In a meeting with Maltese community leaders in Victoria held at the Maltese Centre in Parkville last Tuesday, the Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Tonio Borg, presented the Bill establishing the Council for Maltese Living Abroad, that was being published in Malta that day.
Dr Borg said that it is his intention that the Bill be approved in Parliament preferably before this year’s end or, at the latest, early next year, so that the focus next year will be on the creation of structures to bring the Council to life. Dr Borg indicated that he has already sought a limited budget for the Council in the budget that will be debated in Parliament in the next few weeks.
Members of the Maltese Community Council’s Executive Committee, leaders from Maltese associations as well as the High Commissioner for Malta in Australia, Mr Francis Tabone, and the Consul General for Malta in Victoria, Mr Charles Mifsud, attended the meeting.
Dr Borg apologised on behalf of the Prime Minister, Dr Lawrence Gonzi, who had to cancel his visit to Australia due to two very important meetings of the European Council, the highest organ of the EU made up of all heads of government of the EU countries, due to the Euro zone crisis caused by some of its members not complying with the regulations. Malta joined the zone on 1 January 2008. This crisis impacts significantly on the Euro as a currency and it is critical that member countries in difficulty are assisted in order to preserve the currency.
Council for Maltese Living Abroad
Dr Borg said that, as he spoke, the Bill was being published in the Government Gazette in Malta. Keeping its promise given at the Convention last year, the Government is introducing the Bill for the establishment of the Council for Maltese Living Abroad and is doing so by agreement with the Opposition.
Dr Borg presented a copy of the bill to MCCV President, Professor Maurice Cauchi. A copy was also being sent to the Maltese Community Council of NSW.
Dr Borg said that, while the Bill is the product of a long consultation process with the Maltese communities abroad and with the Opposition, it is not perfect. He said that he had no doubt that it will not please everybody, but he believes it will please the vast majority of people.
Dr Borg explained that the Council will be established by law as he wanted to achieve two objectives. The first objective is that, whoever happens to be the Minister, and whichever party is in government, the Minister of Foreign Affairs will be obliged by law to establish the Council. In order to remove the Council, the Minister would need to go back to Parliament. In this way, said Dr Borg, establishing the Council by law ensures continuity and permanence.
“The second objective is to send a political message, not in a party politics sense, but in the sense that, just as Malta recognised the contribution that you gave to your communities and the love that you still show towards your country of birth by granting you dual citizenship in a series of three consecutive reforms, today we no longer speak of the emigrants of Melbourne or of Australia. Today, by virtue of your significant participation in the Conventions, we developed the concept that there is only one Maltese race, some live in Malta and other live outside Malta,” Dr Borg told the community leaders.
Dr Borg said that this change means that there should be no difference in treatment other than in those cases where it exists everywhere for valid reasons. “For example, in the case of the health card, an exception is made not because you live overseas but because eligibility depends on the payment of national insurance contributions in the EU. Australia does not provide a health card for people from the EU for the simple reason that the population of the EU is about 500 million and that of Australia is only 20 million. So this is not discrimination as one is not comparing like with like. However, in all other matters, the government wants that the interest of all Maltese living abroad are safeguarded, hence the setting up of the Council,” said Dr Borg.
Dr Borg said that another objective of the Council is to ensure that not only the Minister of the day responsible for the Maltese living abroad is obliged to take their interests into account but every Minister and every director of a government department must do so to ensure that their actions do not adversely impact the rights and interests of Maltese living abroad. In addition to setting up the Council, the Bill establishes a Directorate in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (instead of having just a Desk Officer) and the Director will be responsible for the safeguarding of the rights and interests of Maltese communities abroad, said Dr Borg.
On its composition, Dr Borg said that the Council will consist of 17 members, 12 representing the Maltese communities abroad and 5 appointed by the Prime Minister after consultation with the Opposition from people residing in Malta or abroad who are experienced in matters affecting Maltese communities abroad. This provision is intended as a safety valve to enable the appointment to the Council of someone who may have the relevant experience and capability to contribute but does not represent any community overseas.
Dr Borg said that of the 12 Council members representing Maltese communities abroad, Australia will take the largest slice with five members. There will be two members appointed from the State of Victoria, two from New South Wales and one from another Australian State other than those two States. It will also be possible to have one of the five appointed by the Prime Minister resident in Australia.
Dr Borg said that the Council will not have executive powers as it is not part of government, but it will be an advisory and consultative body. Its role will be truly consultative because the Council must be consulted on every law and every administrative measure that impacts on the interests of Maltese abroad. The Council provides its advice and the government decides whether to follow that advice, taking political responsibility for its decision.
Dr Borg said that the Council will be presided over by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who will, however, have no vote on the Council, nor any casting vote in the event that the Council members reach a stalemate on any issue. In this way, the Minister will not interfere in issues for which Maltese living abroad are responsible, but at the same time, as the president of the Council, he will provide weight to the Council in dealing with the other Ministers and the civil service. “So just as the creation of the Directorate will provide more weight than a simple Desk Officer when dealing with other government departments on justified complaints, the Minister without having a vote but simply by presiding the Council will provide more weight. This idea is based on a similar Italian model which is on a larger scale, with the Council being presided by the Minister of Foreign Affairs,” explained Dr Borg.
Dr Borg said that Counc
il members living overseas may participate in Council meetings by audio or video conferencing, by emails and other electronic means. However, the Council must meet at least once a year in Malta and those members living overseas will travel to Malta for this meeting. The government will introduce a scheme to provide some financial assistance for the overseas members’ travel expenses.
Dr Borg said that the Conventions will still take place at least every 10 years, but possibly more frequently, maybe every five years. The Council will be able to track and measure progress achieved on matters dealt with at these Conventions.
Dr Borg said that one of the real satisfactions of being in politics is that when one retires from politics, as everyone has to at some time, one looks back and see that there are some things that one has implemented that were so well received that they are still there. Dr Borg said that he hoped that the introduction and extension of dual citizenship and the creation of the Council will be two of these things. “Whether the Council will be successful in its operation will depend partly on the government and more importantly on the Maltese communities abroad. Let’s give it a chance,” said Dr Borg.
Dr Borg said that once a year the Council must produce a report which the Minister will table in parliament and will be discussed in two parliamentary committees: the Foreign and European Affairs Committee and the Social Affairs Committee.
Dr Borg said that the thorny question in drafting the Bill has been the selection of the Council members as the structures within Maltese communities abroad vary widely, making direct elections impossible. The government will select the members but the law binds the government to take into account the opinions and suggestions made by federations, community councils and Maltese organisations, where they exist. Dr Borg said that the appointments will not be a surprise and letters will be sent out to non-government organisations (NGOs) inviting them to submit their suggestions. Appointments will be for three years with eligibility for re-appointment for only one other 3-year term.
“We have had conventions, studies and meetings, and the time has come for someone to make a decision. The Bill constitutes the decision of the government regarding the establishment of the Council. The Bill still needs to be debated in parliament, and amendments cannot be excluded. However, given the long consultation process with the Maltese communities and with the Opposition, the Bill is expected to go through without too many changes,” Dr Borg said.
Dr Borg said that consultation with the Maltese communities was carried out through the Maltese embassies and high commissions overseas. An earlier version of the draft Bill was discussed with the Opposition through their spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, Dr George Vella, who proposed some amendments which were accepted. Dr Borg said that he was pleased to report that there is agreement with the Opposition on the Bill as published, although some more fine-tuning in Parliament could not be ruled out.
Dr Borg stressed that this Council established by law will in no way whatsoever diminish the importance of each and every voluntary Maltese community federation, community council or association that exists in all the continents where Maltese reside. The intention is to build on them and not take work away from them. It is important to view the work of the Council as complementary to that of these voluntary community organisations, just as it is critical that the social services provided by government are complemented by voluntary services.
Dr Borg said that the Council is obliged to set up and maintain two registers, one of all voluntary non-government organisations involved in the promotion and protection of the interests of Maltese living abroad and any such organisation may apply to the Council to be included in the register. The second register is of any prominent Maltese nationals living abroad who have distinguished themselves in their respective profession, vocation or work outside Malta.
Dr Borg said that these would include individuals who may have distinguished themselves at their place of work, including manual workers, or it could be the Chief Justice of England and Wales appointed two years ago, who happens to be a Maltese, Sir Igor Judge, who was born in Malta of a Maltese mother, Rosa Micallef Judge, and an English father.
These registers are important for posterity so that for historical purposes there will be a record of all Maltese communities overseas and of all Maltese nationals who distinguished themselves in their country of adoption for the honour of Malta, said Dr Borg.
Maltese Cultural Institute
Dr Borg said that he took the opportunity that instead of passing another law on the Maltese Cultural Institute (MCI), a provision be included in the Bill that gives the Minister of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the power to make regulations under the Act to establish the MCI for prior approval by Parliament to ensure transparency. The intention to establish the MCI, which involves three Ministries, is not as advanced as that of the Council, but once the Bill is passed, it will be easier to set up the MCI.
Dr Borg said that the MCI should be set up because at the moment there is an inefficient use of human and financial resources. The Ministry of Culture promotes Maltese culture overseas. The Ministry of Education promotes the teaching of Maltese overseas, among other things. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs promotes both culture and language and has 25 diplomatic and consular premises around the world which can be offered free of charge to Maltese organisations who wish to promote Maltese culture and language.
Dr Borg said that the intention is to channel the human and financial resources into one institute and so, even in terms of budget, these resources will start to appear under one item, the MCI. But first we have to establish the Council which as such has nothing to do with the MCI.
Dr Borg said that the Council may decide to form regional groups, such as, one for Australia, but it is up to the Council in its absolute discretion to decide whether they should be formed and their composition.
Prof Cauchi raised the issue relating to the teaching of Maltese history, which, he understood, may be downgraded in schools in Malta. He also spoke about the importance of teaching of the history of migration, which needs to be recorded for future generations. Prof Cauchi said that related to this issue is the slow progress in the establishment of the migration museum in Malta. He said that he feared there may be insufficient backing from the government to enable its establishment.
Dr Borg said that at the Convention there was a commitment by Minister Cristina to include the teaching of the history of migration in the curriculum. He said that he was not aware that there were any plans to downgrade the importance of the teaching of history in Maltese schools. He said that history is very important as without it one does not know where one originates from, where one is, and where one is going. For Maltese living abroad it is even more important, as history is what binds them to Malta, their country of birth, but it is just as important for the Maltese living in Malta.
As for the Migration Museum, Dr Borg said that he did not believe that the Migration Museum has not been completed because of a lack of government backing. He said that work on the project has already started and artefacts have been gathered. There was some funding earmarked for the Migration Museum from the Good Causes Fund of the EU. However, the Church in Malta was asked to provide a guarantee for these funds and its response was that it was not in a position to guarantee such a large sum of money in the event that the project did not proceed. Dr Borg said that he hoped that the project is completed as other count
ries have similar museums.
Bishop Joe Grech Memorial Fund
Prof Cauchi spoke about the Bishop Joseph Grech Memorial Fund established by the MCCV to perpetuate the name of the late Maltese bishop and to provide one or two scholarships every year that will enable young Maltese to visit Malta to experience Maltese culture and history first-hand and return to Australia to help promote Malta and its culture and history among the younger generation. Prof Cauchi also spoke about the study tours that the MCCV organises annually through its Secretary, Mrs Edwina Mallia, for students from tertiary institutions.
Dr Borg said that he was very pleased to hear about the establishment of the Bishop Joseph Grech Memorial Fund.
Maltese Language Teaching in Australia
MCCV Vice President, Mr Victor Borg, spoke about a recent meeting about the future of the Maltese language in Victoria organised by the MCCV in conjunction with the Victorian School of Languages (VSL), which forms part of the Victorian State Department of Education.
Mr Borg said that after the meeting he spoke with the VSL Principal, who confirmed that the Victorian Government provides assistance to foreign governments in the teaching of their foreign languages in Victoria. Under such arrangements teachers of foreign languages are brought to Victoria, the foreign government continues to pay their wages and the Victorian Government offers assistance during their stay in Victoria.
Mr Borg said that, as was mentioned at last year’s convention in Malta, what is needed is for experts in the teaching of the Maltese language to be sent from Malta to Australia for one or two years to teach our volunteers how to teach Maltese to our children and to prepare a full curriculum for the teaching of the language in Australia. Such an arrangement would ensure professionalism in the teaching of Maltese in Australia which is currently missing.
Prof Cauchi said that the scholarship that Education Minister Dolores Cristina had established after last year’s Convention was an excellent idea but the Maltese teachers in Australia would find it very difficult to go to Malta on these scholarships for a long period of time.
Dr Borg said that he will pass on the message to Minister Cristina as it might be more convenient and more economical to send over someone to teach and instruct volunteer teachers of Maltese in Australia.
Facilitating Maltese citizenship applications
Melita Social Club President, Mr Edwin Bonello, thanked Dr Borg for going the extra mile to facilitate the granting of Maltese citizenship to those of Maltese descent from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Turkey and other countries, who faced significant difficulties in obtaining the required documentation, thereby uniting many Maltese around the world.
Mr Bonello said he would appreciate it if Dr Borg could inform all Maltese embassies and consulates of the specific arrangements that Dr Borg had put in place. Mr Bonello referred to the case of his sister in England who was having difficulties with her application for Maltese citizenship and he was asked to call the Maltese High Commission in England to explain the new arrangements.
Dr Borg acknowledged that the Maltese from Alexandria and from Tunis have a great history and the Maltese from Egypt were not always treated well. On his last visit to Australia, Mr Bonello had approached Dr Borg to see if something could be done without having to amend the law. Dr Borg explained that rather than changing the law, he issued a directive that the production of the birth certificate of one’s grandfather would not be required, if the birth certificate of the applicant’s father stated that the grandfather was born in Malta. This was done as an indirect way of arriving at the same conclusion.