Prime Minister must appoint a unifying figure for President

Joseph Muscat should resist all temptation and internal opposition and appoint a person not hailing from the Labour Party camp

President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca’s tenure as the ninth President of the Republic is nearing its end. She leaves this office, having served with humbleness and energy borne out of her unstinting resolve to serve the people and the nation.

Like in other parliamentary democracies, the role of the President is limited in scope. However, what this Office lacks in executive power it makes up for in moral authority. This Office is a beacon of unity. This Office represents our people, our nation, our past and present. This Office is best placed to speak for the aspirations of our future generations. It is the conscience and moral compass of our country.

As a nation, we have every reason to be proud of our presidents. Each and every holder of this highest office, including Paul Xuereb who held the post in an acting capacity for more than two years, executed his or her duties in office in an exemplary manner. Sir Anthony Mamo brought his inimitable style and decorum to the office. Anton Buttigieg made good use of his presidency to showcase Maltese culture, particularly our literature.

Agatha Barbara was our first female President. Guido de Marco gave an international dimension to the office. Wisdom and resilience were Censu Tabone’s legacy. The delicate and judicious presidency of Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, particularly during the 1997-1998 political crisis marked his tenure. While Eddie Fenech Adami was the first Prime Minister to become President, he managed to divest himself of the partisan mantle and serve in the interest of all.

Between 1976 and 2009, it was practice to select a person close to the government of the day to serve in this high office. Lawrence Gonzi broke away with tradition when in 2009 he appointed George Abela. George Abela was up until 1997 deputy leader of the Labour Party and later contested the leadership when Joseph Muscat took the prize.

It was a bold move and one that possibly did not go down well with a section of Nationalist supporters. But it set an all-important precedent that sadly is not followed too often. Holders of political office can rise to the occasion and give a service to the country even when their Party is not in government. In 2009, Simon Busuttil boldly led the PN Opposition into voting in favour of Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca’s nomination.

Many believed that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat would propagate this policy. In the run-up to the 2013 general election, as Leader of the Opposition he pledged that he was going to work with everyone, irrespective of one’s political creed. Sadly, this promise fell on the wayside within hours of him being elected. Practically all holders of executive office were swept aside and replaced by political appointees.

Technically competent people were dismissed only to be replaced by some whose only credentials seemed to be a Labour Party loyalty card. The end result was that we now have a public administration, a public sector that serves the government of the day and not necessarily the people.

The end result was that our institutions were weakened. This is not my assessment, it is not a conclusion reached solely by the Opposition. International institutions today are recommending measures to strengthen the independence of Maltese institutions. In the eyes of these reputable organisations, our institutions were hijacked by our government and do not operate at arms’ length as they should in a functioning democracy.

Some would argue that during PN-led governments the same happened with all top positions given to party loyalists. This is not the case. I can cite examples and mention names but it would not be fair on the persons concerned to do so. Neither is it necessary. I can say, however, that around half of the permanent secretaries that Joseph Muscat so readily dismissed within twenty-four hours of taking office, were not PN-waving supporters.

Some were Labour-leaning, competent people, including a number who were appointed by Alfred Sant in the 1996-1998 period. PN-led governments gave sensitive posts, including that of Commissioner of Police and Commander AFM to people, who, to put it mildly, did not come from a Nationalist background. To their credit most of these officers, irrespective of their political background, carried out their duties to the best of their abilities without fear or favour. They were not push-overs or yes-men out to please the government of the day.

The political cleansing that started in 2013 is still going on with sensitive positions, including judiciary appointments, going solely to people manifestly close to the Labour party. It is as if the executive, administrative and judiciary belong to only half of the population. This has to stop.

Joseph Muscat has a unique opportunity to send out a unifying message when nominating Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca’s successor. He should resist all temptation and internal opposition and appoint a person not hailing from the Labour Party camp.

He should emulate Lawrence Gonzi and help bridge this senseless political divide which, over the past five years, has sadly widened and not disappeared as many had hoped. Joseph Muscat sees himself as a purveyor of change. To his credit he did bring about social transformation but he has, to date, failed drastically to deliver in that all-important change he promised. Now is the time. This country belongs to us all.

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