The questions that Simon Busuttil, Opposition spokesman on good governance, wanted to ask the Prime Minister proved tricky ones for the Speaker of the House of Representatives to handle. Anġlu Farrugia was effectively called upon to place the public interest above that of an individual public officer and the government he serves; to prioritise the democratic process over the presumption of privacy. In the event, he failed to do so.
In two parliamentary questions, Busuttil wanted the Prime Minister to tell him whether his chief of staff has a bank account in Dubai and whether he has another in Pilatus Bank in Malta.
The requests may seem excessive at first sight as a matter of principle. But although Busuttil may have erred in not spelling it out, the questions are founded on a solid, well-known basis of fact – the Panama Papers and the leaked FIAU reports, which detail evidence of money laundering activity and corruption, using offshore accounts and an account at Pilatus Bank.
The Speaker disallowed the questions on the ground that such accounts are not a public matter. Busuttil asked him to reconsider, contending that the information is clearly of major public interest and adding that the Speaker’s ruling is tantamount to censorship.
The Speaker did not budge. He cited Standing Orders and Erskine May, the reference work for parliamentary procedure in the Westminster system: “Questions addressed to ministers must relate to matters for which those ministers are officially responsible…” and “…a parliamentary question must have a factual basis for which the tabling Member is responsible (it may not, for example, seek confirmation or denial of rumours or media reports).”
Busuttil has appealed the ruling, in a motion he has dedicated to the late anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia – a sign of how important he regards this issue to be for the proper functioning of democracy. In doing so he invoked a law somewhat higher than the Standing Orders: the Constitution of Malta, “a democratic republic founded on… respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual”.
Busuttil argues that the Prime Minister is responsible for the behaviour of his powerful chief of staff, paid out of public funds; that the Speaker has gagged an MP instead of defending his right to scrutinise the executive and seek the truth in the public interest; and that he has used Standing Orders to contradict the principles of democracy and fundamental rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution. This, he holds, is a very dangerous precedent that unacceptably limits the work of an MP in a democracy.
One could add that allowing the question would not have created a precedent: MPs would not have suddenly expected information about the private accounts held by any member of a minister’s staff, because the circumstances in this case are very particular.
The motion will now go before plenary, making it easy to predict the outcome: another rejection. It should never have reached this stage.
Parliament’s website speaks of providing “a venue to allow the people’s representatives to participate in the democratic process”. As the “principal office holder in the House”, this is clearly Farrugia’s primary duty. He is meant to be the impartial protector of this role of Parliament and he is pivotal in determining whether it lives up to the democratic ideals it is meant to embody. If he does not succeed in doing this, his function of “maintaining order in the House” – which he cited in rejecting the questions – is meaningless.
His first loyalty lies with Parliament, not with the government. His default position must be to favour the democratic process, protecting the right and obligation of MPs to scrutinise the government, question it, challenge it, demand answers and generally hold it to account. In this case, Busuttil is demanding information that could throw light on how the private dealings of a powerful government figure could influence the actions he takes and decisions he makes, and whether there may be grounds to further fuel suspicions of wrongdoing.
Speakers in the UK’s House of Commons were sometimes beheaded if they relayed decisions distasteful to the king. One Speaker, William Lenthall, bravely stood up to Charles I when, in 1642, the monarch entered the chamber to arrest five members for treason: “May it please Your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see, nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here…”. The Speaker is “the servant of Parliament, not its master”, echoed former Speaker of the House of Commons Baroness Boothroyd (1992-2000). Is Farrugia fearful of being metaphorically beheaded if he hands down a ruling that goes against the chief of staff’s interests? We trust he is not.
When MPs cast their vote on Busuttil’s motion, they must be clear where their loyalties lie. Whether with the member of the executive they have the responsibility to scrutinise or the constituents they are elected to serve.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial
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