Now is the time to learn from past mistakes | Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca

As Malta swears in a new Prime Minister, President Emeritus MARIE-LOUISE COLEIRO PRECA argues that the time has come to put the unity of our country before our culture of political tribalism

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

As Prime Minister Robert Abela said in his inaugural speech, the country is now – for better or worse – overshadowed by the legacy of Joseph Muscat. What is your own opinion of this legacy, and the influence it exerts over Malta today?

I think there are two angles to Joseph Muscat. Undoubtedly, we cannot discard everything Muscat did for the country. That would be unfair, and an injustice to all the good work he has done. Before even mentioning the economy, one need only look at the inroads he made in civil rights. Thanks to Muscat’s input, Malta was even placed on the world map when it comes LGBTIQ rights. One cannot overlook these achievements.

Muscat also took other courageous steps: for example, increases in pensions, and in the minimum wage. You may ask, were these increases enough? I would say ‘no’; because there is obviously still a lot of work to be done to elevate the lower echelons of society as much as possible, so as to ensure a decent, dignified qualified of life for everyone.

On the other hand, these sectors had been stagnating for many years. The economy also received an incremental push forward. It’s no secret that Malta was faring much better, economically, than many of its European counterparts. This all surely attests to the intensive work of Joseph Muscat as prime minister.

It’s as though we’ve lost our culture of dialogue. We’re not even capable of sitting down and having a reasonable, respectful discussion anymore

But there was also a need for prompt decisions: especially when the issue of Panamagate arose in 2016. There were political decisions that needed to be taken; and here, I think that Joseph Muscat misjudged the situation. I also believe we could have worked harder to strengthen Malta’s institutions. I’m not saying they weren’t working at all; but they could have worked much better, in a democracy that needs to be strengthened. And we need to ensure justice is done and seen to be done for the horrific murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. That has left a stain on our country.

Democracy is not static; it is something that evolves. Looking at our Parliamentary democracy, we must acknowledge it is young, compared with those of other countries. So we cannot content ourselves with what used to work well 50 years ago… nor even 20 or 10 years ago. Democracy has to keep growing, and getting stronger.

Some of these concerns, however, were also part of what Joseph Muscat had promised to change, before becoming Prime Minister in 2013…

But we cannot attribute all the shortcomings only to Joseph Muscat. The culture of political tribalism has also played a role. When Joseph Muscat became prime minister with such an unprecedented majority, I believed he had the perfect opportunity to be the one who set the trend, and to help defuse this culture through leading by example. But there were undeniably other elements in the country that helped foment and aggravate the situation; and I believe these elements should also reflect upon their own responsibilities, and put forward their own suggestions on how the country can move forward in this regard.

Above all, I believe that civil society needs to be given more space. In a healthy democracy, we should be working towards a situation where our citizens are more active; where there is more engagement and critical thinking. Unfortunately, in our country there still prevails a culture where people hold back from expressing themselves; perhaps for fear of disapproval; or also of being victimised.

I think the time has long come for the culture of political tribalism to come to an end. We’ve heard a lot of political promises in the past: calls for national reconciliation; that we are all ‘Maltese brothers and sisters’; slogans such as ‘Malta Taghna Lkoll’… however, no sooner does a national discussion get turned into a party-political issue, than we all once again return to our divided, entrenched positions.

Muscat had the perfect opportunity to set the trend and help defuse this culture through leading by example. But there were undeniably other elements in the country that helped foment and aggravate tribalism

Look at how discussions take place on Facebook: I don’t want to suggest that it’s everybody in Malta and Gozo – it certainly isn’t – but with some people, it’s as though we’ve lost our culture of dialogue. We’re not even capable of sitting down and having a reasonable, respectful discussion anymore. We tend to shoot the messenger, instead of concentrating on the message itself.

I am an optimist, however; I very much believe we can learn from our recent history. So, I would say that now is a very good time to get together and try to learn from past mistakes. Because it is the entire country – without pointing fingers at any individuals – that needs to learn.

This brings to us to where and how the country’s institutions need reforming. There have been calls for a ‘New Republic’: involving a strengthened role for the President. But some also argue that the President – even under the existing laws – already has enough power to intervene. What role do you, as a former President, think the Presidency should play?

I won’t go into the question of whether Malta needs a ‘Second Republic’ or not; because to me, that’s just a title. But without any doubt, our Constitution does need revisiting. Like any Constitution, ours is ultimately just a tool: and all tools need to be constantly monitored, upgraded and readjusted, to ensure they remain relevant to the changing times.

As for whether the President’s powers should be extended in times of crisis: I am aware there is discussion about this going on right now; and that, unfortunately, the relevant experts disagree on the matter. This, too, reflects the urgent need for us all to sit around the discussion table, and at least agree on a single interpretation for our existing Constitution. Because the people who hold public positions have no choice but to turn to experts for consultation; and what is needed, in those circumstances, is the peace of mind of being able to take the right decisions, on the basis of expert advice.

In this case, Prof. Kevin Aquilina and Prof. Ian Refalo are saying two different things: and both are respected experts in the field of Constitutional law. Where does this leave the decision-maker, who must give equal consideration to both views?

This is why I believe we have to sit down and address the question of which direction we want our Constitutional reform to go. But while there is certainly room to discuss the powers of the President, I would say that – Malta being a Parliamentary democracy – it is Parliament that needs to be strengthened more.

To give but one example out of many: the Broadcasting Authority. Along with other important national institutions, I believe it should be Parliament that appoints members of the BA board: as we already do in the case of the Ombudsman, the Auditor General, and others. Even ambassadors are now selected after a careful process of scrutiny by a Parliamentary committee. How can it be, then, that other institutions that are expected to inspire confidence on a national level – which are also bound by the principles of good governance, and must therefore be seen to be functioning properly – are simply appointed by politicians, with the President’s stamp of approval?

That, at present, is the reality. As a President, if you are presented with a recommendation by the executive… you simply sign it. There is no room for the President to even discuss the matter; the law allows no space to make any doubts known to the Prime Minister, for instance; or to make alternative proposals.

This is why I believe it should be Parliament, as the direct representative of the people of Malta, to take such decisions; and the institutions themselves would be strengthened by more Parliamentary input.

Chris Fearne had promised a national conference to discuss Constitutional Reform: a promise separately made by Joseph Muscat in 2017. Do you agree that the conference should go ahead, even under Robert Abela’s leadership?

More than anything else, I agree that all the stakeholders must be given every opportunity to discuss. Whether it takes the form of a ‘national conference’ or otherwise, the important thing is that everyone who can contribute to this debate, is given a safe space to say exactly what they think. And that their proposals would be considered, naturally. We cannot just listen, and stop there.

But now is the time to give Robert Abela a chance, as new prime minister, to reflect on the task ahead. He must be given the space he needs to lay down his own vision for the country. This is true of any change: even a change of bedroom furniture takes time, until you get fully adjusted to it. Let alone a change in prime minister: who has just appointed a new Cabinet, and must lead both country and party.

Are you yourself confident that the necessary reforms will take place?

I am, as I said, optimistic. I have a lot of faith and confidence in Malta: so much so, that I firmly believe our country can become a model, not just for the rest of Europe, but also for the rest of the world. We are a small, and therefore manageable country: as I like to put it, we could become the perfect laboratory for successful governance… testing our own models to perfection, and then exporting them to other countries.

But we cannot expect everything to suddenly fall into place in 24 hours, or in a week. So at this stage, I think it’s only fair to give Robert Abela a chance.