New Maltese constitutional reforms give greater autonomy to elected Parliament and President
By Dr John Stanton
On 29th July 2020, the Maltese Parliament unanimously approved changes to the Constitution of Malta in line with suggestions from the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.
These amendments to the constitutional document decree that the President of Malta will be appointed (and be potentially removed) by a two-thirds majority of the House of Representatives, not a simple majority as was previously the case; the government can no longer exercise discretion in the appointment of judges, with appointment now by the President on the advice of the Judicial Appointments Committee; the Chief Justice, the Ombudsman and the Chairman of the Permanent Commission Against Corruption are also appointed by a two-thirds majority.
Another major reform is the introduction of the right to judicial review for the Auditor General, the Ombudsman, the Commissioner for Standards and the Permanent Commission Against Corruption. They will have the right to challenge the Attorney General should he decide not to prosecute whenever they refer cases of suspected corrupt practices.
Casting a shadow over these recent reforms is the murder of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Though investigations are still under way, there are allegations that her murder was linked to the Government amid her discovery of potential corruption and Government involvement in the Panama Papers scandal. The murder of the journalist - and various other factors, including forms of alleged corruption in the Maltese Government - have led to concerns about the state of Maltese democracy and the rule of law on the archipelago. Delegations from the European Parliament and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission have visited Malta in recent years and their reports have reinforced these concerns, suggesting various changes to the Maltese political system. The Maltese Prime Minister resigned in January 2020.
The July 2020 reforms are among the most significant since Malta became a Republic in 1974. They effect an important shift of power away from the Government, placing greater autonomy in the hands of the elected Parliament and the President. Requiring a two-thirds majority for the appointment of these posts means that cross party support is needed before an appointment can be made; the Government cannot simply rely on its own MPs to appoint its favoured candidate. The reforms also offer a greater sense of accountability.
Where the Auditor General, the Ombudsman, the Commissioner for Standards, or the Permanent Commission Against Corruption discover potential corruption and recommend prosecution, the judicial review of any subsequent refusal by the Attorney General can now be brought, effectively offering a legal challenge against the Government’s decision not to investigate corruption.