Readers unacquainted with Chaucer’s Old English might misinterpret the title to be ‘Parliament of Fools’. They would be completely wrong. Chaucer’s poem simply means ‘A discussion between birds (fowls)’ and features a discussion between male birds and female ones. The title and the poem refer to the distinction between males and females, which is after all the unfolding discussion between males and females in the composition of our parliament.
With the latest appointments through casual elections and the gender mechanism finished, the next session of our legislative chamber is now complete.
While previously these changes were not much noticed and commented upon, now everyone seems to have woken up to the changes forthcoming in our parliament.
Most of the comments made refer to the absolute novelty of the gender mechanism that we are seeing put in practice. Now, this mechanism has been discussed and approved by the two sides. But people are now commenting that this mechanism turns parliament into a farce.
It has cogently been argued that Bernard Grech’s decision to tweak the mechanism by allowing Janice Chetcuti to ‘sacrifice herself’ and get appointed by the mechanism rather than by the casual election actually decreases by one the number of PN women MPs in the House.
Let us start from the basics. With an MP in Malta representing the lowest amount of citizens in the EU, we must first of all determine whether this is a good thing or not. Or whether this is more like a glorified local council than a fully functional parliament. We ought to ask ourselves whether this number facilitates the running of the country or rather complicates it, apart from the expense involved.
I think we have been playing around with the rules governing our democracy for a number of years now, at least since the Mintoff-sponsored constitutional amendment to ensure that, in a field of two, the party that gets the most votes gets to govern, not as happened in 1981.
But this amendment also slipped in a bias in favour of the two main parties and against a plurality in the House. In fact, this is what has been happening including the recent 26 March general elections. Is this true and is this a reinforcement of the democratic spirit in the country?
Time and again we refuse to acknowledge the elephant in the room – that elections are being looked at as a bid for power rather than as an exercise of democratic sharing of power.
In the most recent elections we have had: the mailing of cheques to voters; constant and massive intake of people with the government even in the silent period; wall-to-wall biased and skewed election coverage by party television stations (and also the state broadcaster); massive intrusion by sponsored ads on social media; no real control on spending by candidates and parties; and more.
To this, add the flaws we have seen in the exercise of the democratic will of the voters when considering people suffering from dementia who apparently were taken to vote without their relatives being informed, people in prison who were not supposed to vote but who did. In general terms, we note a general deterioration in the organisation of the voting procedure mainly it seems because the PN ran out of people to man all the posts.
Allow me to air my pet complaint – the system of proportional representation that the British imposed upon us (but then did not use themselves). Time and again we see candidates with very low votes in the first count then leapfrogging other candidates who started off ahead of them.
And lastly, this new-fangled gender mechanism has decorated our House with many gracious newcomers. Much has been written in this regard. Some see it as people coming in through the window after they failed in the general list.
The rules of the House enjoin the same honour and respect being accorded to all MPs regardless of how they came in. But in people’s minds, there will surely be a distinction made between those who made it to the House on their own steam and those who got in by means of the gender mechanism – these MPs will have to work harder to persuade the other MPs of their credibility.
But it is the House in its entirety that must reform itself, its procedures and its Standing Orders. For too long the government backbenchers have been looked upon as voting fodder, not considered as anything else when the majority is large and fractious when the majority is slim. And abusively being given extra kickbacks on the side.
Other parliaments work differently. Here they do not even have a space, an office even if tiny, where they can meet constituents and carry on their parliamentary duties.
During the last legislature, we have continued seeing the deleterious consequences of broadcasting every session on TV and the inevitable grandstanding this engenders. It has been found elsewhere that when the cameras are switched off serious work gets done.
If we want our parliament to earn the respect it merits we must do our utmost to stop it from becoming a ‘Parlement of Foules’.