Suppose that, right up till this month, 58 years after Independence, Queen Elizabeth II had still been our head of state, with Charles III our new one.
Like Australia and New Zealand, we’d have renewed debate about the meaning of our national independence and whether it’s more compatible with being a republic. How would the Maltese discussion sound? Like Australia’s and New Zealand’s? Or different?
Let’s remember that Malta would almost certainly not have become independent in 1964 if the queen had not been retained as head of state.
To win the independence referendum, George Borg Olivier needed to win over some voters who were nervous about communist or radical takeover scenarios. Opposed to independence were some serious politicians, convinced of the case for independence, who had paid with personal hardship for the cause, who nonetheless thought Malta was not politically mature enough to have sufficient guarantees to safeguard democratic independence.
It was a paranoid but not an idle fear. As several post-imperial nations discovered, sometimes the communists really were out to get you. From 1962, Cuba used Algeria as a base to try to spread its revolution into sub-Saharan Africa. Anti-independence rhetoric evoked the image of Malta as a Cuba of the Mediterranean.
The retention of the queen as head of state reassured enough voters for the referendum to pass. (Well, that and the continuing presence of British armed forces.) A decade later, the queen was still judged to be widely popular by the politicians who wanted Malta to become a republic. Why else would the constitution have been changed so that the need for a referendum was replaced with the threshold of a two-thirds parliamentary majority?
Back to our thought experiment. Suppose, through a combination of lingering fondness, fears and inertia, Elizabeth had remained our queen. What strength would our arguments for republicanism have?
To be clear, I’m a republican to the bone. During Elizabeth II’s reign, 17 former colonies (or 18, or 19, depending on who’s counting) became republics. Republics make up 60 per cent of Commonwealth. I’m not suggesting that it’s remarkable that Malta became a republic.
Nor do I wish to encourage illusions. In the 15 states that retained the queen as titular head, Elizabeth had no involvement in the day-to-day running. Governors general are appointed or dismissed on the advice of the prime minister, who effectively chooses them. Governors are citizens of the country they preside over. Elizabeth’s involvement was simply to be periodically updated by the governor about the major issues.
That involvement had so light a touch that it didn’t save Saint Kitts and Nevis, say, from compromising its democracy with dodgy passport sales and being judged, by the US State Department, of being a jurisdiction of primary concern when it comes to money laundering and financial crimes.
There’s little that retaining Elizabeth II as head of state would have saved us from. The real question is another: would the arguments offered for republicanism in Australia and New Zealand sound convincing in Malta?
As a republican, I’d love to be able to bludgeon opponents with good reasons.
Maltese republicans still need to depend on European and international monitors- Ranier Fsadni
Take one argument offered in New Zealand: to become a republic is to assert political maturity to the world. How could a Maltese republican offer that with a serious face? Where’s the maturity of our democracy when our public servants refuse to be accountable?
They ignore press questions. The Freedom of Information Act is openly defied. An agreement signed by the government in March is dismissed as worthless in April – by the government’s own side.
Edward Scicluna, our disgraceful former finance minister, rejects the very idea that he needs to explain his appointments to the sensitive FIAU – when we have been fingered internationally over doubts concerning the FIAU’s efficacy in his time.
Joseph Muscat, the disgraced former prime minister, treats us as so naive and immature as not to recognise a lobbyist when we see one. He wants us to believe he effected the handover of a file – that involves Malta in contentious negotiations with Steward Health Care – in the presence of Steward itself.
Another argument for republicanism, offered both in New Zealand and Australia: an elected or appointed head of state would be a more effective check on the executive. That hasn’t quite worked out for us because of how we strictly circumscribe the president’s role. But imagine we still had a blank slate. In the current circumstances, could we reasonably opt for, say, the Irish model, where the president is elected by popular vote.
That would give a Maltese president more clout over the executive. But in that case our discussions would be filled with reasonable worries.
Would the elections be fair given the murky funding, unreliably controlled by the Electoral Commission? Would such elections simply strengthen the hold of the party in power?
Even if a critic of the government were elected president, we’d still have worries. We’d have visions of creeping power grabs by, say, very popular presidents at a time of unpopular government reforms. Given the weakness of our institutions, a role circumscribed by the constitution would not prevent that. We’ve learned that any constitutional room for discretionary judgement can be ruthlessly exploited.
To keep our government in check, Maltese republicans still need to depend on European and international monitors.
The irony is that republicans who insist on leaders being servants not masters, accountable not arbitrary, and independent of local and international oligarchs, are accused of having a neo-colonial mentality.
Well, at least we avoided a communist takeover. The shadowy fists grabbing our passports, energy supply, former public hospitals and large tracts of land belong to ex-communists and a pleasing variety of monarchists and republicans.
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