MPs are answerable only to their constituents

Published: March 20, 2008 at 1:09pm

Without going into the merits of Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando’s case, I believe that those who are calling for his resignation do not fully understand what they are doing, and that resignation in these circumstances would create a dangerous precedent in our democracy.

Their misconceptions and misunderstandings are all the fruit of their belief, so far as I can gather, that members of parliament are representatives of political parties, rather than representatives of the people. In parliament, MPs do not represent their political parties, even if they are elected on a party ticket. They represent their constituents. This means the people in their electoral constituency and, more precisely, the people who actually voted for them. MPs owe their primary loyalty to their constituents and not to their party or party leader. Indeed, if something that their party does or proposes goes against the interests of their constituents, they are obliged to oppose it, whichever side of the house they happen to be sitting. Because our system of representative democracy has been diluted by party dominance, this fact is often overlooked or deemed unimportant.

Whatever the merits of the case, whether he is in the wrong or in the right, nobody can ask Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando to resign except his constituents. The only mechanism for this is a general election. In 2013, Pullicino Orlando’s constituents will let him know whether they wish to have him carry on representing their interests in parliament or not. Until then, he is not only entitled to stay on in parliament, but he is actually obliged to do so, because he owes it to the people in not one but two constituencies who put him there. Those who imagine that it is a dereliction of duty not to resign have got things the wrong way round. It is the resignation of a parliamentary seat that is a dereliction of duty. Once people put you in parliament to represent their interests, you cannot up and say, before your term is up: “Oh stuff this. I’m going home.”

The prime minister, the opposition party, Alternattiva Demokratika and what purports to be public opinion have absolutely no part to play in this and no say in the matter. It is between Pullicino Orlando and his constituents. He is a member of parliament, the representative of a group of people who voted for him to represent them. He is not a party apparatchik or factotum. Despite being elected on the party ticket, his seat is not in the gift of the party.

The assertion that the prime minister should demand the resignation of an MP is ridiculous, as well as dangerous. The Constitution of Malta specifies that the resignation of an MP must be made in writing ‘under his own hand’ to the Speaker of the House – not to the party leader or the prime minister. This is because it is the Speaker, and not the party leaders, who are ‘in charge of’ – to put it like that – members of parliament. It is the Speaker who is responsible for investigating a situation which might render an MP’s seat untenable, and not the MP’s party leader.

This is not a piece written in defence of Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, but a piece written in defence of democracy and against the growth of dangerous ideas that threaten it. One of these dangerous ideas is that seats can be given to and taken away from MPs by political parties and ‘public opinion’ in any other way than through a general election every five years, or by bringing to bear the provisions and sub-articles spelled out in articles 54 and 55 of the Constitution of Malta.

The prime minister, as leader of the Nationalist Party, can demand the resignation of Pullicino Orlando only from the party and not from parliament. Resignation from the party does not equate with resignation from parliament. If an MP resigns from his party, he will still keep his seat – just as Wenzu Mintoff did in 1989, when he resigned from the Labour Party, kept his seat, and joined AD instead, with the result that AD had a parliamentary seat for three years until the 1992 general election.

MPs can be kept in line by the party whip or by their understanding that if they wish to be re-elected on the party ticket, they should toe the line and keep the party happy. But it is only their own wishes and desire for survival that keep them doing this. There is nothing to stop an MP – except the voluntary factors just mentioned – from voting against his party line. Mintoff famously did this in 1998, leading to the collapse of Sant’s government.

An MP’s seat is his or her own, and not the party’s. He or she can pick up that seat (not literally, of course) and take it across the floor. If it is up to our MPs to keep their party happy to ensure re-election and survival within the party, then it is also up to the parties to keep their MPs happy to ensure that they do not cross the floor, vote against the party, or find themselves forced into a corner where they use leverage or weight-pulling. Sant learned this to his cost in 1998.

The resignation of an MP is not in the same category as the resignation of a cabinet minister, and quite clearly, ‘public opinion’ and the two political parties that are not in government are confusing the two separate issues. The prime minister’s office, on the other hand – you would expect Lawrence Gonzi to understand the democratic issues, the Constitution and the meaning of representative democracy – has issued a statement pointing out that the seats of MPs are matters for the electorate to decide upon, and not for the government. The prime minister can ask cabinet ministers to resign from their post of minister, because it is in his gift, but he cannot ask an MP to resign his or her seat, because that seat is not in his gift.

It is fatuous of the Labour Party and Alternattiva Demokratika to decry Pullicino Orlando’s presence in parliament – which has not even been convened yet, in any case – when as political parties they should understand the meaning of representative democracy. They are fine ones to talk, in any case, given that both have rather large beams in their own eyes. The resignation demands of other sectors of society, or at least those which pretend to be coming from other sectors of society, are in the large part the result of ignorance about the Constitutional status of an MP. My instantaneous but considered reaction to these calls for Pullicino Orlando’s resignation is this: how dare these people demand that he resign, when he does not represent them and they are not the ones who elected him? The only people who have a say in the matter are the ones who will be saying what they think in 2013. Until then, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando stays, whatever he did or is deemed to have done. Who are we to pass judgement on the electoral choices of others, or to say that they have no right to be represented by Pullicino Orlando, if that is what they want?

That’s what I mean about dangerous thinking. The Constitution is very clear about who may and may not be allowed to stand for election to parliament or retain a seat once there. Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando falls into none of these categories. Nor do ‘honour’ or ‘integrity’ come into it. I would consider Pullicino Orlando to have integrity if he refuses to resign his seat and abdicate his responsibility to his constituents even in the face of such harsh, vicious and entirely disproportionate criticism. If he resigns his seat, he will be left in peace – but that is taking the easy way out.

There is no scope for the sacrifice of token lambs here. Also, it is hypocritical of the Labour Party to use this case to obscure the fact that it has failed to police its own MPs for their shortcomings and wrong-doings. At least one notorious case that made the news in the penultimate week of the campaign involves two MPs who were ministers in Sant’s cabinet at the time, one of whom has the nerve to now put himself forward for the party leadership. As for AD and its mealy-mouthed holier-than-thou pronouncements, I think it is opportune to point out that it is the political party whose leader faces a two-year prison term for refusing to comply with the law despite years of attempts at persuading him to do so, and who had the ruddy cheek to put in a plea for a presidential pardon while criticising others for doing the same.

I disagree completely with the stance taken by those who say that Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando could have cost the Nationalist Party the election, and that the responsibility for the loss of thousands of votes lies fairly and squarely at his door. This is tunnel-vision thinking and not lateral thinking. The allegation that Pullicino Orlando lied came far too late in the game to make significant numbers of people change their minds about voting PN. Most people missed it, and only found out after voting. Those who were going around cursing Pullicino Orlando before voting day were the ones most concerned that the Nationalist Party should win; they were cursing him because they thought he might scuttle the ship, and not because they were disillusioned with the Nationalist Party.

Pullicino Orlando may have caused the loss of some votes in the last couple of days of the campaign – and I must stress the ‘some’ – but let’s not overlook the fact that he pulled in significant numbers of votes, probably enough to make a difference to the outcome, by confronting Sant in the PBS studios. He exposed him as a bully and a coward whose reaction to the confrontation was to literally run away, after demanding that the police are called to protect him from the questions of a fellow MP. As he cowered beneath the Crosscraft studio set, we saw Sant for what he was: not prime ministerial material. My usually reliable gut instinct tells me that in that moment, as thousands of people across the country watched the showdown on television, the anti-Sant vote (which is not the same as the pro-PN vote) crystallised and hardened.

I have no doubt at all that the PBS debacle was instrumental in securing victory for the Nationalist Party, and that is why I gave Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando my number-one vote on March 8 despite the doubts I had about the Mistra case. It was my way of thanking him for playing such a great part in ensuring that I wouldn’t wake up the next day to find the ghastly Alfred Sant as prime minister. With that single act of audacity in the PBS studios, he did more than anybody else on the Nationalist Party list for my electoral district to keep Sant out. That’s why I voted for him and that’s why, despite everything that has happened since, I object most strongly to anybody telling me that I do not have the right to be represented in parliament by the person I voted for. To them I have just one thing to say, and it’s short and sweet: mind your own business. If he’s not your MP, you have no say in the matter.

This article is published in The Malta Independent today.

10 Comments Comment

  1. carlos bonavia says:

    Daphne – JPO is also my Mp. Now legally speaking you might be right for all I know, but don’t you think that politically, JPo has a lot to answer for ? You might shout till you are blue in the face (sorry) but the honourable thing for JPO to do is to admit to his less-than-honourable actions
    provided that he has not justifiable answers to all these accusations being levelled at him. If proven guilty, I will expect nothing less than my prime minister’s pressure for JPO’s resignation(from the party) and for JPO to gracefully exit the scene. His being ‘instrumental’ or not in securing victory for the PN is another argument but I would object very strongly to being represented in parliament by a ‘Tainted’ MP and no amount of Legalese will justify such a state of being.

  2. Daphne Caruana Galizia says:

    Carlos, the point is that there is no way of finding out whether JPO’s constituents want him to carry on as their MP without doing what Sant did in 1998 in Mintoff’s regard (a snap election) or waiting until 2013. Anything other than that is presumptuous. Tough, but true. Whatever my own feelings about the case, I object on principle to having my MP removed without my being consulted, so that what I get instead is somebody I made a point of not voting for, like Michael Asciak of Opus Dei. Rather have JPO than that!

  3. Indannata says:

    Well Daphne,
    You have to admit that Carlos has a point here.
    That’s why I am an indannata!! I trusted JPO with my vote before the election because he told us he is not guilty and now everything is pointing in a different direction altogether.
    I urge the Comm. of Police to speed up his investigation to end this asap. There has been enough damage done against the PN.

  4. Daphne Caruana Galizia says:

    @ Indannata – I beg to differ. No damage has been done to the PN. The only damage that has been done is to JPO, and ironically, to Sant himself. You need the distance of time to see things clearly.

  5. Bootroom says:

    No damage done to the PN? Please Daphne there are limits even when doing one’s best not to let one’s party’s image be tarnished. JPO is a Nationalist and if the allegations prove to be true it would show that a Nationalist MP is corrupt. Gonzi may have tackled the case in the proper manner but it would still show that elements of his party are corrupt.

  6. Daphne Caruana Galizia says:

    @ Bootroom – when you come across any political party/government in the world that is entirely without untarnished elements, please let me know. Human nature will always be what it is – it is not whether MPs turn out to have feet of clay that counts, but how the situation is dealt with. The Labour Party wasn’t tarnished by the myriad shortcomings of its individual MPs and ministers, but by the failure of party leaders to control them at once. So far, there is no evidence, still less proof, of corruption in the JPO case.

  7. Tony Pace says:

    JPO should look in the mirror tomorrow morning and decide “am I a man or a mouse?”. The chances are that if he decides to come clean, tell the whole truth to the ones he has betrayed, and try to make amends, then he could actually stand a chance to start afresh.
    In the meantime, I suppose some of us are saying that he is innocent until proven guilty.

  8. david says:

    I live in JPO’s constituency. I demand that JPO resign at least he shows he is a man acknowledging his mistakes. Daphne, might be right in all you said, may I remind you that if he lied he will have been elected on false pretences. That, in itself, is bad enough. In the UK and US if an MP lies he will be made to resign.

    Gonzi showed that he wants discipline and seriousness by choosing the cabinet he chose. I think he cannot afford to tolerate any nonsense.

    [Moderator – The US is not a good comparison because their system of checks and balances that leads to impeachment is very highly evolved. The US Senate only tries officials who have been accused of committing crimes against the state. If the Senate finds that the evidence weighs against the accused, he is convicted, and the House of Representatives will impeach him. As far as I know, the only form of lying that constitutes a crime against the state is perjury – lying under oath. This legal process is important. If trial by public opinion were enough to impeach an official, the executive could spin public opinion against officials that it does not like. Pressuring JPO to resign is a slippery slope that leads to the upsetting of the balance of power between the executive and the legislature.]

  9. Patrick says:


    You’re right; democratically and constitutionally it’s important for people to understand that an MP’s seat is his own for as long as he or his constituents wish it to be so.

    But it certainly seems that he lied to his constitutents, and that many people trusted him and voted for him on the basis of that lie.

    No-one can demand that he resigns. If this investigation does confirm that he lied – still less that he did more than that – then should simply do the right thing and go away.

  10. Daphne Caruana Galizia says:

    Here’s the gap in the arguments, Patrick. On the one hand you have the Nationalist Party claiming a haemorrhage of votes in the last week of the campaign because of the JPO case. On the other hand you have the fact that JPO and Helena Dalli were the only two candidates – bar the two leaders and Labour’s two deputy leaders – to be elected on two districts at the first count. Taken together these two pieces of information suggest that (1) the whole of Malta except for the people in JPO’s two districts knew that JPO was telling whoppers (2) the people in JPO’s districts wanted to give him their number one despite knowing he was telling giant whoppers, or (3) the first piece of information is wrong, and people didn’t know he was telling giant whoppers, which means that he couldn’t have caused a vote haemorrhage. Now here’s my two-cents’ worth: people who cause their party to bleed votes do not get elected on the first count in two districts, with more votes than those of the party’s deputy leader.

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