George Vella’s Constitutional holiday

The President’s actions on the IVF bill are representative of a much wider malaise, which has cropped up several times in the past; and which can only be expected to keep happening, time and time again

On Wednesday, acting president Frank Bezzina finally put an end to a seven-week constitutional impasse, by signing the controversial IVF bill into law. 

The Maltese Parliament had approved the law – which permits preimplantation genetic testing on embryos – on 6 July. But it had to wait until 27 July to get enacted, because President George Vella – a former Labour minister and medical practitioner who is opposed to IVF – steadfastly refused to commit himself to signing a bill which he had earlier described as ‘a moral travesty’. 

But while the President is certainly entitled to his own, personal views regarding bioethics, or morality in general, he was nonetheless still bound by the Constitution to approve the law in question. 

And he had other options at his disposal, too. Indeed, there was all along nothing stopping George Vella from standing by his own moral principles... while simultaneously also respecting the law. 

He could, in a word, have resigned (in fact, he himself stated that he would do so, on several occasions, had the bill been about ‘euthanasia or abortion’). 

Yet George Vella chose another strategy instead. Pressed by the media on whether he would personally sign the law himself, Vella was consistently cryptic and enigmatic. The result was a protracted (and quite frankly, undignified) ‘guessing game’, during the course of which the IVF bill itself lay, unsigned, on the President’s desk: gathering dust for almost three weeks. 

As had been widely predicted, however, President Vella eventually availed of the pretext of a trip overseas (to Birmingham, where he visited cancer patients in hospital) in order to avoid personally signing the bill himself. This paved the way for his temporary replacement – who was rumoured to have been selected for this very purpose – to perform the constitutional duties of the Presidency, in the President’s stead. 

But while it may have taken a Presidential ‘holiday’ to overcome this temporary hurdle; there is no such thing as ‘taking a holiday from one’s obligations at law’. And the President of the Republic is certainly no exception to that rule. 

So even if the dilemma concerning this particular law appears to have now been resolved – albeit rather unsatisfactorily – the Presidential shenanigans we witnessed over the past seven weeks have only exposed a number of other unresolved issues: the most pressing of which concern the nature and role of the Presidency itself. 

ADPD chairman Carmel Cacopardo – who also called on Parliament to impeach President Vella, for defying the Constitution – put the matter succinctly enough: “Article 72 of the Constitution provides that ‘When a bill is presented to the President for assent, he shall without delay signify that he assents.’ The bill has been on the President’s desk for many days and he has not given his Presidential assent. He should signify that he assents without delay. There are no ifs and buts.” 

Effectively, this suggests that President Vella broke the law, by withholding his assent for so long. But while there would be little point in insisting on Parliamentary sanctions against Vella, at this late stage, the President’s actions are nonetheless representative of a much wider malaise, which has cropped up several times in the past; and which can only be expected to keep happening, time and time again. 

George Vella is certainly not the first President of the Republic to have clearly ‘misunderstood’ the Constitutional nature of the Presidency, within our political/legal framework. Former President Eddie Fenech Adami had likewise objected to IVF on moral grounds (though it never came to a stage where he refused to actively sign such a bill passed by Parliament). 

This illustrates the danger of such Presidential shenanigans: whether or not they are technically ‘in breach of the law’, they also serve to apply undue political pressure on incumbent governments. 

In fact, George Vella’s resistance to the IVF bill can be seen to have placed Robert Abela’s government in an awkward position (this was, no doubt, the whole purpose to begin with). Likewise, Fenech Adami’s remonstrations about IVF back in 2005 had clearly hamstrung Lawrence Gonzi’s government, in much the same way. 

What this suggests is that both those Presidents – and one could include others in the list – tried, in one way or another, to ‘place limits’ on what Parliament can, or cannot, pass laws about. 

In the absence of any Constitutional proviso that enables Maltese Presidents to do such a thing, this clearly amounts to an abuse of the office of the Presidency itself. 

And given that Parliament is now expected to discuss other laws that are potentially ‘controversial’, from a moral standpoint – including Health Minister Chris Fearne’s review of legislation to ensure medical professionals are not stopped from saving lives in the case of pregnancies that must be terminated ‘where the mother’s health is at risk’ – any repetition of such Presidential behaviour can only be described as ‘holding the government to ransom’. 

Yet Maltese governments are answerable to the electorate; while the President is answerable only to the Constitution. And clearly, it is a distinction that few of our Presidents have ever really understood.