Jason Azzopardi defies House ruling, refuses to retract Owen Bonnici comments
Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi yesterday evening chose to defy a ruling by Speaker of the House of Representatives Anglu Farrugia over comments he made to the effect that Justice Minister Owen Bonnici lied to Parliament’s Public Affairs Committee.
Dr Azzopardi said he would not retract his statement not because he did not respect the House but, rather, because he respected the truth even more.
Speaker Anglu Farrugia found Dr Azzopardi to be prima facie in breach of parliamentary privilege over comments he made on Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, in which he accused him of lying to Parliament.
Soon after the ruling was read out yesterday evening, Opposition leader Simon Busuttil said he backed Dr Azzopardi’s comments completely and asked that the same ruling be applied to him.
At the start of yesterday evening’s sitting, Dr Farrugia asked Dr Azzopardi whether he would be taking back the comment, or whether he would at least change it.
Dr Azzopardi said he wished he was in a position to do so, but that he could not.
The Speaker said that in light of Dr Azzopardi’s refusal to retract his comments, he was finding the PN MP in breach of privilege. The case will now be referred to the Privileges Committee.
At that point the Opposition Leader stood up and leapt to Dr Azzopardi’s defence.
The manoeuvre clearly irked Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, who said that if the PN Leader was echoing Dr Azzopardi’s comments that he would file a breach of privilege complaint against the Opposition Leader as well.
Dr Farrugia cautioned all parties, telling them that while they had a right to criticise they should not resort to insults.
Dr Busuttil took the floor again, reiterating his full backing for Dr Azzopardi’s comments.
I am doing this because I believe in freedom of expression.
“I am doing this because I believe in freedom of expression. Today, 30 years from the Tal-Barrani events, we have the Justice Minister trying to muzzle us. I want you (the Speaker) to apply the same ruling to me as well.”
Dr Bonnici said he was disappointed by the Opposition Leader’s attitude.
“We come here to work, not to be insulted. I will heed the Speaker’s advice because I believe that we should rise above petty insults.”
Dr Bonnici said he was not trying to muzzle anyone and insisted he was only using a procedure Dr Azzopardi himself had used against journalists back in 2010.
Commenting after the ruling, Dr Azzopardi said his comments had been made in public, not in Parliament, where MPs had the protection of privilege.
He said it was ironic how, 30 years after the Tal-Barrani events, the Speaker had resorted to censuring MPs’ tweets.
This has set a dangerous precedent, he said, also accusing the Speaker of trying to put a gag on freedom of expression.
He also questioned the impartiality of the ruling, pointing out that Dr Bonnici had appointed the Speaker’s daughter as a magistrate.
Accusing the Speaker of using “inquisitorial reasoning,” Dr Azzopardi said the Public Accounts Committee had been told that Henley and Partners – the concessionaires of the IIP programme – were only receiving commissions on the €650,000 contribution.
“But,” Dr Azzopardi said, “we have now learnt that this was a lie. We were also told that the government was not incurring any direct costs when we know that the payment of commissions on bonds is a direct cost. No one knew about this before the publication of the IIP Regulator’s report last month.”
The issue cropped up on a recent PBS current affairs programme, when Dr Azzopardi said that the Justice Minister told PAC that Henley and Partners, the company contracted to oversee the controversial cash-for-citizenship scheme, was only receiving a four per cent commission from the initial €650,000 required to buy Maltese citizenship.
Dr Azzopardi then said that Henley and Partners were being granted an additional 4% commission on government stocks they sold to applicants, as revealed by the recently published Individual Investment Programme Regulator’s report.
Having repeatedly said that Dr Bonnici lied to Parliament, the Justice Minister asked the Speaker to investigate what he claims to be a breach of parliamentary privilege by Dr Azzopardi.