Hands off the Constitution!

Based on how our environmental and planning laws were handled in 2015, I fear that in this political climate the Constitution will be taken apart and unravelled, not strengthened, and that instead of bolstering up our institutions the result will be to undermine them further.

The immediate reaction of the general public to the horrific assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia on 16 October was an outpouring of grief. The brutality was so shattering that everyone here in Malta remembers the moment they heard the shocking news.

This puts it at the level of big world events for us as a nation. Everyone can recall where they were when the Twin Towers in New York were hit, and when the news broke that Princess Diana had died in a car crash in Paris. And now Daphne. The gravity and implications of this murder are mind-numbing.

In the wake of this disaster, a growing concern is taking root. People have again come together to express anger at the failure of our institutions to tackle allegations of corruption in a satisfactory way. At their failure to make us feel that we live in a safe environment where everyone is treated fairly and where justice is not linked to political position.

We all watched with growing unease when we learned that no immediate action was taken following the FIAU’s investigations of corruption allegations which concluded in a reasonable suspicion of money-laundering. We were alarmed when a Cabinet minister and the Prime Minister’s chief of staff were involved in the Panama Papers leak but did not resign from their posts, unlike the resignations we saw in other countries. We were disconcerted when the chief of staff refused to testify at the EU’s PANA committee.

The lack of response from government quarters to these major concerns is frightening. The public wants accountability, but who can we turn to? People are concerned that the police force and the attorney general are letting them down.

And now, supposedly to set minds at rest, the prime minister intends to revise the Constitution of Malta. I do agree that the Constitution needs to be updated, and I have even been involved in think-tank reports suggesting some necessary changes.

The Constitution has served us well for 50 years and does not need to be completely rewritten, but some aspects of it no longer reflect today’s realities. The structure and remit of the Broadcasting Authority, for example, should be revisited. I have criticised the fact that a Constitutional convention was promised in the last legislature but did not materialise.

But today I am not confident that this government is up to the job. Here I draw a parallel with what happened to our environmental and planning legislation, when the laws were recently revised.

The Structure Plan, which almost served as a ‘constitution’ for environmental regulation, needed updating. But instead of a serious discussion, a public consultation exercise was held which was a sham. In 2015 the Structure Plan was dismantled and replaced with a flimsy document called the Strategic Plan (SPED), which is absolutely useless and has only weakened protection overall. Concerns from environmental NGOs fell on deaf ears.

Similarly, the environmental and planning law was revised in 2015 and divided into two separate parts. This has left the environmental regulator toothless on planning matters, which is where most environmental pressures originate. Instead of strengthening environmental protection as initially promised, it has been cast into the wilderness.

If this is the approach that the government will take when revising the Constitution and creating a ‘Second Republic’, then it is a dreadful mistake to clamour for it, as people are now starting to do.

Based on how our environmental and planning laws were handled in 2015, I fear that in this political climate the Constitution will be taken apart and unravelled, not strengthened, and that instead of bolstering up our institutions the result will be to undermine them further. I am not convinced that the opposition will stand firm enough. Be careful what you wish for. Hands off the Constitution!

                           
                               
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