Appointing the president

Bickering on who should be president would have done the country more harm

Malta's next President Myriam Spiteri Debono
Malta's next President Myriam Spiteri Debono

The decision on the appointment of the next president took less time and bickering than many thought would happen in the current political situation.

The new provision that the president should be approved by two thirds of sitting MPs did not prove to be the unsurmountable obstacle that many predicted.

It seems that the majority of ordinary citizens – and some in the media – think that bickering about everything is the guiding star even when circumstances indicate that there should be unity about an important decision like the appointment of a new president.

Surprisingly, the GWU paper l-orizzont last Thursday relegated the news of Myriam Spiteri Debono’s unanimous formal appointment by the House of Representatives to its back page while all other newspapers reported it on the front page.

Some in the media had already speculated that no agreement on the appointment of the new president would be reached in time and looked at what would happen if this was the case. The constitutional provision that indicates what should happen in such a case obliges the Speaker to take up the role of acting president until the issue is solved. Many were already predicting that this was bound to happen.

That none of this happened is a tribute to the fact that, despite what many think, Malta has matured as a republic. In fact, the appointment of Myriam Spiteri Debono as the next president was welcomed by all, even by the harshest critics of the current government.

It is interesting to see how the role of the President of Malta has evolved since Malta became a republic in 1974.

The choice of the first president – Sir Anthony Mamo – was agreed upon by the two main parties when the Constitution was amended and, among other things, the president replaced the governor general as head of the Maltese state.

The story of the second president is quite different. I remember a PN parliamentary group meeting in 1975 when George Borg Olivier – then still PN leader – telling us that he had received a telephone call from a leading civil servant working within the Prime Minister’ office, to inform him that Anton Buttigieg was to be appointed president.

This depth of ‘consultation’ was the mark of the Mintoff regime. Borg Olivier argued correctly that whatever the Opposition could do, Buttigieg was going to become president and that it is not in the long-term interest of the PN to oppose vehemently his appointment. So, when the motion was presented to parliament, the Opposition voted ‘No’ but did not ask for a division.

In the end, it proved to be the right decision – very different from when Labour in Opposition opposed vehemently the appointment of Censu Tabone as president, only to end up approving of him during his tenure in the post.

The PN parliamentary group – under different leaders – supported the nomination of both Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca and of George Vella as Malta’s president when the two-thirds majority requirement was not yet introduced in the Constitution.

Historically, the PN looked at the appointment of the President as a uniting factor not as a ‘casus belli’ – a situation that provokes or justifies a big disagreement.

In our constitutional set-up, the president has very limited powers. But whoever it is represents the country as a whole and choosing a person of undisputed integrity as president is always the right way of doing things. The President should be a national assertion that integrity comes before everything else and there is no doubt that Myriam Spiteri Debono fits this bill.

Bickering on who should be president would have done the country more harm. Such clashes are part of our political scene, but we also know how counter-productive this can be and how to rise above the fray and find solutions where none were thought possible.

So, congratulations are due to the new president whose term of office begins later this week.

Rumblings of discontent

Last Sunday’s edition of the GWU paper it-Torca, carried two articles that exposed some of the rumblings of annoyance within Labour Party ranks. One wonders how significant is this sign of disagreement or, perhaps, anger!

One was the weekly contribution of the former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Joe Brincat who subtly criticised, the Prime Minister’s decision to refuse to apologise when the Commissioner for Standards told him to do so in order to close a complaint raised by Arnold Cassola.

Brincat did not delve into the details of the case but warned that he hoped that the Prime Minister had strong reasons to justify his rigid stance shown by his refusal to apologise on a minor peccadillo.

In other words, Brincat indirectly said that he does not know of such serious reasons, implying there are none.

The rumblings in another contribution to the same newspaper are, in my opinion, more serious.

This was a page dedicated to an opinion piece written by Roberto Debrincat, former editor of the GWU daily, l-orizzont, who titled his piece with a question: What is happening in the Labour Party? (X’qed jiġri fi ħdan il-Partit Laburista?)

He pointed out that there were several developments within the Labour Party that irked him.

Today, he complained, the Labour Party is no longer the well-oiled machine that it was when Joseph Muscat was at the helm. In his opinion, the current leader – Robert Abela – does not enjoy the same level of respect that Joseph Muscat enjoyed and his level of leadership was lacking.

He referred to the Rosianne Cutajar issue as an example. Debrincat openly disagrees that Rosianne Cutajar should be reinstated within the Labour Party, while the Prime Minister is bickering about the issue.

He also pointed out that Emanuel Cuschieri has grown beyond his stature vis-a-vis the Labour Party by using a private media to announce that a Labour Party executive meeting was cancelled, implying some serious disagreement. In fact, this allegation was later denied.

According to Debrincat, under Robert Abela, many MPs and other exponents are saying what they want to say without ensuring that the party is seen as a unified block.

He concluded by saying that while the PN is not proving to be a threat, the current internal situation in the Labour Party could negatively affect its performance in the MEP election later this year.