What’s worse for our ‘social well-being’? Cannabis… or a governability crisis?

What both those approaches have in common, though, is that they simply disregard a somewhat crucial detail: that the same ‘cannabis reform’ they are trying to sabotage, was part of the Labour Party’s electoral manifesto in 2017

Not, mind you, that we really had to reduce matters to such a stark, binary choice to begin with… but, well, that is precisely what happened this very week.

One minute we were discussing a bill to overhaul Malta’s drug policies concerning cannabis (in other words: a perfectly routine updating of national legislation, of the kind which happens – or should happen – in all democracies, all the time…)

Next thing we know, there are public calls for the President of the Republic to block any such legislation from being enacted at all: even after its eventual approval by the House of Representatives.

Honestly, though: has it not even remotely occurred, to any of the people making this irresponsible demand, that such a course of action would be far, FAR more harmful to the country’s (ahem) ‘social well-being’, than any amount of legalized dope-smoking… if not any form of legalized drug-taking whatsoever?

Guess not, huh? Ok, tell you what… let’s rewind a little. Truth be told, George Vella is hardly the first President of the Republic to have ever faced this sort of pressure; indeed, the issue has been sporadically resurfacing, every five years or so, for at least 20 years now.

So let’s start with a couple of historical examples. For some reason, it has become customary for journalists to ask every single newly-appointed Maltese President – at least since Guido de Marco; possibly even earlier – whether they would ‘approve a (hypothetical) law legalizing abortion in Malta’.

And one by one, all our Presidents returned exactly the same answer: De Marco, Eddie Fenech Adami, George Abela, Marie-Louise Colerio, George Vella… all of them declared that, under those circumstances, ‘they would sooner resign’.

Please note, however: ‘resign’…. not ‘block the law, and remain President’ (which is what both the MUMN, and the Dean of the University’s Faculty of Social Wellbeing, seem to be suggesting)…

But never mind that for now; and let us also overlook the sheer irrelevance of the question itself… in a country where no political party, great or small, has ever actually proposed legalizing abortion to begin with (at least, not until Marlene and Godfrey’s private member’s bill last January; and not counting more recent, microscopic parties such as ‘Volt’).

And yet, notwithstanding the sheer lack of contextual realism in which that question is always asked… it has somehow become the ‘gold standard’ of how Maltese Presidents have been perceived ever since.

Which brings us to the first of many problems surrounding this misconception. For starters, it implies that Maltese presidents DO actually have the legal option to back out of their Constitutional obligations at will… even if – quite frankly – they don’t.

Besides: if we do make the mistake of saddling the Presidency with executive powers that it was never meant to possess… the implications would go far beyond the government’s ability to legislate on any given issue – be it abortion, IVF, gay rights, or cannabis (all of which, incidentally, have been subjected to similar treatment by former Presidents).

To appreciate why, we need only look at some of the real instances where the exact same threat was not only made; but also carried out.

To the best of my knowledge, only two Presidents have ever successfully blocked legislation in Malta. The first was Eddie Fenech Adami, who threatened to resign over a 2005 bill to regulate IVF… with the result that the new law had to wait until after his Presidency, to even be tabled in Parliament (let alone debated, and approved).

The second was George Abela: who, in 2014, used the exact same tactic to block the Civil Unions Law (which likewise had to be postponed until the appointment a new President, Marie-Louise Colerio).

But the two cases are not entirely analogous. Eddie Fenech Adami may have delayed the final approval of the IVF bill for around four or five years… during which time, of course, the entire sector was left completely unregulated.

But George Abela took the same stance several steps further: by flat-out refusing to sign a bill that had already been approved by the House (the only Maltese President, as far as I am aware, to have ever done so).

Why, then, did it not precipitate a cataclysmic crisis, of the kind I loosely described above? Simple, really: because the government of the day timed its approval of that law, to coincide (almost literally) with the eve of George Abela’s last day in office.

In practical terms, then, the Civil Unions Bill was only delayed for a few months… allowing both government, and Abela himself, to emerge from that dilemma with no real loss of face.

Had the timing worked out slightly differently, however; had that bill been approved in Abela’s first two years as President (as was the case with Eddie and IVF), instead of his last two days…

… well, this is how Fenech Adami himself explained the possible consequences, at the time: “If a President does not agree to give his assent to a Bill, there are only two options. Either resign, or face an impeachment motion.”

Effectively, this the situation that both Dr Andrew Azzopardi, and the MUMN, are (rather unkindly, it must be said) trying to corner President George Vella into. Only this time round, it is not because the issue in question – cannabis reform, remember? – challenges the President’s religious/conscientious beliefs, in quite the same way as IVF so clearly did to Eddie Fenech Adami, or gay rights to George Abela…

Oh, no. Those entities want to precipitate a full-blown Constitutional crisis – exposing, in the process, the sheer extent of our country’s democratic deficiencies - simply because they themselves happen to disagree with the stated aims of the proposed reform.

And for reasons which are almost too childish to even bother mentioning, too. In the MUMN’s case, it is because of concerns with ‘cannabis consumption at the work-place’… even though there is nothing in the new law that actually prevents companies – including hospitals – from establishing their own protocols to deal with drug-use among staff (as, after all, they already do with alcohol).

In Azzopardi’s case, on the other hand… well, it appears as though he has run out of any legitimate arguments against the bill; and is now launching a desperate, last-ditch effort of his own, to block the legislation in any way he possibly can.

What both those approaches have in common, though, is that they simply disregard a somewhat crucial detail: that the same ‘cannabis reform’ they are trying to sabotage, was part of the Labour Party’s electoral manifesto in 2017.

As such, it has been pre-emptively approved by the single largest electoral majority this country has ever seen: something which cannot be said for either Andrew Azzopardi’s endless pontifications on Facebook… or even the MUMN’s (altogether more legitimate) concerns.

Much more seriously, however, the same course of action would not only derail (however briefly) the entire democratic process… it would also set a dangerous precedent, that could later be used to block virtually any other type of legislation, too.

For if any President can simply ‘short-circuit’ the democratic process at will… and if (as is the case today) there are no Constitutional provisos in place, to even cater for that kind of contingency at all…

… I don’t know. Perhaps Dr Azzopardi should be the one to explain the precise consequences of such a scenario (seeing as it was his idea to begin with; and his own area of specialization just happens to be ‘social welfare’). How would society’s interests best be served, by a situation where a democratic mandate can so easily be overturned… simply because it fails to meet with the personal approval of a random University academic, or a random medical union?

While he’s at it, perhaps Dr Azzopardi should also predict how the ensuing crisis would actually unfold. If Eddie Fenech Adami is correct – and of all people, he should know – it would result in the (voluntary or forced) resignation of the incumbent President.

Now: I am the first to admit that – under those specific circumstances - a Presidential resignation would not really constitute all that much of a ‘crisis’… but then again, it would not exactly resolve the underlying impasse, either.

Because like I said earlier: the real problem is not how the President’s actions may impact any one specific issue… it is that the President would be wielding far more power he was never meant to have – more power, indeed, than even Queen Victoria ever wielded, at the height of the British Empire – in a way that would be both clearly anti-democratic, and… quite frankly… ILLEGAL.

Not to stress too fine a point on it, or anything… but the situation proposed by Dr Azzopardi, and others, would technically qualify as a ‘coup d’etat’. We would have an unelected Head of State, unilaterally placing limits on what sort of legislation our national Parliament can, and cannot, draw up… without any popular mandate whatsoever; and in the absence of any semblance of ‘Constitutional underpinning’ to boot.

Naturally, I will leave it to you to judge which of the two scenarios being contemplated here – the partial legalisation of cannabis; or a protracted Constitutional crisis, which would (taken to its logical conclusion) render this country practically ungovernable – would be more detrimental to the well-being of society as a whole.

But if you ask me, it’s a no-brainer… and, well, I could say the same for the original proposal, too.