Saturday, 27 April 2013

Malta Today: Is it time to say goodbye, Mr President?

For those who are not elected and in a state of discomfort, the way out is there for all to see. The office is more important than the individual.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013 by Joseph Carmel Chetcuti

President George Abela

The task of delivering speeches at the opening of State parliaments falls on the shoulders of Heads of State. In the United Kingdom, the Queen delivers the speech at the State Opening of Parliament 'from the Throne' in the House of Lords and in the presence of Members of both Houses, a speech that is drawn up by the government and approved by the Cabinet. In many other countries including Malta, the head of state delivers the speech to the legislature.

The President's speech of 6 April 2013 at the State Opening of Malta's Twelfth Parliament appears to have ruffled feathers including those of the President. Apparently the President also thinks the task of setting out the electoral programme should fall on the Prime Minister, not the head of state who, according to him, should be above politics.

But is this president above politics?

No doubt the president first raised his concerns with the Prime Minister. If it is the case that the prime minister did not accede to his requests for changes to the speech and the president continued to feel strongly about his discomfort to the point of having to go public about it, I would respectfully submit that the only honourable course of action open to the President was to resign. The president's decision to go public (as reported) can only lend weight to the criticism of the Opposition. A president must never take or be seen to take sides (in my humble opinion, he did!) particularly when the current incumbent was appointed by the now Leader of the Opposition.

What has ruffled feathers?

Like all speeches, that of 6 April set out the government's electoral programme. Electoral programmes - particularly those after the defeat of a long-serving government - are unavoidably political.

The Nationalist Party Opposition described some aspects of the speech as offensive and divisive - somewhat rich, coming from an opposition that thinks the structure of the faces of Nationalists to be different from those of Labour supporters. So what statements upset the Opposition? I suggest the following: that the time for pique, partisanship and arrogance in leadership, at all levels of administration, is a thing of the past (all levels include but are not limited to the Government and the Opposition); that the Government will lead with a sense of humility and will be ready to take decisions (a laudable aspiration that one hopes will be realized); that Maltese are tired of the politics of the past (a fact); that every Maltese has a sense of feeling part of and contributing to the country (a laudable aspiration); that the government will lead the country as a movement (an essential part of the government's program); that the Opposition must continue to discharge its role as an Opposition without being negative and destructive (another laudable aspiration that may and may not be realised given the adversary nature of Malta's political system and culture); that the previous administration's handling of the salaries of the prime minister, ministers and parliamentary secretaries left a lot to be desired and cast an unfavourable light on the entire political class including, presumably, Nationalist Party backbenchers (an all-too-obvious fact), and that Malta belonged to everyone (another laudable aspiration).

I take it that the Nationalist Party Opposition took no offence at references to gay men and lesbians now that Simon Busuttil assures us that he is really a liberal politician, and that the Nationalist Party was and is more gay and lesbian-friendly than the Labour Party, a declaration that has the hallmark of some queer fairy tale.

A President must be above politics

Let me not beat around the bush. I am not greatly impressed by the style of this presidency which I regard as unnecessarily intrusive. For example, I do not think it advisable for a President to go around searching for 'the exact meaning' of marriage and the family (President's Address to the DOHA Colloquium 'Strengthening Marriage and Family' of Tuesday 6 October 2009) at a time when society is redefining both institutions. Debate surrounding the nature of marriage and the family is, in and of itself, political. And how could it be otherwise at a time when Maltese were fiercely debating the introduction of divorce to Malta?

Even more unwelcome was the president's observation that "studies have constantly shown that children raised outside marriage suffer disproportionately from physical and mental illness and that they are more likely to drop out of school, abuse drugs or alcohol, engage in or suffer from violence and less likely to attend higher educational institutions". Such comments are simplistic, ill-informed and an outright insult to gay and lesbian families. Someone should remind this president that it is not in his Duty Statement to put down gay and lesbian families.

Also disconcerting is the president's decision to convene forums that discuss, among other things, whether a president should be elected or appointed, whether Malta's quasi-Westminster system of government be replaced with a presidential Constitutional Republic, the country neutrality in the Constitution, the nature and direction of Malta's membership of the European Union, and so on. That, I respectfully submit, is the role of parliament and political parties, not the presidency which must not only be above politics but be seen to be above politics.

More to the point, I have concerns over the participation in Maltese political debates of a prominent foreign scholar, whom the President describes as his friend, with very conservative Roman Catholic views who apparently thinks the State should transfer all responsibility for the institution of marriage to the Church.

Nor do I think it far-sighted for a President to embark on a mission to Peru with the aim of recognising the work of Maltese in the missions. That task, I respectfully submit, is more appropriate for a senior prelate. In this day and age, religion is politics. The electorate would be forgiven for thinking that a President has too much time on his hands; more so when one out of seven Maltese is either poor or on the verge of poverty.

A way ahead

With the exception of Malta's first president, those appointed to the office have all been 'political animals'. It is well worth remembering that presidents are often appointed because of their political beliefs, their connection to political parties or the political advantage a party thinks it may enjoy by appointing them. Given the recent formation of the Maltese presidency (the country's first president was appointed in 1974), Malta does not have a wealth of conventions surrounding the office. What is urgently required is a list of conventions on what is or is not appropriate behaviour for a president.

A significant majority of Maltese spoke their mind at the last election. All of the above matters in the speech of 6 April 2013 that allegedly offended the Nationalist Opposition were raised before and during the election. They formed an essential part of the narrative of the then Opposition, now the Government. There is no reason whatsoever why such narrative should be pushed aside simply because someone happens to feel somewhat uncomfortable. For those who are not elected and in a state of discomfort, the way out is there for all to see. The office is more important than the individual.

Joseph Chetcuti MA, LLB Hons, LTH is a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria, Australia

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