Maltese constitutional development has had a rather turbulent history. Under the Order of St John, from 1530 to 1798, democracy was unknown even as an inspiration.
The French period was short-lived, from 1798 to 1800, and was marked by an armed insurrection within months of its commencement. With the approval of the King of the Two Sicilies, whom the Maltese still recognized as their lawful sovereign, the British were invited in and the French eventually had to leave.
In 1814, by the Treaty of Paris, Malta became a British possession. Its first Constitution was granted in 1835. However, its Council of Government was by nomination.
In 1887, for the first time in its history, Malta acquired representative government through a Council which was composed of a majority of Maltese elected Members. By the turn of the century, the political situation became tense as the 1887 constitution was slowly dismantled until representative government was revoked altogether in 1903. The political aspirations of the Maltese grew stronger and in February 1919 a newly constituted National Assembly unanimously resolved to request the British government to grant a new constitution with full political and administrative autonomy. Events came to a head on 7 June 1919 when riots broke out as a result of which four Maltese were killed by British troops.
This crisis paved the way for the formation of a responsible government through a new constitution, granted in 1921. Thus Malta had its first government composed of Ministers who were themselves Members of and responsible to a Legislature which the Maltese people elected. Malta obtained independence from the UK in 1964 and became a Republic in 1974.
Thirty Years later, in 2004, Malta joined the European Union.
The House of Representatives (rendered as Kamra tad-Deputati in Maltese) is the unicameral legislature of Malta and a component of the Parliament of Malta. The House is presided over by the Speaker of the House. The President of Malta is appointed for a five-year term by a resolution of the House.
The House is composed of an odd number of members (currently 69) elected for one legislative term of five years. Ordinarily, five members are returned from each of thirteen electoral districts through single transferable vote but additional members are elected in cases of disproportionality (e.g., where party with an absolute majority of votes fails an absolute majority of seats and where only candidates from two parties are elected) to ensure strict proportionality.
The House was housed in the Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta between 1921 and 2015. First in the Tapestry Chamber till June 1976 and then in the former Palace Armoury till April 2015.
In 1976 the Hall in the Grandmaster’s Palace that used to house the Knights’ Armoury was chosen to become the new House of Representatives. Plans and designs were executed by Richard England. Unfortunately the armour was hastily removed from its original gallery and transferred to the ground floor halls in order to make way for a new house of parliament. It has been the wish of many that a New Parliament will be built so that the Armoury will be relocated back to its original location.
On 1 April 2015 Parliament met for its last planned sitting in the Palace. However an extraordinary parliamentary meeting had to be called on Friday 24 April 2015 between 10.00am and 11.30am to discuss the Brussels summit (held on 23 April 2015) in which EU leaders resolved to destroy smugglers’ boats ahead of setting out with their human ‘cargo’ after more than 700 migrants died in the 19 April 2015 Mediterranean shipwreck which had finally awoken the EU’s collective resolve to find a solution to the migration crisis.
The House of Representatives had been sitting at the Palace ever since it was established (originally as the Legislative Assembly) in 1921. It originally met in the Tapestry Chamber and then moved to the former Armoury in August 1976. That Chamber was designed by architect Richard England and was inaugurated by President Anthony Mamo in June 1976.
House of Representatives between 1921 and 1976
A Parliamentary session in the Tapestry Chamber between the 1964 Independence and Republic Day in 1974
The House of Representatives (1976 – 2015) designed by Richard England
Opening Session of the New House of Representatives in June 1976
House in Session in April 2008
Parliament between 1976 and 2015
The last State Opening held in the House of Representatives at The Palace in April 2013
In 2010, works commenced to build a new Parliamentary building. The government’s original proposal had been to build Parliament on the site of the former opera house site in Valletta. This was shelved after the footprint was deemed too small and instead it was decided that the new Parliament building will be built in Freedom Square.
On 1 April 2015 the Speaker, Anglu Farrugia, during the last planned House Meeting at the President’s Palace, informed the House that some parliamentary staff had already moved to the new Parliament Building.
An extraordinary parliamentary meeting had to be recalled at the Palace Chamber on Friday 24 April 2015 to debate the developing migration situation after more than 700 migrants died in the 19 April 2015 Mediterranean shipwreck which had finally awoken the EU’s collective resolve to find a solution to the migration crisis.
The building was built to the designs of Renzo Piano. Parliament moved to the new building on 4 May 2015.
The Standing Orders of the House provide for the creation of six Parliamentary Standing Committees to make parliamentary work more efficient and enhance Parliament’s scrutiny functions. The Standing Committees are:
- Standing Committee on House Business
- Standing Committee on Privileges
- Standing Committee on Public Accounts
- Standing Committee on Foreign and European Affairs
- Standing Committee on Social Affairs
- Standing Committee on Consideration of Bills
Other Standing Committees constituted by other statutes include:
- Standing Committee on Environment and Development Planning
- National Audit Office Accounts Committee
There are also select committees and non-official committees.
The main functions of Parliament are the enactment of laws and the scrutiny of the Executive
The Tapestry Chamber
This hall was the former meeting place of the Council of the Order of St John where the Grandmaster would discuss the administration of the Order and the island with high ranking knights. It was later used by the British for official functions and social gatherings. This chamber was also the meeting place for the Legislative Council during the British rule and subsequently hosted Malta’s first Parliamentary Assembly established through a Self Government constitution granted by the British in 1921 following a Maltese unrest. The last session of Parliament in this hall was held in 1976 when the former Armoury of The Palace was transformed into the new Parliament Hall.
The tapestry set was appositely made for the chamber where it now hangs by the Gobelins Royal Factory (France) and funded by the Valencian Grandmaster Ramon Perellos y Rocaful (1697-1720). Known as the Teintre des Indes, it was commissioned in 1708 and completed two years later in 1710. The work was inspired by designs presented to King Louis XIV of France in 1679 by the Dutch Prince Johan Maurtiz featuring exotic plants and animals. These were subsequently included in painting compositions from which to-scale preparatory drawings were then prepared for the weavers to work on. This is the only known surviving set of tapestries still complete from the few sets of Teintures des Indes produced.
Of particular interest is the original coffered ceiling of this hall and the cycle of wall paintings representing naval battle scenes conducted by the Order against the Ottomans.
Parliament meets again in the Tapestry Chamber to commemorate 90 years from the first parliamentary session (1921-2011)
The New Parliament Building under construction between 2011 and 2015
Piano’s Models of The new Parliament Building
The new Parliament building December 2012
The new Parliament building February 2013
The new Parliament building February 2014
The new Parliament building May 2014
The new Parliament building in January 2015
On 1 October 2014 the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dr Anglu Farrugia, said that in view of delays in the completion of the new Parliament House, MPs had no choice but to meet in the old chamber when the House reconvened on 13 October 2014.
Dr Farrugia said he had been officially informed by Infrastructure Minister Joe Mizzi that the contractor had not honoured his obligations to complete the works by the end of September 2014. As a result the contractor was fined every day. The government started imposing fines of €20,000 per day on contractors over project delays. In a statement, the government said the contractors had to reach a number of milestones by 30 September 2014 so that Parliament could convene in the new building after the summer recess but the contractors failed to meet the deadlines. The project was originally meant to be completed in November 2012.
The Chamber in March 2015 ready for inauguration in April 2015
At a press conference by Grand Harbour Regeneration Corporation chairman Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi on 3 March 2015 it was revealed that migration to the new parliament building may finally take place after the Easter recess in April 2015, as works were progressing according to a schedule set in January 2015. It was communicated that work on the plenary chamber was practically finished and the redesigned desks, which had to be reduced in size at the 11th hour due to lack of space, had been installed, as have the MPs’ chairs.
Works on the other block, which includes the Speaker’s office, the committee rooms and MPs’ offices, were also nearing completion and parts of the building were ready to be handed over to the government.
Grand Harbour Regeneration Corporation chairman Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi confirmed that testing and commissioning of the building had started in line with the deadlines established by the contractors at the beginning of 2015.
The new Parliament building in March 2015
The new Parliament building in April 2015
The road to the new parliament building
Malta’s first purpose-built Parliament House was inaugurated on Monday 4th May 2015, almost a century since Malta got its first Legislative Assembly.
The Assembly, and later Parliament, were always housed in the Palace in Valletta, first, from 1921 in the Tapestry Chamber, and then, from 1976, in the former Armoury.
The first Parliament was formed in 1921, after Leo Amery, under-secretary of state for the British colonies, convinced Britain to grant Malta a form of national government. Malta was granted its first Constitution, John Howard was elected Head of Ministry, and Edgar Arrigo elected as the first Speaker of the House.
In its first sitting, Parliament debated the “Declaration of Faith” and agreed to send a telegram to the Pope, requesting that he bless the new Parliament. In the following Sitting, the government moved the first reading of the first Bill, that of making Roman Catholicism the recognised religion in Malta.
The Parliament originally consisted of two Houses; a lower Legislative Assembly with elections every three years, and an upper Senate with elections every six years. The Senate was rescinded in 1933, following an update to the Constitution.
Back then, and until 1976, Parliament met in the Tapestry Chamber, formerly the Council Chamber of the Order of St John, grandly decorated with Flemish tapestries. However, it was cramped for that purpose, its small size was evident from the start and in 1922 then-Opposition leader Gerald Strickland complained that there was no room for members of the public to observe Parliamentary debates. He therefore moved a motion ‘humbly, calling upon the Governor to allow the use of the Auberge de Castille for parliamentary sittings’. The motion failed, with several MPs not wanting to appear as though they were surrendering their rights over a building used for civil government.
In 1976, two years after Malta became a Republic, the House of Representatives finally changed its meeting chamber, moving a short distance to the room in the Grandmaster’s Palace that used to house the Knights’ Armoury. Under the Republican Constitution, the number of MPs increased from 50 to 65. In 1995, eight standing parliamentary committees were set up, improving Parliament’s consultation with experts and civil society.
On 1 April, 2015, Parliament met in the former armoury for what was planned to be the final time. In this sitting, a Bill aimed at protecting the rights of people to their self-determined gender identity was made law.
However, MPs were recalled from their Easter recess to meet in the armoury on 24 April for one final time – to discuss the resolutions of an extraordinary EU summit on the deaths of hundreds of undocumented migrants in the Mediterranean. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat therefore became the last MP to deliver a speech in the Grandmaster’s Palace.
The new €90m Parliament House was commissioned by former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi – a former Speaker of the House – and designed by architect Renzo Piano, who did not attend the inauguration because he had another engagement in New York.
Parliament House sits on the former Freedom Square, which was itself created when wartime bombing destroyed the former Malta railway terminal building located there, partly underground.
The building of the new parliament started in 2011 with the demolition of the arcade and shops which bordered Freedom Square.
The road to the New Parliament Building in pictures
Opening of The New Parliament Building
Parliament House was inaugurated on Monday 4th May 2015 by the President of Malta, H.E. M.L. Coleiro Preca.
The ceremony started in the old chamber of parliament where MPs gathered for a final photograph.
Led by the Speaker Dr Anglu Farrugia, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Opposition leader Simon Busuttil they then walked past the first chamber of parliament – the Tapestry Chamber used between 1921 and 1976 – and out of the palace into St George’s Square where the police band and a guard of honour had formed.
A contingent representing the army, which was to date responsible for security, then handed the ‘keys’ of the chamber to the police, who took over security of the new parliament building.
The MPs then walked up Republic Street to the new Parliament House accompanied by the police band as a small crowd of onlookers applauded.
Among the MPs taking part in the ceremony was former Labour minister Joe Debono Grech the only serving MP who had also sat in Parliament when it was housed in the Tapestry Chamber and then, after 1976, when it moved to the former armoury. both at the palace. Labour whip Godfrey Farrugia and his wife Marlene carried flowering plants. Dr Farrugia referred to Oliver Friggieri’s novel Fil Parlament ma jikbrux fljuri and said he believed flowers do grow in Parliament and they should be cared for. He said the plant would sit in his office..
Former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, who commissioned the project, was among the former MPs invited for the ceremony. Also present was former President and Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami, members of the judiciary and members of the diplomatic corps.
On arrival at city entrance the police band and guard of honour formed up opposite Parliament House and accorded the National Salute to the President.
In an address just outside the building, Speaker Anglu Farrugia said the building of Parliament House was a step in the right direction, and a timely one. It was a reflection of how Parliament should be autonomous of any other institution. In2015, he said, funds had been allocated in the Budget for Parliament to become truly autonomous, and the institution should continue to move in this direction. He said Parliament had a glorious history and he looked forward to more legislation to uphold the dignity of parliament, including the law on standards in public life. Dr Farrugia said Parliament was becoming more open and transparent, as also evidenced by the fact that video streaming of parliamentary proceedings started from that day. This was a quantum leap in parliamentary life and should be followed-up by a free to air parliamentary TV channel. Dr Farrugia said the ceremony showed a strong belief in democratic life. He wished all present more hard work in the interests of the nation.
President Coleiro-Preca said that this was a milestone in the country’s parliamentary history. This new building was an opportunity for reflection on democracy and the benefits that came with it. A strong democracy was one which reflected the will of the majority and respected also the interests of the minorities including those who were socially deprived. She regretted that women’s representation in Malta’s parliament was just 13 per cent and said this needed to increase if parliament was to be truly representative of society. In the House, she insisted, it should be the arguments which counted, not insults, and MPs should respect each other, and therefore the people who elected them. MPs should be examples of tolerance of each other’s views. Parliament should adopt the best ideas from whatever side they came, because that reflected maturity. President Coleiro-Preca said she looked forward to an updating of the Constitution to reflect the people’s current needs. She urged MPs to also hear pockets of society who have no voice, including migrants. MPs, she said, should also continue to work hard in Europe for an international solution to the migration problem. MPs should show courage and discuss the introduction of a social pay. They should also feel it their duty to safeguard the environment. Parliament should not have a monopoly in the democratic process but should rather promote its dissemination to all strata of society. Democracy was built every day and needed to be cared for every day, she said.
At the end of the President’s speech a police detachment marched towards the building and the Police Commissioner handed the keys of the new Parliament House to the Speaker.
The President then unveiled a commemorative plaque and the building was blessed by Archbishop Charles J Scicluna (click here for text of the blessing prayer). The Archbishop then presented a painting of St Thomas More, patron saint of politicians. The painting was made by artist Manuel Farrugia.
The guests then moved in to the new Chamber, with MPs having the opportunity to try out their new seats.
The ceremony ended shortly after 5 p.m. and the first sitting in the new parliament started an hour later – the 258 Parliamentary Sitting of the XII Legislature.