and explaining them in terms that makes them easy to read. In different circumstances I would have used the word pleasurable, but in truth there is not much pleasure to be derived from reading what Judge Bonello wrote in his book.
Our country is in trouble not for breaking the law but for abusing it. That is the bottom line, the naked truth that some if not many of us are ignoring at our own peril.
Our democratic system of governance is being eroded in front of us while our society eats, drinks apparently in ignorant bliss of the consequences.
It was not a perfect system, as rightly pointed out by Judge Bonello. Successive governments from independence, by and large, sought to improve the system. There were times, particularly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when things took a turn for the worst.
In those troubled times, some judges, who Judge Bonello describes as being “good and courageous people, with great integrity”, were not prepared to rubber stamp what the government expected them to rubber stamp.
They saved the country from losing entirely its democratic mantle.
The Labour government elected in 2013 is an exception in this regard. Instead of seeking to strengthen the democratic credentials of this country, the 2013 and the present administration sought to weaken the system of checks and balances and to dilute the principle of institutional independence that underpin democracy.
The Joseph Muscat years will be remembered for many things, some good, some bad. Among the latter, will be this wilful undermining of the country’s democratic foundations.
And it was a planned attack. Probably, but not just, as a reaction to the Alfred Sant years.
Sant upon being elected in 1996 tried to keep as smooth a transition of power as possible but later blamed, unjustifiably, the administration, for his downfall. Muscat immediately upon being elected in 2013, sought to remove all obstacles that could limit his power in government.
Contrary to practice, all but two permanent secretaries within the Civil Service were removed, as were the Commissioner of Police and the Commander of the Armed Forces. The same faith fell on the chief executives of public authorities. This was how the political arm of government took over the administrative arm of government up to a point where today there is hardly a distinction between the two.
The result? Police fail to act on FIAU reports on serious accusations of money laundering and bribery involving people close to government. A person with no banking experience and all the wrong credentials ends up being given a bank licence. That bank is allowed to operate for years despite serious irregularities flagged by FIAU.
Unfortunately the story does not stop there. For as Judge Bonello remarked in his interview with the Independent on Sunday (March 12) the judiciary is filled “with politically exposed appointees”.
We cannot sit by and let this situation deteriorate further. We need to reverse the damage done to our institutions
As pointed out by Judge Bonello, 16 out of 17 judicial appointments made by this government involve people who are very closely politically connected.
This move by the government, at least as far as perception goes, dilutes the independence of the courts which are meant to act as a check on the government. Irrespective of the personal integrity and legal credentials of the appointees, this common political thread is putting a strain on the well versed legal maxim that “Justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done”.
In the same way Parliament is meant to control government. Which is why there was a law prohibiting sitting members of Parliament from acting as directors on various government boards. Muscat repealed that law immediately after being elected and appointed his backbench on all sort of government boards.
Some will argue that there is nothing illegal in what Muscat did. But this does not make it right. Judge Bonello says it much better than I ever can when speaking about our Constitution: “Its main weakness is that it is a Constitution written by gentlemen for gentlemen, and anything meant for gentlemen has the habit of being taken advantage of when it falls into the hands of scoundrels.”
There may be nothing illegal now but it is wrong to appoint government members of Parliament to sit on institutions that are independently and autonomously meant to regulate and check the very acts of government; to appoint as commissioner of police a person who publicly praises the “qualities” of Muscat; and to give an army officer four promotions in as many months to enable him to reach the top post.
The things that happened over the past six years never happened in Malta. No government ever took this road to such an extent. The fact that we are not smelling the smoke of burning buildings does not mean that they are not burning inside.
The rot has now gone too deep and any changes being heralded now by the government are too little too late.
As Judge Bonello exclaims, any change will be cosmetic because all institutions are now so packed with friends of friends that it will just keep self-perpetuating. For Muscat started in 2013 a process that in 50 years’ time will still be a problem.
We have a duty to act. We cannot sit by and let this situation deteriorate further. We need to reverse the damage done to our institutions.
Warnings are coming from all over. The Venice Commission, the IMF, the United Nations, Transparency International have all commented on the state of affairs in Malta.
What will it take for this country to wake up from its deep slumber?
Mario de Marco is a Nationalist Party MP.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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