The Malta Independent 22 May 2019, Wednesday

George, Joseph and Marie-Louise

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 30 March 2014, 11:05 Last update: about 6 years ago

A few days after George Abela was sworn-in as President of the Republic, his office organised a social activity for senior members of the media at San Anton Palace.

Dr Abela took time to greet the journalists who attended one by one, and when it was my turn, his first question was about a close relative of mine whom he considered – and still considers –a friend. He was visibly shocked when I told him that the person he was referring to had just undergone a serious operation and was recovering at Mater Dei Hospital.

A few hours later, this relative of mine called from hospital to tell me that Dr Abela had turned up at hospital to pay him a visit. That unexpected but nonetheless most welcome call is still etched in my memory, and I will be forever grateful to Dr Abela for lifting the spirits of someone dear to me at a difficult time.

It was the first sign that the presidency did not change Dr Abela. Being appointed Head of State – and, moreover, by a Prime Minister coming from the opposite political camp – had not dented his humbleness.

But Dr Abela did change the presidency in the last five years, in the powers that were entrusted to him. All other presidents who preceded him left their own imprint on the position, in their own different ways. Dr Abela’s term will be remembered for the launch of a process that will eventually lead to changes in the Constitution that will give the person occupying the role a much stronger and meaningful place in our society.

There’s more to it than that. Dr Abela took the presidency much closer to the people. His running alongside thousands of people in the annual charity run and his mingling with young and old during Rockestra events are perfect examples of how Dr Abela wanted to be part of the group, not someone who stands aloof.

One may argue in favour of or against a President who uses his term to organise mass events that compete against other activities held by people with commercial interests. But ultimately what the President did was not for himself or for personal profit, but to generate funds for people in need and at the same time promote a better lifestyle and local talent.

His idea to eliminate giving gifts in exchange of donations made during the annual fund-raising activity known as l-Istrina was something I wholeheartedly supported, having also made the suggestion several times before the decision was taken. Many thought the taking away of gifts was going to have a negative impact on the amount collected, but year after year the sum donated by the Maltese people reached record levels. And the donations given were more genuine, not a way of a chance to win something back.

I did not agree with everything Dr Abela did during the presidency. I did not like the idea of our Head of State going to a foreign country, namely Peru, for missionary work. Neither did I like the speech he delivered at the start of this legislature; it had too many openly partisan political references and no President – who is supposedly a unifying figure – should be forced to go through what Dr Abela had to go through. As Dr Abela himself suggested afterwards, it should be the President who prepares the speech, and not have one dumped on him by the incumbent prime minister. The controversy on the home for people with eating disorders could also have been handled better.

But I do agree with the stand he took not to sign a gay marriage bill that includes the possibility for gay couples to adopt children, forcing the government to postpone the implementation of the law until a new president takes over.

Whereas, with regard to divorce, the people had spoken in favour through a referendum, and therefore a collective decision had been taken, in the case of gay adoptions the government is just bulldozing its way through to please a minority group and earn more votes. The government had no mandate to go this far, as gay adoption was not part of Labour’s election manifesto.

Reports have said that Dr Abela is unwilling to sign the law on moral grounds. I do not agree much with this line of reasoning. I think it is more of a way of telling the Prime Minister that he (Dr Abela) cannot endorse a law that Dr Muscat is imposing without it having been listed in Labour’s pre-electoral plans.

It is probable that the signing of the bill into law by new President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca was one of the conditions Prime Minister Joseph Muscat made when he approached her to take over the presidency. Ms Coleiro Preca has said that she will sign it.

She will be taking over the presidency on Friday, and the fact that the Opposition will be endorsing her nomination is a sign that she is considered to be a good choice for the country from both sides of the political spectrum. It is also true that the Opposition had no other choice, and it would have looked stupid if the PN had decided otherwise.

However, the way the new presidency has been portrayed has left me with serious doubts. How Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Ms Coleiro Preca spoke about it when her nomination was made official sounded more like a description of a ministry, rather than one of a presidency. It seemed like the social policy ministry was being elevated to the level of a presidency, when the latter is much more than that.

As it is now, the Constitution clearly states what the role of a President is, and until changes such as those suggested by Dr Abela and others are implemented, the presidency should not be tampered with. The person appointed President must fit in with the role that exists, and the role should not be modified to fit the person being appointed.

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