Malta, as a whole, loses

There is a growing sensation that the Presidency does not and probably cannot fulfil its mandate as a figurehead for the entire nation, because it is itself the product of division

When the Republic of Malta was established in 1974, one of the consequences – albeit not the most important ¬– was to replace the office of the British Governor (retained after Independence) with a Maltese head of State. 

Then as now, Malta was a politically divided country. Indeed, the divisions were felt more strongly then. Prime Minister Dom Mintoff was evidently aware that the choice of a figure acceptable to both sides would, by definition, always be difficult. His first choice, Sir Anthony Mamo, was a non-political figure who enjoyed cross-party support.

As the Republic grew older, and the choice increasingly came to fall on members of the political class, the idea of the President of the Republic as a ‘unifying figure’ for the nation gradually seemed to ebb away. 

Agatha Barbara was viewed as a deeply divisive choice in the turbulent 1980s; Censu Tabone was initially boycotted by the Opposition; the choice of Eddie Fenech Adami was criticised as ‘too political’. To be fair, once appointed all Presidents have, to a greater or lesser degree, striven to rise above the political divide from which they emerged. All have also tried, in their own, to breathe new relevance to the role.

But there is a growing sensation that the Presidency does not and probably cannot fulfil its mandate as a figurehead for the entire nation, because it is itself the product of division. This may explain why one recommendation for Constitutional reform, most recently raised by the Opposition, is to have the President elected instead of appointed: if not by plebiscite, then by a two-thirds majority of the House.

President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca is clearly conscious of these tensions, and for the second time used the opportunity of her Republic Day address to – rightly – stress the things which divide us as a nation. Her Excellency was known even in her earlier political career as one who does not hold back from speaking her mind. And where Presidential speeches previously tended to skirt controversy as much as possible, President Coleiro Preca does not hesitate to delve right into the issues that matter the most. 

It is indeed refreshing to hear such an outspoken, honest and even blunt appraisal of the state of our Republic today. Some might question whether the President ought to be so pointed in her criticism. One might also however question the need for a President at all, if the incumbent did not use the positon to say anything meaningful.

There was much that was meaningful about Colerio Preca’s address, which touched on a number of deeply relevant issues: international terrorism, poverty, climate change, social injustice and exclusion, compassion, domestic violence and even verbal aggression. 

“We are not always being successful in making the right ethical choices. Decadence is eroding our society and drawing us away from those values that held us together during the most difficult moments of our history,” Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca said.

At moments, there was a touch of bitterness as the President clearly drew inspiration from criticism levelled at herself in recent weeks. She railed against the “educational deficit” in the ethical use of social communication, which she said was breaking down society by normalising insults and verbal aggression.

“Have we arrived at a point where insults and verbal aggression have become the order of the day? If my suspicions are, in fact, correct, I can understand why a number of valid individuals are keeping away from public life,” she said.

Coleiro Preca called for unity among the Maltese and for political leaders to walk away from divisive, “unnecessary bickering that make us susceptible when faced by events and situations that require our resilience.”

The President is right: not just about the extent of the breakdown in simple courtesy… but also about its root causes. All the progress achieved on the political front in the past 41 years has not, as one might expect, brought the country closer together. Verbal aggression in politics has intensified of late, and a whole new culture of vilification, objectification, humiliation and derision has also taken root on the social networks.

In such a climate, one would have to be thick-skinned indeed to accept any form of public post or responsibility. As the President rightly pointed out, this pointless divide comes at a cost to our country: it deprives it of the contributions of many valid people who are simply put off by the constant bickering.

But (as the President also hinted) politicians have themselves, in part, to blame for the example they set among the population at large. “The behaviour of politicians and their continuous and sometimes-aggressive arguments were a recurring theme this year,” she said; and similar sentiments were expressed recently by the Malta Union of Teachers, which argued that schoolchildren were learning how to insult one another by listening to the two political party leaders.

It is distressing to think that in 41 years our Republic has not only failed to rise above its petty squabbles, but actually regressed to the level of a rowdy schoolyard. Under such circumstances, President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca is correct to point out that: 

“No party wins… but Malta, as a whole, loses”. 

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