A lynch mob

Published: June 21, 2012 at 10:47pm

This is my column in The Malta Independent, today.

What we have seen happen over the last few weeks, with its culmination in parliament last Monday night, is the classic actions of a lynch mob, translated into the realm of politics and masquerading as democracy.

Some people see it as a case of ‘all’s fair in love and war’, that politics involves dirty tricks, and so on. But this goes way beyond that, with very serious implications for the anti-democratic road our country is taking.

If the Labour Party has managed to devise fresh ways to abuse its power in Opposition, how much greater, then, are the risks associated with the potential for abuse of its power in government?

For those who do not understand, or who refuse to understand, the fundamental underpinnings of democracy, I’ll put it in plain terms that are easy to understand.

Imagine if you were picked out of the mix by your political enemies, on a spurious, trumped-up charge (any charge will do when the outcome is assured), then dragged before a kangaroo court and subjected to questions that have nothing to do with the accusation.

Then afterwards you discover that what should have been due process in the name of justice was really just a gross form of harassment because, in a direct inversion of the principles of justice and due process, the verdict was decided upon even before the charges were presented.

There is worse to contend with.

The motion against Richard Cachia Caruana should never have been accepted by the Clerk of the House, for the simple and very basic reason that civil servants and ambassadors are not answerable to parliament.

Parliament may not take a vote on the actions of civil servants or ambassadors. This is a principle of the separation of powers. The Public Service Commission and other safeguards were set up precisely to avoid this form of abuse, in which civil servants are threatened by politicians with power. The loophole is that public officers who are appointed politically are not subject to the Public Service Commission, and therefore fall between two stools.

There is nothing to safeguard them from abusive behaviour of this nature, because no situation was foreseen in which government MPs would collude with the Opposition to round on public officers chosen by the government of which they form part.

For the very same reasons of prevention of abuse, the Constitution allows for the removal of members of the judiciary only by a vote in parliament, and that must be two-thirds of the house and not a simple majority. This ensures that governments are not able to remove judges and magistrates who don’t do their bidding.

Unfortunately, this, too, has afforded the Labour Party an opportunity to pervert a good system into a bad tool, with the result that no motion for impeachment is brought before the House, where certain judges and magistrates are concerned, because it will not see the Labour Opposition’s support.

Once the motion for censure of an ambassador made it past the Clerk of the House, it should have been blocked for the reasons of procedure, and the important democratic principles and safeguards which that procedure protects.

I can only assume that a decision was taken not to block it because this would be seen as trying to hide or avoid something, rather than adherence to procedure which safeguards individuals for democratic, and no other, reason. And this because there is widespread ignorance about democracy and its underpinnings, developed over centuries in societies other than ours and imported here when our own society has yet failed to evolve accordingly, and remains anchored in the Sicilian hinterland.

I assume, too, that the government believed that correctness and decency would prevail, in due process, over malignant abuse. It seems not to have understood that where there are none of the safeguards of a proper court of law, a victim may be selected, the verdict decided upon, and the prosecution process used as the traditional Chinese Cultural Revolution show-trial, as a means of exacerbating the pain rather than finding out the facts and reaching a decision on them.

This aspect of the Chinese show-trial was heightened when certain members of parliament – the judges – gave the reasons for their verdict as having little or nothing to do with the accusation.

This is akin to the methods used against enemies of the state and Chairman Mao in years gone by: a political persona non grata is paraded through the streets for maximum humiliation, then subjected to a show-trial, on spurious accusations for which the verdict has been decided already, then dispatched to serve on a chain-gang in some remote outpost.

But there is more. Richard Cachia Caruana was judged and sentenced for “bypassing parliament” – at least, that was the Chairman Mao reason given. The fact remains that there is no way in which he could have bypassed parliament even if he wanted to, and had the accusations been correct.

To bypass parliament, you must first have a seat in the House. Without a seat in the House, Mr Cachia Caruana can no more bypass parliament than you or I can, unless you are a cabinet minister reading this.

The only people whose resignation can be forced by parliament – aside from the Constitutional provision for judges and magistrates (and maybe also the president; I haven’t been able to check that) are cabinet ministers who are also members of parliament.

Richard Cachia Caruana did not resign because he had to at law. He resigned because he did the decent thing even in the face of gross indecency, and because his position had been rendered untenable, in ways that have nothing to do with the law or his actions, by the onslaught.

The buck does not stop with ambassadors or civil servants. It stops with their ministers, their political superiors, who have seats in parliament.

If parliament has found itself able to do this to an ambassador, who is not Constitutionally accountable to parliament, then it can do it to anyone who has even the most cursory connection to the affairs of state or the civil service.

Ironically, our only safeguard now against the imminent Labour government’s use of this new method of lynching its enemies, or civil servants of whom it does not approve, is the fact that the Nationalist Opposition will refuse to cooperate, for it will not include people who confuse their personal problems with national politics.

Or at least, one trusts there will be a better weeding-out system this time.

11 Comments Comment

  1. Jozef says:

    ‘The buck stops with those who have seats in parliament.’

    Joseph seems not to think so, at least, he prefers messing around without the burden of power.

    He can’t even face the PM on a TV program, short notice, he said.

    • Matt B says:

      He probably refused to do so because he realised that he wouldn’t be able to use his beloved teleprompter.

  2. Chris says:

    Regarding your last paragraph; what’s to stop a Labour government with a parliamentary majority from lynching anyone they want?

  3. canon says:

    Is it possible that what happened in Parliament this week as regards Mr Cachia Caruana be contested in a Constitutional Court or even in the European Court of Human Rights? We have seen that the citizen is not protected from an abusive Labour government.

    • ciccio says:

      We do not have a Labour government yet.

      The only way the citizen can be protected from a Labour government is to not have one in the first place.

  4. Lomax says:

    …and it is precisely because of the reasons outlined in your column that contrary to public opinion (of sorts) Gonzi should not call an election.

    If he does, he would be seconding (for want of a better word) this whole tragic procedure. He would become an unwitting accomplice and by staying on he is showing that he will not bow down to these amoral people and their insignificant minds.

    On another note, Daphne, I look at what’s happening in Parloament and shudder. The implications are very serious. We have already seen Labour using the impeachment procedues against us (the people) when they voted against the motion to impeach Judge Depasquale. Now RCC and CMB.

    In the latter case, it was clearly personal and Franco Debono used the PL to achieve his aims.

    The former is, in its implications, much more serious because, it would seem, nobody is immune to Parliament but Parliament is immune to us all. Any person in the public sector who is treading toes or is simply not comfortable can be dragged before Parliament. (I will continue from my desktop with your permission)

    • edward clemmer says:

      Yes, and in the USA during the 1950s, they had the infamous Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy.

      Just Google “McCarthyism” and the “House Un-American Activities Committee” if you need any historical context for the current Malta parallel: the abuse of Parliament, as a political weapon, by the PL (with the necessary collusion of the PN’s “Three Muscateers” backbench).

  5. Lomax says:

    …dragged before Parliament and be accused of the most heinous of things but that poor sod has no means of defending himself because he has no seat in Parliament.

    Besides, he cannot (presumably) take the Parliamentarian to Court for calumnious accusation, because the Parliamentarian has the parliamentary privilege.

    If any Tom, Dick and Harry go to the Police and accuse anybody falsely of some criminal act, then the wrongly accused can file a complaint and ask the police to take criminal proceedings against the person who would have filed the false report for calumnious accusation. However, this remedy -or an analogous one – is not open against Parliamentarians.

    Indeed, when the Constitution was being conceived and when Parliamentary procedure was being established, no one thought that the base concepts of democracy would, one day, be so “unknown” (though the matter is more serious than “simple” ignorance) that a Public Servant could be dragged before Parliament for any reason.

    So, the implication is that if it so suits any idiot in Parliament, then you just have to play the sitting duck. That’s all. You have no recourse or remedy.

    And this is worrying. This is frightful and, worst of all, this is a horrible throwback to the 1980’s and 1970’s – only now it’s much worse because Labour (and the Muscateers) are using our own democratic safeguards against all those who are somehow connected to the public sector without these having any recourse at law.

    And again, I tie this with what I said earlier: should Gonzi yield to this, he would be yielding to undemocratic practices and procedures. Above all, he would be acting against all that the PN has stood for along all these years.

    • ciccio says:

      Although I still have some hope that this parliamentary lynching process cannot be used against any public officer, or any other citizen, without safeguards (in the sense that I believe that one can challenge this process in a constitutional court of law), it is not the actual use of this process, but the threat of its use, that is most worrying.

      It can be used to put moral or psychological pressure on the public officer (or citizen) to comply with undue political pressure and interference.

  6. elephant says:

    Why – I ask again and again – why was the motion accepted in the first place? The only reason I can think of is that the Clerk of the House was/is pissing in his pants

Reply to Esteve Click here to cancel reply