It was not easy, but with hard work, dedication, commitment and goodwill on all sides that we secured a historical agreement on institutional reforms in Malta that will endure for many years to come.
Credit goes to Prime Minister Robert Abela for making this reform a priority from the day he assumed office, to the Venice Commission for its input, and to the opposition for their cooperation in understanding the challenges and realities of making these changes in a Maltese context.
Following the recommendations of the Venice Commission in 2018, we conducted a profound soul-searching exercise in which no institution or office was exempt or sacred: not the judiciary, not the essential watchdogs of the state, not even the prime minister or president of Malta. We tackled each one head-on with the sole objective of enhancing institutional independence, autonomy, accountability and, ultimately, our reputation as a nation that practises good governance.
We did not achieve all this by burying our heads in the sand. We consulted with the legal profession, experts and civil society before setting in stone what was agreed last week. While we naturally did not agree with all the Venice Commission’s proposals, and had to debate their validity within the local sociopolitical context, we were aware that we needed to do the right thing and do it quickly.
So, what long-standing issues have we settled in the past six months?
The president of Malta will no longer be effectively selected by the government of the day, but by a two-thirds majority in parliament. This will provide welcome consensus to the appointment of our head of state who acts as a unifying factor for our nation.
Under our reforms, the president will also be endowed with certain executive powers, for the first time ever, that were previously the prerogative of the prime minister. Judicial appointments is one such area, whereby a newly-set-up Judicial Appointments Committee will propose the three most suitable candidates for each vacancy to the president.
The president will also appoint the chair of the Permanent Commission Against Corruption – following a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament. This officer will automatically hand over any findings of corruption to the attorney general.
Vital changes have also been made to strengthen the independence of the judiciary. Future chief justices will be appointed only with the approval of a two-thirds majority in the parliament; while disciplinary matters concerning judges and magistrates will be in the hands of the Commission for the Administration of Justice. This includes their removal, which was previously the remit of parliament and, in this case, members of the judiciary will have the right to appeal to the Constitutional Court.
Other pivotal officers of state will also enjoy more authority and independence. The terms of appointment and dismissal of the Ombudsman, and all his powers, will be included in the constitution and all matters raised by his or her office must be debated by parliament. Before proposing the above reforms, it is important to note that we had already limited the role of the attorney general, who is no longer to sit on the Commission for the Administration of Justice or be responsible for advising the government on constitutional matters.
Responsibility for the latter now lies in the hands of the state advocate who was unanimously recommended by the Appointments Commission.
Though extremely satisfied with this significant breakthrough, I am very conscious of the fact that this is not the end of the process.
There is more to come, firstly in ensuring we all live up to the bold reforms we have made and conduct further reforms, and secondly by supporting the Constitutional Convention to be launched by the president.
One can regard this bold step as the third most significant step in our democracy since Independence, after the 1974 amendments making Malta a Republic, and the 1987 amendments ensuring proportional representation and a constitutionally neutral Malta.
In the meantime, however, I believe we can all be justly proud of what we have managed to achieve and look forward to seeing a better Malta as a result.
Edward Zammit Lewis is Minister for Justice.
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