Monday, 5 April 2010

Times: A different sort of silence [Dr George Abela's first year as President]

Sunday, 4th April 2010 by Kurt Sansone

George Abela shows the common touch that is making him a 'people's President'.

One year after President George Abela took office Kurt Sansone analyses the performance of the man who made it his mantra to make the Presidency "effective and relevant".

Silence is not a word associated with President George Abela and yet just a day before his investiture last year he used the word 'silence' to emphasise the need for the President to remain aloof from public controversy.

"As President I will continue to say what's on my mind but in silence," he had told The Times in an interview where he avoided answering questions about divorce, gay rights and the choice of one national day among others.

His is an odd relationship with silence because Dr Abela has flirted with controversy in various public statements he made in the past 12 months.

In January he proffered his idea of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and family being the traditional unit during a national conference on the family. Dr Abela's suggestion came in the form of a provocative question, which nonetheless underlined his Catholic beliefs.

The statement raised the ire of the gay community with their leaders insisting the President's comments excluded cohabiting and gay couples, among others.

There were other instances. In the middle of blog comments by columnist Daphne Caruana Galizia on Magistrate Consuelo Scerri Herrera, Dr Abela was asked by The Times whether the Commission for the Administration of Justice was investigating serious allegations made against the magistrate.

Dr Abela may not have told the journalist much but his statement that the commission had taken note of the allegations was considerably more than any other President before him would have said.

On Republic Day he also suggested the creation of a Council of State to act as a consultative body to the President and which will be composed of former presidents, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

His words stoked the flames of discussion and allowed for interpretation.

Maybe this was the 'silence' Dr Abela had in mind - a different kind of silence, one that set the tone for public debate but stopped short of determining it.

On one issue though, controversy involved his office directly. The Commissioner for Voluntary Organisations had criticised the Community Chest Fund for not registering with his office and the national broadcaster for giving free air time to the annual charity telethon L-Istrina organised by the President's office.

The issue of registration was entangled in legal niceties with the President insisting his office had legal advice not to enrol the Community Chest Fund with the NGO Commissioner.

However, a much more serious concern was the reluctance to make public the organisations that were to benefit from L-Istrina. The organisations were only named this week but the original decision remained unexplained.

The controversy surrounding the Community Chest Fund risked dampening Dr Abela's feat to have the annual telethon raise funds without the use of gifts to entice viewers to donate money. It also prompted some very pointed comments, through the Department of Information, against the commissioner and The Times which reported the issue. The telethon raised a record €2.3 million as people were charmed by Dr Abela's charisma and unstinting work to make the fundraising activity a success.

Whether jogging with the masses to raise funds for charity, or opening up the San Anton Palace chapel for Sunday Mass, or breaking with protocol to satisfy a boy's request to meet him during a visit at Mount Carmel Hospital, Dr Abela struck a chord among people.

The immense sympathy he earned was very evident when he fainted during a funeral mass of a close friend. The incident, which was pinned down to fatigue and meant the President had to be hospitalised for a few days, shocked the nation.

He lived up to his commitment of making the Presidency "effective and relevant" and even if he did have critics who privately lamented his overarching attempt to be one of the people, Dr Abela's first year was a relative success.

Nationalist Party general secretary Paul Borg Olivier admitted weeks before the official investiture that Dr Abela's nomination was a "challenging decision" for the PN after the party faced internal dissent on the choice of a political rival for the post.

The trepidation may be dissipating as Dr Abela seeks to make the transition from a party politician to a statesman. But one journey he has already completed is becoming the people's President.

[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on the Times' website.]

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