Divisions cannot be healed by meaningless, empty rhetoric

George Vella thinks he’s going to ‘heal the division’? How, exactly? By drawing on his vast experience as a ‘conciliatory figure’ in Maltese politics… when he was all along plugged into precisely the same dualistic mindset as everyone else?

President George Vella during his inauguration speech
President George Vella during his inauguration speech

One of the things I liked about Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, as President, was that she rarely ever held back from speaking her mind.

Not, mind you, that ‘speaking one’s mind’ is always the wisest thing to do under any circumstance. The human brain does, after all, have a tendency to get itself stuffed full of all sorts of unmitigated nonsense… to get an idea what I mean, try having a five-minute conversation with any old anti-vaxxer on Facebook.

This, by the way, is true for all people at all times (including myself, naturally); let alone, for those who also fulfil all the Constitutional obligations of a President.

And Coleiro Preca was not entirely immune to letting her loquacity sometimes get in the way of basic common sense. I, for one, always found it patronising – and more than a little inconsistent – that she would use her annual Christmas address to lambast Maltese society for the ‘erosion of its moral compass’, and its collective failure to ever take responsibility for its many shortcomings… when the same President refused to ever shoulder responsibility for her own Office’s part in the 2015 ‘Paqpaqli Ghall-Istrina’ incident, which left around two dozen people seriously injured.

Personally, I was unaware that there were two sets of moral expectations in this country: one which holds that we are all responsible for our actions – or, in this case, for our failure to properly organise the kind of event that, by definition, always entails the risk of a serious accident; and the other which holds that the ‘accountability rule’ simply doesn’t apply to the President of Malta.   

All the same, however: it would be a bit unrealistic to expect to agree with absolutely everything a president ever says or does. And closing an eye at that one anomaly, it must be said that Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca did use her position to spotlight a number of important issues in this country.

Racism, for instance. As someone who is deeply concerned about the increasingly fascist attitudes I encounter all the time on the social media, it was reassuring to hear the Head of my State voice my own inner anxieties so accurately, and with so little fear or favour.

Nonetheless, I feel it’s only fair to conclude by wishing President George Vella the best of luck in this new-found commitment of his. Judging only by how all those other Presidential promises of ‘national unity’ went in the end… something tells me he will need all the luck he can get

The environment is another example: though here, Coleiro Preca’s remonstrations – beautifully worded though they were – could have come accompanied by actual pressure to stop the wholesale destruction of our natural heritage for the purposes of greed and speculation.

After all, President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca was very quick to tell us that she would refuse to sign an abortion bill if it was ever put before her. Yet she had no qualms whatsoever when it came to enacting all sorts of other legislation which made an open mockery of her own, stated environmental concerns.

If she was worried about the lack of open space for recreation, for instance… and above all, the mental health impact on children who are being brought up without ever seeing a tree, or a bird, or any other aspect of the natural world… why did she approve so many laws that resulted in the direct destruction of what little remains of Malta’s environment? Why did she consent to a ‘reform’ of the Planning Authority, which robbed the State regulator of all its environmental commitments? How could she agree to a package of laws that effectively reduced the PA to a glorified spokesperson for the Malta Development Association: constantly sidelining all environmental issues, all objections by all residents, all concerns about safeguarding Malta’s cultural and archaeological heritage, and all that… and always caving in to the construction lobby’s every single outrageous demand, every single time?

President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca was very quick to tell us that she would refuse to sign an abortion bill if it was ever put before her. Yet she had no qualms whatsoever when it came to enacting all sorts of other legislation which made an open mockery of her own, stated environmental concerns
President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca was very quick to tell us that she would refuse to sign an abortion bill if it was ever put before her. Yet she had no qualms whatsoever when it came to enacting all sorts of other legislation which made an open mockery of her own, stated environmental concerns

And especially given that the same Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca was at the forefront of the 2005/6 protests against the ODZ extension schemes… how on earth could she not object to new policies – coming from her own government, this time – which allow for more petrol stations in ODZ areas?

The answer should be straightforward enough to anyone who has actually bothered listening to a single word any Maltese President has ever said. Talk is cheap. It is very easy to climb on a moral, self-publicising pro-life bandwagon on the subject of abortion… when you know full well that your government has absolutely no intention of ever introducing abortion anyway, so your resolve will never be put to the test.

It is a whole different ballgame to actually use the real powers invested in you by the Constitution to stop environmental damage from actually being done, when you have both the power and opportunity to do so.

Like all Presidents before her, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca could very easily have thrown a spanner into the works of the corporate demolition machine that is currently bulldozing this country to oblivion. She could have blocked legislation citing Article 2.9 of the Constitution, which decrees that “the State shall protect and conserve the environment and its resources for the benefit of the present and future generations and shall take measures to address any form  of environmental degradation in Malta, including that of air, water and land, and any sort of pollution problem and to promote, nurture and support the right of action in favour of the environment.”

I mean, seriously, folks: can any of you actually read that, and keep a straight face? What ‘measures’ did the supposed ‘custodians of the Constitution’ ever take to stop successive governments from just defecating all over that paragraph with impunity? Why do Maltese presidents always limit their interpretation of the Office’s powers only to taking a moral stand on abortion… and not on any of the other provisos within the same Constitution?

But I’ve answered that question already. Because – like so many other things our Presidents have a habit of saying – it is facile, easy and (ultimately) meaningless. That day when a president of the Maltese Republic finally puts his or her foot down on environmental concerns… instead of just phantom, bogus ‘moral issues’… then, perhaps, we might have a reason to take their environmental resolve even remotely seriously.

But don’t hold your breath, because it is not going to happen. As I did with Coleiro Preca, I listened closely to George Vella’s inaugural address this week. And yet again, we have another former member of the same administration – a man who, until just last week, was part of a government committed to the very same policies described above – telling us that now (but only now) he will start concentrating on environmental protection.

“Our environment is threatened. During my presidency, I will look to the authorities to show responsibility towards sustainability and their obligations towards future generations,” he said.

Please note: ‘during my presidency’… not ‘during my 35-career as a hugely influential member of the Labour Party, who occupied various Cabinet positions, and therefore had massive influence over all aspects of the government’s internal decision-making process’.

I guess the question asks itself, really. Why only now? Why did George Vella never express any similar concern at any point during the three or so decades he was a member of the Labour Party parliamentary group? Like, when he was deputy leader of that party, for instance?

Besides: if this is how he all along felt about his own government’s environmental policies…. why did George Vella never use his influence at Cabinet level to bring about a change to the policies themselves? Why did he consistently vote in favour of so many environmentally unsound laws when he was a Member of Parliament?

But there you have it. Somehow, we have all tacitly accepted this sudden, inexplicable ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ transformation from anyone who gets appointed to the Presidency. It no longer surprises us, that people like George Vella would suddenly discover a profound environmental conscience… the moment he steps down from a position where he might have actually made a difference to government’s environmental record; and on stepping into a new position which we all know, from bitter experience, cannot hope to have any impact at all.

And it’s not just the environment, by the way. As if literally quoting from a handbook for newly-appointed presidents, George Vella also repeated the same old bizarre, unearthly cliché resorted to by all his predecessors, bar none. He solemnly declared that his Presidency will “seek to heal divisions.”

You will surely remember how Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca said the same thing; so did George Abela; and so (incredibly) did Eddie Fenech Adami… even though he was, in part, the architect of so many of those divisions in the first place.

And OK, I’ll concede that George Vella – as a Maltese politician – is nowhere near as ‘divisive’ a choice as Fenech Adami was in his own day. But come on, let’s get real. George Vella thinks he’s going to ‘heal the division’? How, exactly? By drawing on his vast experience as a ‘conciliatory figure’ in Maltese politics… when he was all along plugged into precisely the same dualistic mindset as everyone else?

Or by simply pretending that he was never part of the forces that have ripped this country apart in the past 40 or so years?

Oh wait, I know. He will succeed in ‘unifying the nation’ by simply repeating the same old meaningless catchphrases of all his predecessors, who all made exactly the same promise in their day… yet somehow, nearly always managed leave this country even more divided than it was before.

Nonetheless, I feel it’s only fair to conclude by wishing President George Vella the best of luck in this new-found commitment of his. Judging only by how all those other Presidential promises of ‘national unity’ went in the end… something tells me he will need all the luck he can get.

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