Undermining the Presidency

The appointment of President-designate Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, though arguably well-intentioned, may have unwittingly opened a can of worms.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Coleiro Preca emerges as by far the most popular Cabinet minister – surpassing even Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in the rankings – and while this is undoubtedly due in part to her charisma and energy, it also has much to do with her ministerial portfolio.

The social policy ministry is in a sense a power nexus in its own right: it places its incumbent with his or her finger directly on the button that dishes out state benefits, and as such is perceived as a vital cog in a machine that is also concerned with winning elections.

We have seen with every recent election how electoral pledges are tightly connected to the government’s willingness and ability to keep this machine ticking over. One striking example of this is the University stipends issue: on paper this is a social benefit aimed at enticing more students to university. In practice it has proven to be a pivot on which gain electoral leverage, to the extent that it is no longer even possible to discuss reforming this controversial practice for fear of losing votes.

Other state benefits likewise find themselves used as ammunition in electoral debates. Children’s allowance, social housing, energy rebates and all sorts of other allowances have thus become firmly entrenched in the socio-economic landscape at their current rates. The only permissible variations are to increase the rates or introduce new schemes. In fact Coleiro Preca recently introduced a supplementary children’s allowance, to be enjoyed until the age of 23 (thus also adding new meaning to the word ‘children’).

Because such practices are viewed as essential for political reasons, there is political consensus on preserving and building on the present welfare system. Both parties have gravitated towards a left-of-centre position, which they must retain in order to have a fighting chance of winning power.

One can naturally argue in favour of this state of affairs from both political and economic angles. But it is one thing to defend this culture of dependency on state services because it is necessary or desirable for the country; and another thing because it serves the interests of both political parties. The latter argument is not only superficial and deeply flawed – government and opposition exist to serve the national interest, not vice versa – but it is also economically dangerous. An arms race between two political parties, over which can offer more benefits out of government’s limited revenue, can only be a recipe for disaster.

Meanwhile, even the more moderate among us may have reason to question the wisdom of maintaining such a generous benefits regime. While acknowledging the need for social welfare to address the needs of the truly underprivileged, there is (or should be) room to argue that Malta’s currently provides more services that are needed, and not always directed judiciously.

Social housing, for instance, is an area notoriously associated with Malta’s culture of political favours. The present policy has arguably created a culture of social dumping – with associated problems such as crime in localised areas – yet government has so far resisted calls to revise its policy, and base it on other functional models instead.

Elsewhere, government is not even present in other vital areas of the welfare state. The neediest among us are forced to rely on private (mostly Church-run) charities, which in turn rely on donations from the public.

Muscat’s decision to allow President-designate Coleiro Preca to retain active participation in drawing up social policy is therefore questionable on a number of counts. For one thing, it constitutes a revision of role of the Presidency which is not foreseen by the Constitution, and with good reason. The Presidency is an autonomous arm of the state, supposedly independent of government, with the added ceremonial role of acting as a point of reference for the entire country. This becomes impossible when the President him- or herself is perceived as part of the broader machinery of government, even if in a consultative role.

But it also adds a political dimension, which has hitherto been lacking, to the office of the Presidency itself. The formulation of policy is the preserve of politicians, not Presidents. And given that it is social policy President Coleiro Preca will assist in formulating, this will make of the Presidency an embodiment of the political left… when the office is supposed to be above and beyond such considerations.

Moreover, by placing social policy partly in the hands of the President, Muscat has also permanently deferred any possibility of a meaningful debate aimed at possibly reforming the welfare state in future. It is already difficult enough to have such a debate under the present circumstances. With the active involvement of the President – an office which is legally protected from criticism – it will become impossible.

Muscat has so far defended this decision by claiming that these new powers will “give the Presidency an aim”; but in so doing he may be attributing functions to the Presidency that are neither existent nor necessarily desirable.

The Presidency already has an aim: that of unifying the country. This decision merely undermines that aim.

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