The Malta Independent 25 May 2019, Saturday

A people’s President (full interview)

Malta Independent Tuesday, 24 December 2013, 11:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

President George Abela has perhaps done many things to bring people close to the Presidency - from removing the prize giving element from l-Istrina to the creation of Rockestra, the Fun Run, to opening the President’s Concert for the New Year to the general public, all in aid of the Malta Community Chest Fund. He now hopes this fast pace will be kept by his successor.

The negative aspects and shortcomings are to be put aside but the President should not be afraid to mingle with people and listen to what they have to say because positivity comes out even from people’s criticism.

“The President is on no pedestal and should be close to the people,” he feels strongly. “Vice-versa, people should feel close to the President”.

He has felt very close to people from day one and never forgets the warm welcome he received on the Gozo ferry the day after his swearing-in ceremony, when he had the first visit to the Arka Foundation, in Gozo.  This continued throughout the Presidency and he hopes it will last till the very end.

This is among the things he has in mind when speaking of the need for the Presidency to be active and decisive. He says: “You cannot just enjoy life”.

The days leading to the festive season require a lot of work from President Abela and his team but this gives him great satisfaction. He plans to visit Boffa Hospital after having returned from visits in UK hospitals three weeks ago and this year, the team visited an Oxford Hospital, which is quite some distance away from the ones usually visited.

“These are what I call bitter sweet experiences,” he said.

All efforts are now concentrated on l-Istrina which will be transmitted live mainly from the Mediterranean Conference Centre (MCC) and Smart City.

Following the President’s Fun Run and Paqpaqli ghall-Istrina, the set at the MCC has been constructed and works are at an advanced stage. First Lady Margaret Abela visited several schools and the piggy banks have been collected.

He also remarked on the President’s Concert for the New Year, also held at the MCC with the participation of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, for which filming on the dance scenes has taken place over a full week at San Anton Palace – the President’s home for the past four and a half years.

The Christmas Midnight Mass will also be said from San Anton grounds and a large tent has been set up for the purpose. This year mass will be unique as the traditional preaching of the sermon – the nativity story, will be delivered by a deaf girl in sign language. This will be transmitted live on television and the idea is to give this student an opportunity because “we form part of an inclusive society”. The sermon itself, written by Trevor Zahra, is beautiful and has a very important message, President Abela noted.

Giving his message for Christmas, he said:  “We believers must prepare ourselves for Christmas and must live these joyful days. It is a message of hope and joy which we must live even if we are suffering. We must always be hopeful and have faith that better days will come so we live them to the full. We must also share this joy with people around us and the family – a very strong component of our society - and share them with others who are suffering by offering a shoulder of support”.

Asked whether he looks back at past Christmases with a sense of nostalgia since this will be his last as President, Dr Abela said he has enjoyed the past years and has learnt a lot. He does not feel nostalgic but pleased to have come to know Maltese society.

As with everything in life, the Presidency had its beautiful moments and others which were less positive. But by and large, he thanks God and the people for a very satisfactory Presidency and he hopes people share these thoughts.

President Abela certainly does not consider returning to politics because the Presidency has been a phase which detached him from this: “I don’t even dream of returning to politics,” he said.

Dr Abela laughed off a question on whether he imagines himself addressing a mass meeting like former President Eddie Fenech Adami before the last general election, explaining he refrains from commenting on the actions of others and clearly stated: “I will not return to politics”.

Discussing his proposal in his Republic Day address on the need for national consensus on the appointment of the next president, Dr Abela said according to our Constitution, the Prime Minister has the prerogative to decide on the best person to serve as President – as should be. Speaking from his personal experience, having looked back on the previous seven Presidents and what he would like to see in the future,  he pointed out this however does not guarantee that the best choice is made.

Explaining these are only his thoughts, he believes the best choice can be made if consensus between political parties is reached because it is important for the President to be accepted by the people if possible as from the first day, he stresses. It does not make sense for days and months, if not even years, to pass for work to start being carried out because the President would have been imposed and not accepted by the people.

 It is also high time that the role of the President is to be strengthened, he believes. As part of the island’s Constitutional development, the role should become more active and decisive within limits due to the fact that the Prime Minister and Cabinet have political responsibility since the sovereign people give them the mandate to govern. People too have shown they expected this even during the past legislature by questioning why the President signs certain laws. But they leave from the premise that the President can decide not to sign, which is not the case.

The President’s hands are tied by the Constitution to sign without delay. The only reserve possible is if the law goes against his conscience and he can opt not to sign it and resign. Other than that, he must sign and cannot even propose changes.

This was in fact one of the suggestions he made during the Republic Day address – the possibility of giving the President the right to at least point out reservations on a Bill and send it back to Parliament at least once, so that it would have listened to what the President had to say, before taking the final decision.

Mentioning the Education Act as an example, he pointed out the University Chancellor has the right to send by-laws (regulations) back to the Senate for reconsideration before these are signed. So if we are discussing national legislation, shouldn’t the President at least be given similar faculty? he asked.

Shouldn’t the President also have a say when it comes to the people appointed to the Constitutional bodies since they would be chairing national authorities such as the Broadcasting Authority and the Courts. When the President nominates these individuals, even for the occupier of Office, they are not responding to politicians but have been chosen by the President, who is above party politics and enjoys people’s respect. We have arrived at a stage of maturity, even in our Constitutional development, to widen these powers which at this point are at the Prime Minister’s prerogative, President Abela believes.

He acknowledged that he has at times had reservations but this is immaterial because nothing could have been done to the point that he is obliged by the Constitution to sign. However, there had been occasions when he made remarks during national events. Surely no one can say this Presidency was mute – that it was closing its eyes, ears and mouth - but he was always very cautious when speaking since the President should not normally create controversy.

He qualifies this by leaving from the premise there should be consensus over the choice of President. This does not mean having parties suggesting two different people. He feels very grateful that there had been unanimity over his nomination for President which he notes was unique, but although not everyone might agree on one name, at least there should be general consensus for people to feel part of the Presidency and not one detached from the people.

Discussing his calls for the Constitutional reform over the past years, Dr Abela said that again, it is not normal for a President to call for reforms because in themselves these create controversy, but he has spoken and specified where things need to change. Fora were also set up and competent speakers were invited to share their expertise on the reform and work has been done.  He feels satisfied because this was one of the promises of both political parties in the last election. Of course what has been achieved so far is not enough and he has spoken again in the Republic Day address on the reform.

Things are however moving with regard to the courts’ reform, he noted, and the Commission for the Administration of Justice, over which he presides, has studied the first report out of three presented by the Giovanni Bonello Commission.

“The Constitution must ultimately serve the people,” he stated, explaining that this is what actually interests him and what the island needs. He also feels optimistic that Constitutional reforms will take place.

On the opening speech delivered at the opening of the legislature, which had caused great controversy soon after the election due to its euphoric tone, Dr Abela said: “This is like the issue when it comes to laws, You have to sign them unless you have reservations on the basis of conscience”.

He said this is a speech the government prepares and if he was to make corrections, he would have made it his own, while remarking this is something people do not appreciate much. It remains the government’s speech and one can make comparisons between speeches I wrote, such as that delivered on Republic Day and what I read on that day.

“There is an enormous difference between what President Abela thinks and writes and what he read that day,” he said. “It was not natural. God forbid the President, who is over and above politics, involves himself and talks about politics”.

He made it clear this was the government’s speech even though he was the person to read it. This was not the first time the President read such a speech as there were seven Presidents before him who read such a speech but he did not stop at reading it. He made it clear that he was uncomfortable with it and questioned whether the system should remain untouched. He wishes future Presidents do not have to face the same situation.

If we truly want the President to address Parliament, then we should allow the President to do his own speech and share his own views.

“I think I had things to say… no?”

“If we are to keep the system we inherited from the British of delivering the speech from the throne, even though we don’t have a throne, then the government’s primary exponent reads it or the government can deliver a political address and the President delivers his own. But let’s be clear and stop calling this the President’s Speech as I don’t blame people who think this is the President’s speech. However he is against the actions of those who know the facts and have produced television programmes about it and continuing to describe it as the President’s speech when we all clearly know it’s not.

On a light note, Dr Abela said there were several funny moments during the Presidency and a recent moment of absentmindedness from his behalf happened during activities related to the Fun Run. Being an animal lover, he came up with the idea on the eve of the marathon, to have pets participating in it as well and his assistant Marika Mizzi arranged for a dog named Mose to be present at the press conference. President Abela was introduced to this dog and his master and he (the President) had imagined that the master was named Mose and shook hands with the man. In the evening he was told that he had shaken the wrong hand because the dog was actually named Mose.

But by and large, the Presidency gave him a lot of satisfaction. It brought him and his family close to people and he treasures the fact that children see the Presidency as being close to them. This comes among others from the fact that Dr Abela and his wife visit several schools and meet several children, even at San Anton Palace.

Asked whether he would miss anything, he pointed out that at the moment, they actually miss their home, which is currently being renovated for President Abela and his wife to move back after not having been lived in for almost five years. Yet they will probably miss their team who became part of their family.

“We are expecting some withdrawal symptoms on that front as I have always formed part of committees, but we will surely adapt,” he said.

 

 

 
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