Myriam Spiteri Debono will give presidency integrity and moral authority

Spiteri Debono should use her moral authority to convince the major parties in setting up a constitutional convention representative of society to redraft the Constitution to better reflect today’s society

Myriam Spiteri Debono is all set to be formally approved as the next president by parliament today after both sides of the House agreed to support her nomination.

The 72-year-old notary was Speaker of the House between 1996 and 1998. It was a tumultuous period that saw the Labour government unable to hold on to its one-seat majority. Throughout, Spiteri Debono navigated the choppy waters by using parliamentary procedure, rules and constitutional precepts as her guiding light.

Despite having to deal with the antics of Dom Mintoff, a larger than life figure, and the anger and hurt of Labour Party supporters who saw their government slip away from their hands, history will judge Spiteri Debono’s performance in those 22 months in a positive light.

Her constitutionalist approach and progressive credentials are likely to serve as a source of comfort for the current Labour administration that had to deal with George Vella’s moral dilemmas when it came to laws on pre-implantation genetic diagnosis of embryos and abortion.

It still has to be seen how Spiteri Debono will act if faced with ethically contentious issues but if past experience is anything to go by, she will follow the constitutionalist approach that the president has a positive obligation to sign on laws approved by parliament.

But Spiteri Debono should also serve as a source of comfort for the Opposition. She showed moral authority in 2021, when delivering the keynote speech at the Victory Day commemoration ceremony in Valletta.

She not only called for national redemption when remembering Daphne Caruana Galizia, the journalist murdered in 2017, but also delivered a missive against partisan bickering and call for vigilance against corrupt governance.

Spiteri Debono also made it a point to distinguish between the politically-charged murders of Raymond Caruana and Karin Grech – both victims of the highly-charged prevalent political situations in 1986 and 1979 respectively – and that of Caruana Galizia.

“Daphne Caruana Galizia’s killing was different, it was brutal and macabre… with the determined intention of shutting her up, an execution connected to her investigative work as a journalist,” she had said, going on to call for a newfound respect for investigative journalism as the fourth pillar of democracy.

Spiteri Debono may lack the charisma to become the country’s fundraiser-in-chief, a role that has come to be expected of the president as head of the Community Chest Fund Foundation, but she will undoubtedly imbue the office with the integrity and moral authority it deserves.

The presidency has no real power, except in clearly defined exceptional circumstances. But the office is also moulded in the figure of the person occupying the role. Spiteri Debono should use her moral authority to convince the major parties in setting up a constitutional convention representative of society to redraft the Constitution to better reflect today’s society.

She should also use her moral authority to convince government to move forward with amending the laws and give journalists, media operators and campaigners better protection. A promise to publish a White Paper, following the publication of the final report of the Media Experts Committee, has remained unfulfilled.

If parliament approves Spiteri Debono’s nomination – there is nothing that suggests the motion will not garner a two-thirds majority – she will be formally appointed president on 4 April. This leader augurs that her appointment serves as a turning point in the manner by which the political leaders dispatch their collective duty towards the State.

It is absurd that the appointment of a new president by parliament should have reached such a late stage because Robert Abela and Bernard Grech could not agree on a name. The Opposition may claim a victory of sorts by insisting that no one from Joseph Muscat’s administration should be nominated for president. Abela had no other choice but to retreat on his earlier proposal to nominate Helena Dalli. This type of haggling is to be expected in a situation where the president requires cross-party support.

But this leader reiterates its belief that to avoid future impasses, the president should be chosen by the people in an election, similar to what happens in Austria and Ireland, where the president, like Malta, is largely ceremonial in nature.