It’s a funny old world. There are crowned midgets addressed as Your Highness. Obscure cardinals are called Your Eminence. There are aristocrats who can’t add 1+1 and yet carry the title of Count. And then there’s Anġlu Farrugia, voted Mr Speaker.
And they say the Maltese don’t get satire.
The last legislature showed the need for it. MPs are called Honourable; yet, in 2019, the governing majority threw honour to the wind and voted to express confidence in Joseph Muscat, when it was clear that the then prime minister’s decisions had dishonoured the country.
Between 2020-2022, out of 67 Honourable Members, no fewer than three resigned while disgraced — Muscat, Chris Cardona and Silvio Grixti. Another — Ian Castaldi Paris — was found to have fiddled with his taxes but hung on to his seat to the end.
Looking at the whole term, 2017-2022, shows things were even worse. Another two MPs — no less than Robert Abela, the Prime Minister, and Bernard Grech, the Leader of the Opposition — have reasonable people thinking that they, too, cheated on their taxes. Abela doesn’t even respect his parliamentary duty of being forthcoming in his declaration of income and assets.
Adrian Delia, the other Opposition leader in the last legislature, was accused of having unsavoury links to a London-based prostitution ring and to Yorgen Fenech, even after the latter was discovered to be the owner of the notorious secret company, 17 Black.
All three MPs have denied wrongdoing. With all three, the authorities have not pronounced themselves — not even to clear them. As the 14th legislature began yesterday, the public reputation of parliament continues to suffer.
It’s not just due to them. Justyne Caruana didn’t resign from parliament in disgrace, even though a senior official of parliament, the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, found she breached parliamentary ethics. He didn’t even believe her sworn testimony.
Remember, the Commissioner for Standards investigates on parliament’s behalf. In holding ministers to account for abuses of power or breaches of ethics, he stands for the Constitution’s declaration that the Executive answers to parliament. He defends the autonomy of parliament.
Yet, by protecting Caruana, parliament’s majority preferred to undercut its Commissioner, investigating on its own behalf.
The Commissioner was undercut by the Speaker, too. When another MP, Rosianne Cutajar, was found to have breached parliamentary ethics, with the Commissioner finding her testimony unbelievable, parliament’s Standards Committee decided she should receive a stern reprimand.
It was a tame disciplinary action but Farrugia shrank even from that. He merely informed Cutajar of the committee’s decision.
Bad as that was, it wasn’t the most egregious of failures to defend parliament’s autonomy and dignity.
Another Committee, another failure of dignity. When the Parliamentary Affairs Committee hauled Konrad Mizzi in for questioning over the notorious Electrogas deal, Mizzi told the Opposition members of the PAC that they had no right to judge him.
Of course they did. It is a right granted by parliament itself. But Mizzi got away with the challenge to parliament’s authority, without a rebuke from the Speaker.
Yet Farrugia had no qualms getting his lawyer to write to an ordinary citizen, Matthew Caruana Galizia, telling him to shut up and stop demanding that Farrugia resign.
That’s the reputation with which parliament began its 14th term yesterday: as an institution whose Speaker formally tried to bully a citizen that the House represents while shrinking from holding MPs to account.
Farrugia yesterday urged MPs to avoid personal attacks. Perhaps he had in mind the attacks and threats against Simon Busuttil on 9 October 2018, when the then prime minister, Muscat, called him a fraudster, liar, and traitor. On the same occasion, then minister Cardona warned Busuttil that, if more was publicly known about Busuttil, he might need to escape far from Malta’s jurisdiction.
Or perhaps Farrugia had in mind the time when the then backbench MP, Abela, accused Daphne Caruana Galizia’s sons of detesting Malta so much they’d rather not see their mother’s assassination solved. He has since retracted, but not apologised.
That’s a vicious legacy that the 13th legislature left its successor. What signals did Saturday’s opening give? Not good.
When the Opposition leader reminded the Speaker that he has to be impartial, he was accused by the prime minister of negating the decision expressed by March’s general elections. What?
You’d think the general elections decided that only the majority’s views should be expressed. General elections also decide who gets to express the views of the minority.
There can be no doubt that the 123,000 people who voted PN endorsed the critical view of Farrugia that the PN had repeatedly expressed prior to the election. If we had to take Abela seriously, he doesn’t recognise the expression of this view as legitimate. He called it surreal.
What’s surreal is that, taking the kinder view, we have a prime minister who doesn’t know what the roles of Opposition and Speaker are in a parliamentary democracy. The less kind view is that he knows but doesn’t care.