[WATCH] President of the people | Marie Louise Coleiro Preca

Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca says her presidency has been crucial in bringing the highest office of the State closer to the people and learning from them more about the changing face of Malta

President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca
President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca

Madam President, throughout your presidency, the social sector was amongst the areas you devoted most attention to - in a way, this was almost as an extension of your previous role as social policy minister. What do you feel has been your biggest achievement in the last four and a half years?

I’d like to clarify the misconception that my presidency was an extension of my role as a minister. The presidency is completely different from any executive role. A minister has an executive role, while a President doesn’t. The presidency is more focused on advocacy, so to speak. It requires an effort to try to have an influence on certain matters. This is the forma mentis I had as President.
… I’ve always been people-centred. When it comes to the people, I feel that the quality of their lives doesn’t only depend on the money they have, but on all those things which can in any way affect their wellbeing. This was what I focused on in my presidency.

I was also very interested – because I am a people’s president – in understanding the composition of our society. Therefore, for instance, I dedicated a lot of time on creating what I call ‘safe places’, which are spaces where people feel they can speak comfortably. Thousands of people have come to the Palace to speak to us, enabling us to understand what their social aspirations are.

I would say that it is the fact that the work we did during my time as President has led to a change in the language of [social] discourse in the country.

One of the things you had a more direct role in is the raising of funds for charity. But you received some criticism here, from those who said you focused too much on charity, and less on other constitutional matters. How do you respond to this criticism?

I think this is another misconception.

One of the things I’ve noticed in the past five years is that raising money for charity is a sensational talking point in the local media, while other things such as our research weren’t given much attention.

We have around drawn up around 22 research reports, which could fill up volumes of pages in the media. The raising of funds by the Malta Community Chest Fund Foundation constitutes only 5% of all the work I have done during my tenure…

But we wouldn’t be fair if we said that the work of this office was only collecting donations for charity.

We set up the ongoing interfaith dialogue, where, for the first time, an Imam and rabbi held a [public] discussion [in Malta]. These are things which didn’t receive the bulk of the media’s attention, but they are very important for our society, and we worked from the outset to create them.

Malta is changing every day. Unfortunately, some Maltese still don’t understand that we are now a country which offers a choice of all faith traditions. For example, we have 17 different Christian communities. There is more than one Muslim community, there are Jewish people, we have Maltese pagans and atheists too.

Had we not brought people around the table to discuss, we wouldn’t have known all this about religion in our country.

And what about your constitutional role?…

To give a tangible example, let’s take the presidential pardon, where a convicted person petitions the President [to be absolved of guilt]… I would have to pass on this petition to the justice minister, who would in turn pass it on to the Attorney General and Police Commissioner.

These would formulate their recommendations on the request, which would constitute their decision on the matter. That decision would then be signed by the President… This clearly illustrates the need for our people to understand and be informed on what the presidency is in Malta. What is the role of Malta’s head of state, exactly?

Do you think there is a lack of understanding on your role?

I was perhaps the first person to be President during the time when Facebook reached its peak. I could see from the comments on this platform that there is a lack of understanding about the President’s role.

Let me refer to something trivial. San Anton Palace includes within it the palace proper, and a garden surrounding it. But there is then the public San Anton Gardens which doesn’t fall under the remit of San Anton Palace.

Without any doubt, the presidency’s, like any other constitutional institution, also needs to be reviewed

I can’t count the number of times that people have commented on Facebook, for example, on birds at the Gardens which need to be given water to drink, asking how come the President wasn’t dealing with this matter. We’ve come to this.

Even if the Gardens were indeed part of the Palace, I don’t think the President, the head of state, should be charged with ensuring the birds have water to drink. If I happen to be walking through there and see that the birds need water, I would draw attention to this… but it surely isn’t the President’s job to take care of this.

You have now taken charge of a steering committee on Constitutional reform…

I might be saying this for the first time: a few months after I started my tenure in 2013, I had enquired about the constitutional reform. I did this because we had two main parties which had both promised such a reform in their electoral manifesto. Everybody knew that this wasn’t the competence of the President, and a chairman had been appointed for the purposes of this reform. Had I stuck my nose in, I’d have been doing the wrong thing, because, at the end of the day, a decision had already be taken on this subject.

In the meantime, I still used to make reference to the reform however, such as in my Republic Day speeches, where I would encourage our politicians to do something about the Constitution, because we need it to be relevant to the 21st century. The Constitution has served us well, but, like any other tool, it has to be kept relevant.

As from the last election, I restarted a discussion with our politicians – the leaders of the political parties – and we have started our work on a reform of the Constitution.

It is important that we make ourselves well understood on this reform, because God forbid such a historical and important process for our country is tainted by misconceptions. We need this reform exercise to belong to all the people, and not to a few individuals.

The parties represented in Parliament, the government and Opposition, have nominated four representatives each in what we are referring to as a steering committee, which will lay out the way forward.

God willing, at the start of 2019 we will be holding a substantial number of consultation meetings, because we want to invite all the people to participate, in some way or another, if possible.

It’s also important that this is an educational exercise which helps us understand that the Constitution is our highest legal instrument… This is why it’s important that everyone understands what we are discussing, and that people’s aspirations are brought forward [to be considered during the reform], so that this new Constitution will truly be “owned” by the people… making them feel that it is their Constitution.

Your term as President will come to an end in April. In view of this, when it comes to your role in the constitutional reform, where do you see this going? Would you consider presiding over the reform even when your presidency ends?

Yes… I’ve had a discussion with the Prime Minister on this, and this is the intention – that I continue to preside over the reform.

You’ve mention how important the wellbeing of society is for you. Malta is today probably richer than it ever was. Do you worry, however, that there is a danger that certain people who are finding it difficult to keep up with life’s demands end up forgotten by society?

I entered politics, when I was very young, to make a difference, and this remained my mentality. I have been consistent and always stood up for the voiceless and society’s underdogs.

We shouldn’t put our minds at rest because our country now has an economy which is growing at a significant and impressive rate, one of the best in Europe. This is because we know that positive development also leaves it victims, and this is why I said in the Republic Day speech that we should strive for permanent social solidarity…

Unfortunately, even when there is a good economic climate, there are still victims, such as in the case of housing. The housing situation is leaving a number of victims, we have to admit this.

Some people might not like what I am saying, but the truth is that, with our strong economic expansion, unfortunately, a number of people have ended up as victims, with some even being rendered homeless because they cannot keep up with rent costs.

The White Paper on affordable housing has given me some hope… there are not only people who have found themselves in poverty, but also those who are afraid because their salary isn’t sufficient for them to start a family. So I hope we’ll have the necessary measures in place for affordable housing.

We also need to push as much as possible to have adequate social housing to cater for those who have ended up in a situation of poverty.

Do you agree with the possibility of immigrants being allowed to vote in local elections, if they have lived in Malta for a certain period of time?

Europeans, and other foreigners from non-African countries, are given the right to vote in local council elections after they have lived in Malta for a certain period. So what do the immigrants who come from Africa, and are contributing towards the prosperity of our country, have less than people coming from other [non-African] countries?

Of course they should be allowed to vote for local council elections. Just as people coming from non-African countries have a right to vote, so should those immigrants from Africa who have lived in Malta for a number of years – and some of them have been here for many years.

Should this right be extended to general elections too?

No, at this point in time I’d say only local council elections… That which others – Europeans and other foreign non-Africans – have a right to do should also be the right of people from Africa. We should apply the same rules. We won’t be creating any new rules, but the same rules should apply to everyone – just like human rights are universal in nature.

Moving on to a different subject, when Parliament was discussing the IVF law amendments, you did something rare. You asked MPs to listen to what NGOs had to say on the proposed legal changes. Why did you feel you had to do this?

Because I believe that civil society is a fundamental component of our democracy… I strongly believe in NGOs.  In fact, even throughout my presidential tenure, I have continuously met with NGOs and have set up platforms – such as the National Cancer Platform, made up of 17 NGOs related to fighting cancer, and the Mental Health Platform, consisting in mental health organisations – for such organisations to come together and discuss common issues…

This is why I had appealed to Parliament to lend an ear to NGO’s views on the IVF law amendments.

Some of the NGOs had certain issues with some aspects of the IVF law amendments, especially when it came to embryo freezing and surrogacy. Did you have any personal reservations on the law?

I had a reservation regarding the matter of stockpiling, and I spoke with the government about this.

I am very concerned on what will happen with the extra embryos and what will happen to that if they are not adopted. Other countries dispose of millions of unused embryos, and many embryos are also used for research. So I am worried about what will happen when we have stockpiles of embryos.

I believe that life starts at the point of conception… I am making this clear, because I do not hide what I believe in.

Regarding surrogacy, this is no longer part of the IVF law [which was enacted]… it was said that there will be a discussion about it in the future.

How do you respond to those who criticised you for signing the law when it came before you for approval, despite your reservations?

I believe in democracy. When I took my oath of office as President… this signified loyalty towards the Constitution… It is Parliament which discusses and enacts laws, and the President signs the law. I cannot go against democracy. I made myself clear about the matter, and did what I could.

When it comes to the role of the President, do you think the office should be granted a wider degree of power, or that the President should be elected by a wide college of MPs and local councilors, to make the process more democratic?

Without any doubt, the presidency’s, like any other constitutional institution, also needs to be reviewed.

Through the constitutional reform, we will be taking our democracy to the next level. So, where do we want our country to go, and to what level to we want to take our democracy?

We need to see what our people’s aspirations are, and what tools we need to need such aspirations.

I think other aspects should also be included in the constitutional reform, for instance I hope there will be discussion of whether the environment, or children, should also feature in our Constitution.

But, again, I don’t want to put forth my standpoints now, before there is a public discussion on these things, or I’d feel like I am superseding the democratic participation process.

Turning to social media… you have spoken about the toxic nature of certain discussions which take place on Facebook and other website. I think this was particularly evident during the 2017 election… Do you think things have improved now on how there were in 2017, in this respect?

The first thing we have to address is the “us and them” mentality in Malta. I was shocked recently when I was having a discussion with children in a school classroom on bullying and cyberbullying, and a girl stood up and spoke about how she had been the subject of people insulting her and saying they wished she developed cancer.

These things are shocking, and you wouldn’t even dream of saying something like that, let alone read them on Facebook.

To me, these things should never happen. This is why I encourage our political leaders to measure their words, even in Parliament…

It is fine to disagree, but do I need to insult you? Where is dignity in all this? Nowadays everybody has become a ‘journalist’ [but] we need to be more cautious in forming an opinion, and just because we don’t agree, it doesn’t mean I should insult you.

I have appealed to journalists to fight the challenges of sensationalism. Fake news has become the order of the day, but the professional media needs to lead the way when it comes to the truth and facts. We can’t have people believing fake news and not the facts, or we would otherwise be twisting the truth.

Your presidency will end this year. Until recently, your name was being mentioned when it comes to possible MEP candidacy for next year’s European Parliament elections. Do you exclude this?

I never said I would be a candidate. These were rumours… which I denied.

Has your participation in politics ended, or is there the possibility you could get back into the political sphere?

If you mean partisan politics, that’s one thing. But if by politics you mean a sustained interest in what is going on in our country, that’s something else. I will surely remain interested in what is taking place in our country and with our people.