The President’s outspokenness will be missed

In an age when so many other national institutions appear wary of directly contradicting government in any way, Marie-Louise Coleiro’s brusque outspokenness may yet go down as the most welcome, and sorely needed, variation she brought to the role of President

As President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca’s final term draws to a close, it may be opportune to revisit the concept of the Presidency and its relevance to Maltese society today: i.e., almost half a century after the office of the President was first established when Malta became a republic in 1974.

Needless to say, Maltese society has evolved considerably since then; even if this evolution has not been matched by any corresponding Constitutional changes to either the role of the Presidency, or the definition and constitution of the Republic which he or she represents. While all the various presidents have to date set some form of personal stamp on the role, the constitutional definitions of the President’s duties and responsibilities have remained virtually unchanged since its inception 40 years ago. 

Interestingly, however, Coleiro Preca’s appointment in 2014 had signalled one small amendment: when designated as George Abela’s successor by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, the former Social Policy minister was allowed to retain certain aspects of her former portfolio, if only in a consultative capacity. Legislative reforms also allowed the Office of the Presidency to contribute towards drawing up a national social policy.

Coleiro Preca has also distinguished herself from former presidents, precisely on account of her outspokenness on social issues, above all others. Her annual End of Year address has never steered clear of controversial or sensitive affairs; and to her credit, these incursions onto political terrain were always prudent enough to avoid diluting her other, more established Constitutional responsibility: i.e., to act as a focal point for unity.

Her final address was certainly no exception. Once again, the emphasis was on the most vulnerable in today’s society: “No economy can celebrate human dignity, unless the needs of the most vulnerable are kept at the heart of its operations. For this reason, the vulnerable must receive all the support that they need. An economy that truly upholds human dignity is one which ensures that nobody is pushed to the peripheries of our society.”

And for the umpteenth time, the President also felt the need to remind us about our civic responsibilities towards immigrants: “Fundamental Human Rights represent the foundations, upon which the fullness democracy and peace are built. Indeed, these are the strongest roots of our Republican Constitution. I believe that the Universal Declaration, alongside our Constitution, must always be the cornerstone of the ways in which we live together, and how we treat one another. For this reason, we must insist that the rights of visitors and newcomers to our islands, including migrants, must be upheld in their fullness, without complacency or favouritism.”

But while it is easy to criticise populism from a safe distance, President Marie-Louise Coleiro also seems to be cognizant of the extent to which the State itself may be responsible for populist attitudes: “In today’s world, we are witnessing the results of what takes place, when governments abandon the social contract in favour of excessive private accumulation of profit. People not only lose hope in the established political class, but also, they seek reassurance in populist ideologies. It is useless for us to urge our peoples to disregard populism during the European parliamentary elections…”

Perhaps because it was her last annual address as President, one cannot escape noticing a more particular insistence on this aspect. While openly criticising the government may go beyond the Constitutional duties of an incumbent President, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca’s speech was nonetheless infused with subliminal warnings to the effect that government is disregarding certain effects of its own policies. Her concern for the environment is a case in point: “The question of the environment in our country remains a cause for concern to our children and young people. They require us to be far more prudent and ethical, regarding the ways in which we treat our natural environment. Their thoughts about the important need for green spaces, and their concerns about what is happening to the Maltese countryside, remain prominent in the dialogue that we have together…”

Elsewhere, her criticism was more precise and stinging still. Pointing towards Statistics from the Structure of Earnings Survey, published by the National Statistics Office, the President highlighted the drastic difference in pay between men and women.

“It is of serious concern that the more education a woman acquires, the greater the gender pay gap and the disparity in income. As we all believe that increased education brings greater access to opportunity, it is worrying to note that more education could mean more discrimination. Our country must strive harder, in the field of gender equality.”

This is particularly significant, because the ‘field of gender quality’ is where Government often trumpets its achievements – not without good reason – the most.

In an age when so many other national institutions appear wary of directly contradicting government in any way, Marie-Louise Coleiro’s brusque outspokenness may yet go down as the most welcome, and sorely needed, variation she brought to the role of President. It will certainly be missed. 

The Presidency is an autonomous arm of the state, supposedly independent of government, with the added ceremonial role of acting as a point of reference for the entire country.