The president does not have the power to ignore a law passed democratically by parliament, President George Vella told an audience in Gozo on Friday.
Vella’s words effectively closed the door on hopes by some factions that he would refuse to sign a cannabis reform bill into law. The bill sailed through parliament this week and became law on Saturday, following Vella's signature.
“In no way can the president, under our system, impose his decision on those representing the people in parliament, whether he agrees with it or not,” Vella said.
“The president’s role is not to wake up in the morning and decide whether or not he agrees with one thing or another.”
The cannabis law, which was passed by parliament this week, allows recreational cannabis users to consume, buy and grow the plant in small quantities. It also allows users with criminal records for cannabis possession to have them expunged.
The Chamber of Pharmacists and nurses’ union, which lobbied against the law, were among those to have made explicit calls for the president to refuse to sign the bill, in the interest of citizens’ health.
Speaking on Friday at a Republic Day event in Gozo and without ever making direct reference to any particular issue or law, the president shot down such suggestions.
“Nowhere in our constitution does it state that the president can decide whether he agrees or not [with a law]. This makes absolutely no sense,” Vella said.
“The president’s powers are limited, and the limits on them are clear. Nobody can decide to ignore them and go beyond what the law provides. Otherwise, we end up creating a dictator who decides what he likes what he doesn’t."
He reiterated that point several times during his 20-minute speech, noting that Malta's constitution does not provide for a president with decision-making power.
Failing to stick to the confines of the law could also trigger instability and a political crisis, he noted.
'Grave moral objection'
President Vella – a medical doctor who has previously said that he would rather resign than sign any law permitting abortion – said that a president could decide to step aside if faced with a "grave moral objection" to a law.
In the absence of a moral objection that serious, the president's duty was to sign laws passed by parliament.
Critics of the cannabis reform plans have argued that the government is ignoring the public’s calls by passing such a law.
But such calls have to be quantified, Vella noted in his speech.
“How do measure public calls? Is it whoever has the largest microphone? Is it by seeing those most able to mobilise people?”
In Malta’s democracy, he noted, the most straightforward way of quantifying the public’s opinion on any particular matter was by holding a consultative or abrogative referendum.
A newly-formed political party led by Ivan Grech Mintoff is doing just that, having announced on Wednesday that it would be launching a petition with the aim of forcing a referendum on the cannabis issue.
The Nationalist Party, which opposed the cannabis bill in parliament, has said that it does not believe that the issue should be the subject of a referendum. Instead, it said that if in government it would undertake a “holistic reform” based on data that ensured cannabis is not promoted while ensuring that users are not criminalised.
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