Hail the new President

President Spiteri Debono did not mince words. She told the guests that greed is worse than substance addiction. But will the people who indulge in it listen?

As presidential speeches go, I would immediately say that that of Myriam Spiteri Debono as the eleventh President of Malta and the third woman to become so, is one of the finest, not only being well-crafted but also inspiring and aspirational. 

Inaugurations of the President of the Republic have a symbolic importance for the country.  The occasion itself has pomp and tradition.  It is an opportunity for the new President to try to shape the policymaking agenda to influence public opinion.  On the other hand, one would be hard pressed to say that the speeches themselves lead members of Parliament to change their minds on important public policy issues. It’s ritual. It’s agenda setting. But it’s not policy-making.

Pity, all the more so because the new President’s address is brimming with ideas on what needs to be done to transform the country and take it beyond the humdrum grind of the current relentless pursuit of riches which “more often than not, translates itself into various forms of corruption,” not to mention that the pursuer himself “becomes indifferent to the suffering he may directly or indirectly cause others.”  Now that is one almighty barb.  Bully for the new President.

Greed   ̶   the insatiable desire for material wealth and power   ̶   has long been recognised as a deeply destructive force within society. Its impact extends beyond the individual level, infiltrating and corroding the very fabric of societal structures. When greed takes hold, it breeds a culture of self-interest, inequality, and exploitation, which in turn exacerbates social divisions and hampers collective progress.

As a deeply ingrained human phenomenon, greed possesses the power to induce an insatiable desire for accumulation, often extending beyond genuine needs. The infectious and contagious nature of greed becomes evident when individuals prioritise personal gain at the expense of collective well-being. The pursuit of excessive wealth or resources can lead to avarice-driven behaviours that undermine the foundations of trust and cooperation within communities. In this sense, greed becomes a destabilising force, eroding the social fabric that binds people together. 

Regrettably, greed engenders a dog-eat-dog mentality that undermines the well-being of the entire community when it permeates societal structures. Unfortunately, individuals and corporations then engage in unethical practices, such as corruption, fraud and exploitation, to maximise their profits at the expense of others while pursuing personal gain. 

Indeed, the concentration of power and resources in the hands of the wealthy elite is exacerbated by the accumulation of money in the hands of a few greedy individuals. The disparity in the distribution of fiscal resources feeds a cycle of poverty and inequality, blocking prospects for advancement and depriving opportunities to vast segments of society. Sadly too, the cultural mechanisms that allow for this concentration of wealth further entrench the discrepancies, as people with wealth and power hold enormous influence over politics, legislation, and institutions, advancing and reinforcing their advantages. 

President Spiteri Debono did not mince words.  She told the guests that greed is worse than substance addiction.  But will the people who indulge in it listen?  I am sceptical.  Archbishop Charles Scicluna and other bishops, not to mention the Pope himself, have often spoken about this.  The head of the Catholic Church in Malta talked about it in September 2021, when he told more or less the same gathering that greed for money and power is spreading like a “disease” and manifesting itself in the “uglification of the Maltese landscape”.  Pope Francis himself recently reflected on the vice of avarice or greed, which he described as a sin and “a sickness of the heart, not of the wallet”.

Human dignity

This does not mean that aspiring to be more well-off is wrong or that the increase in the gross domestic product should not be an important objective for the policy-makers.  But, for sure, neither does it mean that, in a situation where we are no longer preoccupied with the dearth of employment, we import thousands of foreigners and exploit them like objects.  As it is, we are engaged in stripping them of all human dignity through exploitative practices, milking them like objects while they are here and then hoping that they will leave so that future pensioners can enjoy better pensions through social security contributions paid by migrants. For God’s sake, we even had a Prime Minister who boasted about it.

President Spiteri Debono also took up the cudgels on behalf of immigrants who are less fortunate than we are.  She was, of course, referring to people fleeing from persecution and wars who reach our shores.  “We must embrace and understand them,” she said, adding that “we have to go beyond mere tolerance, with its inherent passivity; also, we have to rise above an unwilling acceptance because we need their presence and input.”

Indirectly addressing Norman Lowell and his army of xenophobes and racists, she said that, with the help and cooperation of our European partners, we have to seek ways of “assisting them to establish for themselves the foundations for a better life”.  She may as well have been addressing our policy-makers, whose efforts in this regard are mere tokens.

Good governance

The list of ills tackled by the President could not but include governance, or rather the severe lack of it.  Again, she was outspoken. “The concept of good governance is a concept which should never be sidelined. It forms part of the widening and the evolution of democracy.”  Acknowledging some reforms, many of which I would add were implemented only after pressure from abroad, she warned that if the recommendations of public inquiries are not implemented, such inquiries become a useless exercise.

One such inquiry concerned Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose battle against bad governance and corruption led to her assassination.  “The wound generated by the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia is still wide open and bleeding,” she said, adding that “healing is a must in order that this horrendous episode be wound up once and for all.”  She warned that, failing that, its fallout would continue to haunt us  ̶   much like it did with the deaths of Karin Grech and Raymond Caruana.

The President didn’t fudge her words.  She lamented that a lot still needs to be done in the implementation of the recommendations made by the public inquiry into the assassination of the journalist, referring in particular to those reforms concerning the media as the fourth pillar of democracy.  She was absolutely right to remind the gathering that scrutiny of the government is not the exclusive domain of the Opposition in Parliament but includes that by the media in its various forms.

Policy-makers and politicians should also give due weight to the voice of civil societies and the various aims for which they were set up.  She hardly needed to remind us that, when people gather in the streets and squares in order to be heard   ̶   provided this is done in a peaceful manner and absolutely devoid of physical and verbal violence   ̶   this is nothing more or less than an exercise of the people’s sovereignty. “The voice of the people must be heeded.”

Consensus building

When the government and policy-makers engage with citizens and with the Opposition, the process helpsfoster consensus building   ̶   a tool which helps to positively develop the way of doing politics, promotes dialogue, persuasion, and compromise based on an appreciation of the preoccupations of all sides involved in the process.  Both sides of the political divide need to contribute and be committed to this.  Actually, the President courageously went further, when she openly called for an amendment to the electoral system to give a voice to smaller parties so that our electoral system would reflect the basic democratic principle of “one person, one vote, one value”.

Of course, none of this would be possible without consensus   ̶    an art that has been practised in the past but needs to be practised more in the future.  President Spiteri Debono said that the founding of the Republic wouldn’t have happened without consensus, even though it involved a laborious process by our ancestors.

Changing the Constitution

That same consensus and hard work would be required to change the Constitution. Joseph Muscat’s promise of an amended Constitution fit for a Second Republic is still fresh in people’s minds.   It was a promise on which his government and others after it have reneged.   We all know why.  People in power want to accumulate power and privileges and, when faced with the prospect of limits to their authority and to higher accountability, they get cold feet.

President Spiteri Debono mentioned that three previous presidents had taken up this task before her and that a lot of groundwork had been done by her predecessor, former President George Vella.  Unfortunately, Vella was stopped by the Government from pursuing the project and the hapless Opposition has been complicit.  As a result, much-needed reforms have stalled, leading to the recent negative evaluation by the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption monitoring body, GRECO.

Privileges and responsibilities

There were other subjects addressed by the newly-inaugurated President.  I am sure that others will take them up.  But even the few I have mentioned would present a challenge.  So, President Spiteri Debono was right to assert that, with the privilege of serving, there come huge responsibilities that necessitate appreciation of the various facets of this role.  She mentioned, in particular, two aspects: the primary constitutional role embedded in the Constitution itself, and the widened role developed by the ten Presidents before her.

Our Presidents do not have any executive powers and they are heavily circumscribed in what they can do.  Our constitution builders, being two political parties wedded to the ‘win it all’ principle, were very careful to ensure that presidents would not intrude in their territory.  The most conspicuous demonstration of that was that their appointment would be the reserve of Parliament, previously a simple majority, now two-thirds.  Otherwise, they would have provided for a popularly-elected president.

This means that our presidents do not make laws or decide how government money will be spent, they do not interpret law, do not choose Cabinet members without parliamentary approval, and do not enforce laws passed by the Parliament.  One often sees public criticism of our presidents because they have not stopped that law or the other or because they have not exercised their conscience to do so.  This is mostly incorrect and unfair criticism.

But need it be that way?  I believe that a popular President could well do more to develop the powers of the Office without infringing the Constitution.  I think that avenue should be explored by the new President.   The justification for it would be the Constitution itself, as currently written, where the oath a President takes on their inauguration says that they will, to the best of their ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. 

What do those words mean?  Nothing and everything – it’s up to the President to decide.  That doesn’t give him or her a carte blanche and the Executive might decide to challenge the President’s decision in the Constitutional Court.  But the conclusion is not a foregone one, that the Executive will have its way.  It all depends on how assertive the President is, how much they push against the established boundaries, how much they engage with the public to sway public opinion behind him or her.

Is she liberal?

By the way, on a concluding note, there was an odd thing I noticed about the inaugural speech.  It was the lack of any reference to the President’s liberal leanings, if any.  I was expecting something about this, given that the Prime Minister had said that any new President “should be a progressive person that steers away from conservativeness.”  Frankly, I don’t know enough about the new President to have formed an opinion, but I do hope that she will contribute to Malta’s progressiveness but not be unmindful of the unifying force she also wants to be.

Having said that, I believe that everybody is rooting for the new President and wish her well.

Photo: Alan Saliba/DOI

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