Curbing the abuse of Parliamentary Privilege

A particularly unfair misuse of parliamentary privilege by a Member of Parliament in Malta is when the MP uses this power, granted to them by virtue of the prestigious post they occupy, to attack an ordinary citizen who, as things stand at the moment, has no adequate means of redress. Given this highly unsatisfactory situation prevailing at present, a recommendation made by the Speaker of Malta’s House of Representatives, Anġlu Farrugia, on the occasion of his speech during this year’s official celebration of the Sette Giugno national holiday acquires a particular significance.

What did Farrugia recommend during his speech? – Mr Speaker recommended introducing the remedy of the “citizen’s right of reply” which would empower ordinary citizens to seek redress if they believe that they have been the victims of the abuse of parliamentary privilege. He also gave examples of models of remedies which can be introduced in our country.

The first model would be one which would see the Speaker of the House of Representatives examining and investigating every citizen’s accusation against a Member of Parliament who is alleged to have abused of parliamentary privilege. The second model would see a parliamentary committee fulfilling the same role instead of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Anġlu Farrugia expressed his belief that, irrespective of which model is eventually chosen, this innovative concept of expanding Parliament’s role should be actively pursued.

The rationale behind the proposed change would be that the institution of Parliament would be one which would better satisfy citizens’ expectations of the role it was supposed to fulfil as the entity representative of their wishes. Mr Speaker further reinforced his argument by stating that he believed that it was an insult to democracy in Malta when the very same person elected to represent the Maltese people used their public position to abuse of parliamentary privilege and the ordinary citizen could not obtain satisfaction from them in regard to the false or deceptive statement made in Parliament. Mr Speaker emphasised that in such circumstances, even if rather rare, an ordinary citizen should at least have a right of reply (Department of Information, Press Release, PR211075, 4th June, 2021).

It is important to note that Anġlu Farrugia had already brought up this topic during his Sette Giugno speech in 2018. On that occasion, Mr Speaker had said: “It cannot be that year after year we remain without an established procedure which ensures that anyone guilty of abuse is held responsible for his actions … Therefore, I believe that it is high time that the Standing Orders of the House of Representatives be revised in order to provide a remedy for those citizens who feel aggrieved by the abuse of parliamentary privilege” (Malta Today, 6th June, 2018).

It is also pertinent to note that on 14th September, 2012, Nationalist Party Foreign Minister, Tonio Borg, who was Leader of the House of Representatives at the time, had launched a White Paper entitled: “The Maltese Parliament: More Autonomy, More Accountability”, dealing, among other things, with the above-mentioned topic for public consultation. In this document, the Nationalist Government proposed “the appointment of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who will investigate any cases of abuse of parliamentary privilege, misbehaviour or unethical behaviour by MPs. He may also propose penalties which could include a month-long suspension from the House, although the ultimate decision will be taken by the House itself”. (Times of Malta, 14th September, 2012). Like many such proposals made by the Nationalist Governments of those days, nothing ever came of this proposal.

In my opinion, Mr Speaker Anġlu Farrugia should be congratulated for having the courage, resolution and perseverance to bring up once again the topic of an ordinary citizen’s right of reply to the abuse of parliamentary privilege. It is now up to the political parties and civil society to follow the pioneering lead of Mr Speaker.

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