The Caribbean nation of Barbados became the world’s newest republic when it officially removed Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state, replacing her with a president. Independent since 1966 but still a constitutional monarchy, Barbados had been a British colony for just short of 400 years. The new republican status of the island is seen by many as the final cut-off point from the colonial past as the last vestiges of British influence are removed.
The night leading to 30 November was marked with the appropriate ceremonial spirit to commemorate the switch in constitutional status. Ceremonies are an important feature of such transitions as the institutional handover is couched in events replete with symbolic rites meant to underline the relevance of such an event to a people.
The lowering of the royal standard and the swearing in of a president of a new republic are the highlight moments of such events – occasions that were also witnessed in our own country in 1974. The republican constitution that nations such as Barbados inherit is one that is founded on parliamentary democracy and a system of checks and balances intended to safeguard the ultimate sovereign – the people.
The institutional set up in a republican constitution constitutes the backbone upon which a representative democracy can function. An efficient executive, an elected house of representatives and an independent judiciary provide the holy trinity of servants of the people who ensure that policies are created, laws are legally enacted and a universal and equal application of justice is delivered.
Whenever we speak of the rule of law we also imply that institutions function as they should. Take parliament for example, it is the highest expression of the sovereign will of the people. Aside from its legislative function it is also intended to function as a check on the executive and administrative branch. A strong parliament is one that performs its watchdog function in the name of the people.
Last Monday’s protest outside parliament called for the resignation or dismissal of the speaker of the House of Representatives as well as of MP Rosianne Cutajar. The speaker is accused of no longer being fit for purpose as he is acting as an obstacle to the performance of parliamentary duties, rather than its guardian.
The post of speaker of the House has a history that goes back to the 12th century. The Maltese constitutional set up inherited this post from the centuries old British equivalent. A speaker is not simply a figurehead that manages the meetings of the representatives but also the symbolic face and leader of the House. In centuries past, speakers were known to stand up to monarchs to protect the privileges of the members of the House (of Commons) who, incidentally, are none other than the people themselves.
Anglu Farrugia’s abysmal performance as speaker of the House flies in the face of custom and tradition. Above all it betrays the republican values that his position should represent. By becoming practically an obstacle to those procedures intended to guarantee the privileges of parliament as guardian of the people, Farrugia has worked against the interests of a republican constitution.
Strangely, or maybe not so, Farrugia’s choice of lawyer in his infamous exchange with Matthew Caruana Galizia was of a person who is reputed to be an authority on constitutional matters. The quasi-farcical letter that resulted from this temporary appointment showed anything but a grasp of constitutional basics, and it actually bought to public light the abuse of republican powers that was being perpetrated. In layman’s terms, a constitutional role at the heart of the “government for the people by the people” had been turned on its head.
The speaker instead opted to perpetrate the disservice of weakening parliament’s monitoring power, and when this was brought to his attention by a citizen of the Republic he chose to further abuse of his position to bully the citizen into silence. Or at least so he thought.
Our speaker of the House of Representatives, elected by his peers, plays an important part in Labour’s overall institutional capture and subsequent paralysis. The letter Farrugia sent to Caruana Galizia almost seemed to imply a crime of lèse-majesté – an offence against the dignity of a reigning sovereign. In doing so he completely inverted the order of things in a republican constitution – one where the people are sovereign and the representatives, including the speaker of the House, are their servants.
The royal standard was lowered in Malta on 13 December 1974. Does Anglu Farrugia need a gentle reminder about that too?