This year Malta is marking 100 years of parliamentary democracy. It was on April 14, 1921 when the first sitting of the democratically-elected House of Representatives was held at the Tapestries Chamber in the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta. From a democratic perspective this institution has made huge strides forward mainly through universal suffrage in 1947 and the lowering of the minimum voting age to 16 years. Compared to a century ago, parliament is much more representative of the Maltese society. Other important milestones were the decision for the House of Representatives to have its own dedicated premises in 2015, and the enactment of the Parliamentary Services Act in 2017 which gave more autonomy to this institution.

Nonetheless, there is still room for improvement when it comes to the core function of the House of Representatives – enacting laws. Unfortunately, more often than not, parliamentary debates leave much to be desired. Long-drawn speeches full of political rhetoric and devoid of any solid arguments based on research seem dominate proceedings. Moreover, most of these debates are held in a semi-deserted plenary chamber as MPs only turn up to mark themselves present so as not to get slapped with a €50 fine or else to deliver their speech. Otherwise, it is just the two respective whips, the Speaker and a handful of MPs who are present.

On the other hand, MPs have been lamenting for years that compared to other modern western democracies, they have very limited if any resources. As a start there is a desperate need for MPs to be assisted by support staff to carry out research. Let us not forget that parliamentarians have to juggle between their profession, job or even Cabinet duties.

Having full-time MPs could solve this conundrum. In this day and age even running a medium-sized voluntary organisation requires full-time employees. Yet, our highest democratic institution, which is a fundamental pillar in upholding the rule of law, is still based on a part-time model, devised 100 years ago when Malta was a colony with no jurisdiction over defence and international affairs.

 Those in favour argue that a full-time legislator can dedicate more time to parliament which, apart from plenary sessions, comprises other commitments such as committees and participation in international fora. It is only logical to expect that whoever chooses this route gets adequate remuneration. This could be a sore point, as history shows that this has been a very controversial matter, be it if MPs get a pay rise by stealth or not. However, somebody has to bell the cat and decide, be it now or at a later stage. Nonetheless, a full-time MP would be expected to be present in parliament for the entire sitting, unless they have other parliamentary commitments. Should anybody think this is draconian, just ask yourself if there is an employer – in this case the people of Malta – who would accept a situation whereby employees fail to turn up for no reason.

The other side of the coin is that having full-time MPs might put off potential valid people from venturing into politics. Critics have long warned that people who have excelled in their career will be very reluctant to leave everything behind should they be elected to parliament. Then again, this does not necessarily imply that the remaining pool of candidates is not valid.

Such debate should go hand in hand with measures to raise ethical standards regulating the conduct of our MPs and their declaration of assets. Doing away with the current practice of having MPs sitting on government boards is also a must, as this in direct conflict with their function of keeping the executive in check. In 1953 Mabel Strickland lost her seat in parliament after a court ruled that the decision by Progress Press (which she owned) to print official reports of the debates of the legislative assembly and pool coupons for the public lotto department, constituted a conflict of interest. Were this to happen today, would the MP in question face the same fate or emerge unscathed with a slap on the wrist?

Regardless of the views one may harbour on these aspects, there is ample evidence to suggest that in these 100 years progress has been made on various fronts. Yet, when it comes to parliament’s core function to legislate and to lead by example we are lagging behind.