Malta’s constitutional reform should ensure that institutions are well-equipped to curtail excesses by governments. The reform process should be transparent, evidence-based and characterised by deliberation.
When the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission) gave its recent verdict on Malta’s constitutional arrangements, separation of powers and judiciary, it made some very important observations which should be followed up in Malta’s constitutional reform process. For example, whilst the Prime Minister has considerable power, our part-time Parliament is too weak to exercise enough control over the executive branch of power. Besides, crucial checks and balances are missing, and Malta’s independent media and civil society are relatively weak.
Consequently, the Venice Commission made several recommendations to the Government of Malta which were principally intended to check the extensive powers of the Prime Minister. These cover judicial vacancies and dismissals; separation of powers; the need to strengthen the role of President, and the need to strengthen parliament by making it more professional, accountable and evidence based. The Venice Commission also mentioned the need to limit the Prime Minister’s appointing powers and the need to limit appointments to positions of trust in the public service.
It is interesting to note that the Venice Commission recognised the challenges of having governance models in a small state like Malta. It emphasised that there is no uniform constitutional model for good governance.
Hence, there may be different variants of liberal democracy. Small states like Malta have characteristics which must be taken into account in scholarly, grounded analyses and policy recommendations. These include the proximity of politicians to electors, and the personalisation of politics.
It is imperative that the methodology of the consultative process for Constitutional Reform facilitates meaningful dialogue and deliberation. Qualified experts from respective fields should have proper space, time and ambience to deliberate alongside citizens, civil society, constituted bodies, minorities and political party representatives.
Some areas which I believe should be on the agenda of constitutional reform include accountable governance, institutional autonomy, finance of political parties and candidates (both income and expenditure), professionalization of parliament, individual rights, checks and balances, press freedom, political education, structured and evidence-based policy making, the role of civil society and the mainstreaming of sustainable policy.
I also recommend that the Constitutional Reform Committee carries out an expert review of possible models of consultation. It should ensure transparency about its methods of analysis of public feedback. Peer review can assist this process: Here, the consultation process and committee recommendations will be further subjected to evaluation by qualified reviewers. Besides, impact assessments should be carried out on proposals that are followed through.
The consultation process should have proper time frames, but it should not act as a speedy springboard for quick-fix solutions which can have unintended consequences.