George Vella has made all the right noises and has given all the signs that he intends to be his own man as he starts to define and mould his role, as every new President must do for him or herself.
His unifying message on Thursday was spot on and precisely what is needed from a presidency that the nation might want to look to in order to gain its bearings anew. In bringing up the killings of Karin Grech, Raymond Caruana and Daphne Caruana Galizia, and saying he wanted to heal the wounds they have caused, Dr Vella signalled he will not be afraid to confront the most sensitive issues head on. The divisions that have been created in our society need to be addressed with urgency before they spiral out of control.
Most welcome too were his references to many of the other issues that need to be tackled: the right of everyone to have a decent quality of life, including migrant workers; respect for life “from its very beginning”; the need for environmental sustainability; the need for better air quality. President Vella also expressed his concerns about populism, right-wing extremism, climate change, human and arms trafficking and organised crime – all of which are major challenges that cry out for attention.
Crucially, the new President, who will chair the steering committee on constitutional reform, insisted that the process should be as broad-based as possible, to include MPs, experts, NGOs and civil society.
May he be true to his word. He must ensure that revising the Constitution is transparent and open to the media rather than allow the political parties to agree changes behind closed doors, which is what indications so far alarmingly point to. Foreign experts from mature, well-established democracies should also be consulted.
In a brief reference to foreign affairs, President Vella said Malta could play an important role in international fora in the context of the Euro-Mediterranean region. Hopefully, he will use his experience as a former foreign minister to speak out on issues of international importance, something his predecessors rarely did. Malta does not live in isolation, and foreign policy needs to be given more importance at all levels of government.
We also join the Archbishop in urging him to champion our heritage, which is under attack as never before. As Charles Scicluna said in his homily before Dr Vella was sworn in as President: “We want to see in him a defender of Malta’s heritage in every sense – cultural, historical, artistic, architectural and natural.”
The Nationalist Opposition did the right thing in voting in favour of Dr Vella’s nomination. However, PN leader Adrian Delia, as well as the Democratic Party, were also correct in stating that this was a missed opportunity by the government to have the President appointed by a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
The appointment (and removal) of Malta’s President by such a qualified majority is in fact one of the recommendations of the Venice Commission which the government could easily have implemented straightaway. It chose not to, without explaining why – but we nevertheless agree with the Opposition that Dr Vella has the right credentials for the job.
The Venice Commission also suggested that the President could have more powers of appointment, especially of judges and magistrates. The time is right for a discussion on presidential powers, especially in view of the way so many checks and balances have been rendered ineffective by this government.
There is a strong case to be made for members of the judiciary to be appointed by the President, especially in view of particular appointments to the bench made in recent years. We would go one step further: why not discuss giving the President, appointed by a two-thirds majority, the final say in the appointment of other sensitive posts such as the Attorney General, the soon-to-be created post of Public Prosecutor, the Police Commissioner, the Commander of the Armed Forces, among others?
The new President has a challenging and interesting term of office ahead, one that may well see him being granted additional powers.
While his powers under law are currently quite limited, there exists, though, a tantalising prospect and one that should fill the country with hope: that he will dare harness the widespread respect he enjoys to exert his moral authority to the full. While he will no doubt rise above partisan politics as other presidents before him have done, the question is: will he do so by remaining silent or will it be by making his voice heard loudly and clearly, both in private and public, in favour of the nation’s highest values?
Will he fulfil his desire to be a “moral compass” for the country? He can count on the full support of this newspaper should he have the courage to make his presidency an effective force for good and for national unity.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial
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