Breathing relevance into the Presidency

Since becoming President of the Republic, former social policy minister Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca has certainly not allowed the position to influence her outspokenness on important social issues.

This may in itself give rise to controversy, seeing as the role of the President is often regarded as a figurehead for the entire country… and, as such, outspokenness about political issues is not a traditional hallmark of the office.

But HE Coleiro Preca evidently views her role to be a custodian of the moral and social compass of the State: and while not all may agree, few can deny that such a custodian is in fact needed, given the difficult times both Malta and Europe are currently going through.

Besides, one can only question the validity of a public office which does not contribute anything meaningful to debates about topics of public concern. One must therefore concede that the President’s outspokenness has also breathed a new sense of relevance into the role.

In her Republic Day speech last December, HE Coleiro Preca took the opportunity to make the point that ours is a changing society, and that political decisions must be taken on the basis of the reality at street level. Social demographics, religious beliefs and even ethnicities are all evolving at a fast pace – and the President took the opportunity to outline a basic vision that the Republic must embrace these new realities instead of resisting them, while stepping up the struggle against poverty and social injustice.

On the occasion of the inauguration of the new Parliament this week, the President took the same concept one step further. “A strong and genuine democracy is one which, while reflecting the choices of the majority in a representative democracy, listens and respects the ideas of minorities – not only parliamentary – and other voices in society,” she told the assembled MPs. “It reflects the voices among us, the weakest in society, whose voice might not be the loudest.”

The former Labour minister made no secret of her growing concern with the immigration phenomenon, which has already cost some 20,000 lives on the doorstep of Europe over the past decade. This death toll also seems to be increasing exponentially from year to year, in step with an escalation of human trafficking and the apparent powerlessness of the EU to intervene effectively. To encounter loss of life on a similar scale in the Mediterranean, one would have to go back all the way to the Second World War.

“I cannot ignore what is happening around us. Thousands upon thousands are leaving continents struck by the ugly consequences of their colonial history and different forms of violent situations… They are running from crippling states of underdevelopment with little chance of employment, civil wars whose roots are in the arms industry, the spread of disease like Ebola and the effects of climate change.”

Coleiro Preca has already faced hostile reactions for voicing such concerns in the past. To her credit she does not seem to have been deterred by such criticism. Such negative reactions only illustrate the growing need for persons occupying public office to bear in mind the responsibility of their role when torn between their moral obligations and the allure of populist politics.

As the President rightly stated, the ongoing tragedy calls out to Maltese politicians to be mindful of their own humanity before all other concerns.

“Awareness and compassion are two qualities that are indeed duties of any MP… do not let yourself be swayed by the few vociferous voices against these fellow human beings, and continue with your work in the EU to find an international and human solution to the issue of migration from Africa and the Middle East. In that way we shall not depend on national solutions to what is a global problem.”

Since her term began, President Coleiro Preca has also exhibited the same commitment to entirely local issues concerning social justice. She has vociferously spoken out against precarious employment, and raised awareness of the plight of the socially underprivileged.

Lastly, the President also touched briefly upon another potential political controversy: she alluded to growing concerns with the built environment, at a time when the present government is committed to a number of large-scale development projects.

“I realise that our future generations are concerned about urban developments that are leaving them with no recreational space to enjoy the environment,” she said. “It is MPs’ duty to ensure the safeguarding of our human and natural environment with laws that respect sustainable development…. Our duty is towards those who come after us, for it is from them that we are loaning this environment.”

While this concern is welcome, one cannot fail to notice that Coleiro Preca is markedly less impassioned when dealing with environmental issues, and her intervention lacks the sense of urgency demonstrated by the President on other issues.

If Coleiro-Preca’s otherwise excellent speech last Monday is to be in any way faulted, it would be that her comments on the environment come across as perfunctory, rather than heart-felt and sincere.

All the same, the President is to be commended for insisting on remaining a relevant public figure, in spite of constant criticism.

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