A ‘dangerous precedent’ for our Constitutional rights
A Bill being piloted by the government may set a “dangerous precedent” as it would mean that our rights and liberties would no longer be guaranteed by the Constitution but would depend on the fads and impulses of the politicians of the day.
Former European Commissioner and human rights expert Tonio Borg sounded this warning when asked by Voice of the Workers Weekly for his view on this controversial proposal, known as Bill 198, which seeks to amend The Interpretation Act.
“This is a dangerous precedent. If that were to be allowed, Government of the day could change the meaning of terms in the Constitution such as the word “person” to exclude foreigners or the unborn child to give but two examples. It would be able to say that black is white and white is black just by the stroke of a pen,” Dr Borg remarked.
The story goes back to 2016 when a court ruled in favour of the Federation of Estate Agents against the director for competition, saying that the imposition of heavy fines was a matter of criminal nature and, consequently, could only be handed down by a proper court. The landmark judgment was echoed in 2018 in a case which the Nationalist Party had instituted against the Electoral Commission. In turn, this led to the situation of various regulators, such as the Competition Office, unable to enforce their own decisions as they went against the Constitution.
Faced by mounting criticism of having dysfunctional toothless watchdogs, government tried changing the Constitution through the normal channel of a two-thirds parliamentary majority so that public entities may impose hefty administrative fines to the tune of hundreds of thousands. When this failed, it tried to circumvent this step, through Bill 198 which proposes to amend the Interpretation Act in order to change the meaning of terms in the Constitution.
Dr Borg warned that this Bill was very dangerous as it sought to change the Constitution through an ordinary law, thus bypassing a crucial safeguard – the two-thirds parliamentary majority – meant to protect Malta’s supreme law from being abused by the ruling government. This precedent could be used to change important definitions affecting the right to life or by excluding foreigners and refugees from the meaning of the word “person”.
Apart from Dr Borg, other legal experts have called on the government to ditch this Bill saying it could also place Malta on a collision course with the Council of Europe (Venice Commission) and the European Union. They warned that such Bill could trigger much more serious charges from Brussels than those being faced by Poland and Hungary over their meddling with the judiciary.