The ex-ministers’ club

If you view it only as a glorified ‘ex-Ministers’ club’… well, you can’t expect the rest of us to be enthusiastic about your choices, can you?

George Vella
George Vella

For once, I agree with something Adrian Delia said. The appointment of George Vella as President was indeed a ‘missed opportunity’… and one which (though Delia himself didn’t say this next part) may even turn into a glaring political mistake that Joseph Muscat, or his successor, may very soon come to regret.

But predictably – being part and parcel of the same political mentality that makes such mistakes to begin with – Delia repeated Muscat’s blunder almost in the very next sentence. Having (correctly) made the point that George Vella is in no position to ‘restore credibility to Malta’s institutions’… Delia went on to propose ‘Lawrence Gonzi, Louis Galea or Tonio Borg’ instead.

Out of curiosity: which part of the criticism Delia levelled at Vella, above, does not apply just as perfectly to either Gonzi, Galea or Borg? If Malta’s institutions are in the state they’re in today – i.e., routinely defecated upon by every single European Union committee, sub-committee, and its ‘chien’ - it is partly down to the non-contributions of a tri-generational Cabinet of Ministers which failed to ever modernize Malta’s institutions, though they had more than 20 years in government to do so.

Yet now, suddenly, three former Cabinet Ministers (from the same administration that ultimately created so many of our rule of law deficits – to cite but one example, the appointment system for judges and magistrates) are expected to come out of retirement, and do as President what they failed (or didn’t even try) to do when they actually wielded real political power in this country.

Sorry, but I just don’t see that happening myself. Not from those three, and… for identical, albeit politically ‘flipped’ reasons… not from George Vella, either.

Ah well: by now I suppose you won’t even need me to explain why George Vella was objectionable to Delia on all the above grounds, but not Lawrence Gonzi, Louis Galea or Tonio Borg. Vella is Labour; the other three are Nationalist. And… yes, folks, it really is as simple (and simplistic) as that.

Which brings me to why Delia was actually right to complain about Vella’s nomination in the first place (though he went on to blow it almost instantly). To those among us who are genuinely sick and tired of the ‘two tribes’ mentality described above… it was a disappointing choice.

All it does is buy into the old, tired perception that everything that exists in this country, exists for the sole purpose of being occupied or exploited by the two parties… and nothing else matters.

This is particularly irksome in the case of the Presidency, because part of the whole raison d’etre behind that office – the part that everyone seems resigned to having forgotten – was to provide a non-partisan, unattached focal point for the nation as a whole.

Yet just a cursory glance at all previous nominations – with the notable exception of Sir Anthony Mamo, Malta’s first incumbent, in 1973 – will confirm that ‘the Presidency’ has become little more than a glorified retirement home for Cabinet Ministers past their sell-by date. The only apparent qualifications for the job are: a) being an ex-minister, and; b) no longer serving any useful political purpose to the government of the time.

And if the nominee also happens to enjoy a degree of respect/popularity across the political spectrum… which, to be fair, George Vella does… well, that’s just an added bonus.

About the only other consideration - in the early days, at least – is that the Presidency is also sometimes viewed as the equivalent of an ‘Oscar for Lifetime Achievement’.  Most of the early incumbents were former political grandees who had contributed, in one way or another, to the shaping of the Maltese Republic as we knew it. Agatha Barbara was Malta’s first female MP/Cabinet Minister; Censu Tabone was the last of a dying breed of ‘gentleman-politicians’, from a generation that fought in WW2; Mifsud Bonnici was part of a dynasty that became synonymous with Malta’s entire political landscape…

But still: they were all purely political choices… and there was always a price to be paid. Most of those early Presidents were either openly reviled by half the population (my generation was brought up on ‘Agatina’ jokes, for instance); or boycotted altogether (Censu Tabone).

None can realistically be said to have ‘unified the nation’.

But the pattern quickly stuck. Close an eye at Gonzi’s appointment of George Abela from ‘across the divide’ in 2009 – only fair to mention it, as it does stick out like a sore thumb - and you’ll find that all other past Presidents (except Mamo, and one acting President in the 1980s) were chosen from the same stable, and for pretty much the same reasons.

Why did Joseph Muscat appoint Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca: a former Social Policy Minister from his own Cabinet, who was clearly ill at ease with Muscat’s social policy direction? Why did he now choose George Vella, who is known to be a thorn in the side of Muscat’s ‘progressive’ agenda?

Many of you out there will probably disagree when I assert that those two considerations - and those two alone - formed the main thrust of the decision in both cases. As I write this, Labour cronies are already busy as badgers, all over Facebook, trying to reinvent George Vella as some sort of misunderstood, avuncular ‘statesman’ of the past. And out come trotting all the usual meaningless platitudes: ‘ragel tal-familja’, ‘igawdi ir-rispett ta’ kulhadd’, etc.

OK, this is the obligatory ‘disclaimer’ part – yes, there is some truth to all that. Certainly, there is nothing in Vella’s character or political history that renders him manifestly unsuited for the role. (And that probably goes for all Malta’s other presidents, too).

But like I said earlier: that’s just an added bonus. Lovin’ Malta beat me to it this week, but there is a whole list of policy reasons to explain why Muscat was so eager to rid his Cabinet of George Vella… and no one else but George Vella. The former foreign minister had vociferously objected to all Muscat’s progressive milestones: from the IVF bill, to gay marriage/civil unions legislation… and was starting to make noises about abortion, at a time when something resembling a ‘national discussion’ was only just starting to happen.

It Is certainly not a coincidence that Muscat chose George Vella, with all that chugging away in the background. Clearly, it ticks off a number of boxes on his own prime ministerial bucket-list.

The trouble from my perspective, however, is that none of those boxes has very much to do with ‘the Presidency’ at all. When that office was Constitutionally established i 1974, the intention was not to provide Maltese prime ministers with a respectable way to offload their party’s unwanted baggage. It was also supposed to also serve a conciliatory, bridge-building function… and much as I hate to say it, that is a function that ‘ex-ministers’ cannot be expected to fulfil: by virtue of having themselves been deeply embroiled in the same political divide they suddenly have to try and patch together.

So yes, all things considered I agree that Vella’s nomination was a missed opportunity… especially considering that there is nothing in the Constitution (except a fully understandable proviso against judges and magistrates) to prevent the choice being made from outside the bipartisan arena.

Why does it always have to be an ex-minister, anyway? Why not an ex-banker or respected industrialist? Why not a former university rector, or distinguished academic? How about a retired headmistress, or high-ranking civil servant? Or, for that matter, an architect? (Note: I’d recommend Prof. Richard England, but for two small factors: one, venerable age creeps up on all of us, so the proposal would have made more sense 20 years ago, and two; as names for Maltese heads of state go, ‘President England’ might be a little… confusing.)

Ultimately, though, it boils down to perspective. If you view the Presidency as the last institutional bastion of a Malta unsullied by political toxicity… those other choices would all make sense. If, on the other hand, you view it only as a glorified ‘ex-Ministers’ club’… well, you can’t expect the rest of us to be enthusiastic about your choices, can you?

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