The nation’s conscience

Malta needed someone to say what the President said… acting as the nation’s conscience was a wise and bold decision

Making waves: President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca delivering her Republic Day address
Making waves: President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca delivering her Republic Day address

In our parliamentary democracy, the role of the President is limited to a mostly ceremonial job: one above partisan politics, with the President being a unifying Head of State ¬– the top constitutional post – with practically no executive powers at all. 

The President’s speech on Republic Day is perhaps the only occasion during the year when the President is ‘allowed’ to speak his or her mind. It is indeed a President’s address that is not made on behalf of the government of the day, as – for example – the President’s speech on the opening of a new Parliament after every general election. 

On Republic Day last Tuesday, Malta’s President, Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, chose to address the nation in a different way than usual – the President elected to act as the nation’s conscience, pointing out what is wrong with Malta today when so many are saying that we never had it so good.

The President’s speech did refer to Malta’s current economic success, but she skimmed through that issue as the main thrust of her speech was about what rankles about Malta today. Not to denigrate the country of which she is the President, but to spur everyone to make the necessary effort to make Malta not only better economically but also better ethically and morally, after having arrived at a point where morals and ethics are practically being considered irrelevant by so many.

The President touched on the worse aspects of the Maltese scenario today: racism, useless political bickering complete with unnecessary insults, our lack of reaching European standards in education, hate blogs and, of course, those who are economically challenged in our society – those who are left behind, for whom the President dedicates so much of her time.

She did not mince words when she spoke of racism raising its ugly head in this small island renowned for welcoming the stranger. On this issue there is no difference between our traditional Christian values (the President prudently left out any reference to religions) and the universal human values that militate against those who deem themselves ‘pure’ Maltese and regard the introduction of African and Middle Eastern refugees as some unwanted epidemic that is going to suffocate our identity.

There are no ‘pure’ Maltese, of course – at least our DNA scientifically shows the various ethnic origins of Malta’s inhabitants. So being Maltese has nothing to do with ethnicity. It has to do with traditions and values and not with purity of race. We should welcome all those who are making our island their home – some of whom as a result of sheer coincidence. And while we should be proud of our diversity, we should all work for unity in diversity. 

On this I agree with the President one hundred per cent, even though this was the more ‘controversial’ part of her speech. This is an area where strong moral leadership is needed and the President took over this mantle with no holds barred. I have no doubt that neither the PL nor the PN are racist but sometimes I suspect that they do not speak in a direct and straightforward way about this issue, not to irk a number of voters who have other ideas.

The President also touched the problem of how we carry on with our politics. Unfortunately we are still stuck with the ‘we’ and ‘them’ divide where everything is either black or white, where whatever my party did or does is right and whatever the other party did or does is wrong. And the bickering, together with unnecessary insults, rule the day. A few days ago I was participating in a radio programme when a caller claimed that in 25 years the PN had done ‘nothing’. Incredibly such inane stupid attitudes still persist.

As the President rightly pointed out, today’s political scenario is deterring young bright people from being attracted to serve their country through politics and this situation has the germ of a national tragedy. Serious people cannot let politics be the province of charlatans. Unfortunately through its behaviour, the current political class is deterring serious people from embarking on a political career. The President refrained from using the word ‘corruption’ but there is no doubt that over the years the meaning of this word has been diluted. That is not to say that we do not have clear cases of corruption but shouting the word when it is not necessary negatively affects its impact when it is more than necessary to proclaim it.

Education is one of the most important challenges that the country is facing if it wants to reach the standards of many other European partners in the EU. Thankfully the days when education was a political ball with the infamous student/workers scheme in tertiary education are well and truly over. There is no reason why today this country cannot have a bipartisan education policy and the PN does not seem averse to the idea, even though it has hardly opened its mouth regarding the current proposals for education reform. This is an opportunity where the PN can be positive and it should not miss it. 

Regarding the President’s comments on hate blogs, the less said the better. The President was perhaps echoing the words of Pope Francis who recently said “I have often spoken of rumours as ‘terrorism,’ of how you can kill a person with the tongue… If this is valid for an individual person, in the family or at work, so much more it’s valid for journalists, because their voice can reach everyone, and this is a very powerful weapon.”

Again those who are economically challenged in Malta are not few. The President’s efforts in this area are well known and the current situation is giving left-wingers in the Labour Party a cause for serious concern. Whether Muscat will take serious steps and manage to ameliorate the situation before the 2018 elections is still to be seen.

The truth is that Malta needed someone to say what the President said. Even though, like most of her predecessors, she comes from Malta’s political milieu, the President has followed the hallowed tradition of our Presidents to rise above partisan politics and serve as the country’s unifying head of state.

Acting as the nation’s conscience was a wise and bold decision. 

The pity is that probably nothing will change and that the President’s speech will be ignored – as both political parties already seem to have done.

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