Unity gives peace of mind | Marie Louise Coleiro Preca

Last Sunday, Coleiro Preca delivered her second Republic Day address in that role and like the first, she did not shy away from some very pointed criticism

(Photo: Ray Attard)
(Photo: Ray Attard)

The Presidential speech is an inevitable item at the annual Republic Day festivities. But because the office of the Presidency is, by its very nature, constrained to walk a tightrope between Malta’s often warring political factions, it has become almost customary for such speeches to studiously avoid any direct mention of current controversies. 

Not when the President is Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, however. Even throughout her lengthy career in politics – Dr Coleiro Preca was both secretary general of the Labour Party and a Cabinet minister under successive prime ministers – Her Excellency acquired a certain reputation for outspokenness: especially when it came to issues associated with her portfolio. Poverty, social inclusion, civil rights, etc.

If any expected the President to soften her approach to public speaking, they were in for a surprise. Last Sunday, HE Coleiro Preca delivered her second Republic Day address in that role: and like the first, she did not shy away from some very pointed criticism on a number of points of national concern.

Domestic violence, social inequality, poverty, national security, the environment and education all found a space in her comments: but it was the President’s blunt assessment of Malta’s typically aggressive political culture that struck the most resonant chord.

“Have we arrived at a point where insults and verbal aggression have become the order of the day?” she mused last Sunday.  “If my suspicions are, in fact, correct, I can understand why a number of valid individuals are keeping away from public life… It is our Republic that is going to pay dearly for the alarming deterioration in the way we speak to each other.”

Re-listening to the audio recording, I can’t help but detect a certain sense of resignation in her tone at this point. It is no secret that the President has herself been on the receiving end of considerable verbal aggression of late; but there seems to be something else.

It is as though Dr Coleiro Preca is conscious of the ultimate futility of her role, as a President who (technically) has a Constitutional duty to act as a unifying figurehead to an irreparably divided Republic.

Is this interpretation correct? Is she concerned that today’s culture of verbal aggression in (or about) politics has made the old mantra of ‘national reconciliation’ impossible to achieve in practice?

“The way I see it, a President must act like a parent, rising above the intrigues of the children and never taking sides,” she begins, as we sit in the impressive ‘Sala Anthony Mamo’ in San Anton Palace, Attard. It is a theme to which she will constantly return in this interview: persons in authority are in essence ‘parent figures’ for the country. Their example has a direct impact on the nation as a whole.

The choice of room for the interview was probably coincidental… but it has a certain relevance all the same. Anthony Mamo was Malta’s first President: the only one ever chosen from outside the political stable, and one of the few about whom no direct controversy ever arose. 

Coleiro Preca invites me to consider that though political tensions can still be felt, the role of the Presidency itself remains respected by all sides. 

“Although the Presidency is a non-executive role, it has the moral responsibility, and the duty, to unite the country and its people. On a positive note, I will ask you to recall the fact that my nomination as Head of State came with the unanimous support and approval of both sides of the House of Representatives.”

In her inauguration speech, the President committed herself to prioritise the strengthening of unity among the people of Malta and Gozo. “I’ve repeatedly emphasized this commitment throughout the 20 months of my Presidency…”

She seems keen not to overstate Malta’s divisions, too. The culture she referred to may be visible, but it is not all-pervasive.  

“We do unite as one nation occasionally: when we show solidarity with people in need, for example. I also stress that we need to recognise the fact that there is nothing wrong in putting forward constructive criticism of one another, as this helps to strengthen democracy….” 

Here she points towards other positive outcomes she observed since ascending to the Presidency. “My Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society has succeeded in bringing together hundreds of people from diverse beliefs, opinions and/or aspirations, to actually come round a table and dialogue serenely. I truly believe that we can come together in everyday life events as well. But we still need to work hard at this…”

On the same subject: the President also alluded to the behaviour of politicians who should (if I may paraphrase from her speech) be setting a better example. At the same time, she also paid tribute to areas where the country has clearly progressed: for example, the economy, civil rights and so on. 

Would Her Excellency agree, then, that the political class has simply not matured in step with the rest of the country? Why is it – and I ask also in her capacity of former politician – that the political parties still behave as though they are at war, when the country is no longer facing the deeply divisive issues (EU, etc) of yesteryear?

“First and foremost, it is not correct to label all politicians in any way. There are politicians on all sides of the House who are valid and positive. But politicians need to keep in mind that they are also role models and thus, are setting trends. Ultimately we need to instill respect and tolerance for each other’s opinions, no matter how diverse they are to our own; to deal with our own anger, and not lash out at anyone else. We need to learn that aggression, in all its forms, can only bring about negative feelings and not a sense of wellbeing and unity…”

This raises an interesting coincidence. Others apart from the President have raised concerns that verbal aggression among politicians may serve as a bad example, especially to children. The Malta Union of Teachers issued a public statement calling on the Prime Minister and Opposition leader to tone down their rhetoric, which was a bad influence in schools…

She nods. Schoolchildren were, in fact, the main inspiration for this part of her speech.

“I do a lot of school visits as President, practically one or two a week; and when I go to schools it’s not for ceremonial visits. I sit down with the children and listen to what they have to say. The first thing you notice talking to them, is that children of all ages – including young teenagers – are deeply impressed by what goes on around them. Wars, conflicts… what they see on the media has an impact on our children as bystanders.”

Foremost among their concerns, she adds, are issues such as the environment and bullying. “If it’s not the environment followed by bullying as a priority, it will be bullying followed by the environment…” 

Another issue they raise is the need for unity. “Our children do not feel they have enough peace of mind: they are anxious about what’s happening around us internationally, but they don’t have 100% serenity in the context of their own country either. When you put it all together, it means that, when they see us grown-ups arguing in a certain way, we are not giving them the peace of mind they crave. So I, who do not want to waste my time with these visits, or theirs – and also as President: a role which carries a hefty moral responsibility – I voice the concerns that emerge when I am face to face with both children and adults…”

In all her encounters with the public, the message she receives is more or less uniform.

“If politicians think that people admire them when they behave aggressively, I can assure them it’s not the case. There may be a few who take pleasure in this aggressive style, and in a way of debating that doesn’t address the issues, and which sometimes descends to the personal. But only a few…”

Nonetheless, she concedes that politicians are meant to represent their constituency and be their voice in policy making, and should be vociferous with respect in making their opinion heard.  

“Perhaps I was a bit harsh on politicians in general: ultimately they all have a vision for the good of the country. It’s not the objective that is a problem… but the way some politicians try to achieve it. What I’m telling them is ‘Be careful. With this way of working together, you’re creating new tensions in the country. You’re not giving the Maltese people – especially the young – peace of mind. And that is our duty as politicians. It is the duty of anyone in authority to create an environment in which everyone feels serene, included… that he or she can move forward in unity. Unity gives peace of mind. My appeal is: let us work together for the common good. If we’ve achieved so much as a divided country, just think how much more we would achieve united… ”

At the same time, contentious issues will always present opinions that are at the far end of the spectrum.  “I consider this to be an opportunity for healthy debate that not only puts on the table diverse opinions, but also gives the opportunity to delve deeper and not only present the face value of an argument…”

Yet another reason for urging a more sober, civilized approach to political debate is that the general public is no longer necessarily swayed by such tactics: they also need proper arguments.

“When politicians present their arguments with respect, using a language that shows understanding and clarity, that strengthens their argument.  Resorting to name calling and the use of bad language will never prove a point; it only indicates that the person has no intelligent argument whatsoever to put forward…”

Moving away from the behaviour of politicians, the President placed particular emphasis on domestic violence – and inequality in general – in her address. Let’s start with the gender gap. As both a woman and President, how does she account for Malta’s failure to ever raise significantly female participation at decision-making levels?

“Indicators clearly show that the progress for women in policymaking and management positions has been too slow,” she admits. “Any woman who broke the glass ceiling has done so with great personal sacrifices beyond what is reasonably acceptable or indeed possible. There are many reasons for this.  Firstly, our mentality is still mainly patriarchal, no matter what we may believe, so women still have to waste much of their energy in proving themselves and their worth, before being given a chance…”

Mentalities may take generations to change; but HE Coleiro Preca argues that there is much that can be done to facilitate the process in the meantime. “Structures have to change. Many of the current structures still hinder the participation of women, as they were created by men for men years ago. If we take Parliament as an example, the time when sessions are held are far from being family-friendly… and mostly affect women. Facilities are also lacking. Do we have facilities for breastfeeding in parliament, or to heat a bottle, or separate facilities to change nappies? Is there a play area where a child can be safely left while the parent works?”

Female participation in Maltese politics is particularly low by European standards, though it has increased significantly over the years. It remains abjectly low when it comes to chairmanships, directorates, etc., throughout the private sector.

“Regrettably, I have to say that we have not reached true and effective equality, either. We still promote stereotypes.  A woman is still judged by her looks, rather than by her contribution to society, or the business she manages.  Even today, most women are compelled to care for the wellbeing of others before they seek their own…”  

There is also a sinister streak to the situation regarding gender equality. The President alluded to domestic violence, likening it to terrorism (in the sense that victims are often terrorised in their own homes). A cursory glance at Malta’s crime statistics reveals that the majority of murder victims in Malta are, in fact, women. Is Her Excellency worried about what seems to be a culture of hostility towards women in general?

“Yes,” she replies without hesitation. “Unfortunately, violence against women is an ever growing scourge. I believe that a bully at school is a bully in the home, and also at the place of work. It is a self-perpetuating cycle of violence. In other words, violence is generally learnt first-hand: from one’s family, neighbourhood and other social contexts, real and virtual. Some perpetrators of violence could have been victims of violence themselves.  When children experience violence, at times on a daily basis, they grow up thinking that violence is a reasonable way to end conflicts, and to subdue the other.  Moreover, alcohol and other chemical substances fuel violent behaviour...”

There are, of course, no easy solutions. But as with the issue of verbal aggression, it starts with being more mindful of one’s actions and its consequences on others.  

“I believe that the media, including the social media and internet, also play a role in portraying negative images of relationships between men and women, and the resulting perception is often believed as fact…”

If any global message had to be distilled from the President’s Republic Day address, it would probably be that we need to work harder to foster an environment which guarantees progress, prosperity and peace of mind. Some structural reforms will be necessary, too.

One such reform is being debated as we speak, and it has a direct relevance to the Presidency. A Forum for Constitutional Reform is now imminent, and one of the proposed amendments (put forward, among others, by the Opposition) concerns a change to the way Presidents are appointed.

The PN has suggested that the President be elected by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Does the incumbent agree? How does Dr Coleiro Preca herself envisage any reform to the Presidency?

“The President oversees and is the guardian of the Constitution. I consider this as the most important role of the Presidency. But for the Constitution to remain alive and relevant, I believe it needs to be brought in line with modern times, and needs to be updated accordingly from time to time.  This is worthy of any modern nation that aspires to serve its people to the best of its ability…”

There is the need also to analyze what sort of Presidency would serve Malta’s interests best. “As the Presidency stands today, there are contradictions in the set-up.  On one hand, we have a non-executive role.  However, the President’s function in the Commission for the Administration of Justice, for example, is executive.”  

The President chairs the commission, and has a very executive role in terms of the casting vote.  “Another example is that the President is expected to sign a petition without having a say in the process.  I ask, after a 40 year stint, should the Presidency remain a rubber-stamp?”

What about the two-thirds majority? “I believe that there should, at least, be consistency in electing the most important offices in the country.  Since both the office of the Ombudsman and the office of the Auditor General, for example, require a two-thirds majority, I believe that the office of the Presidency should require no less.”

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