The Malta Independent 24 April 2019, Wednesday

The ninth President – an evaluation

Noel Grima Sunday, 24 March 2019, 08:30 Last update: about 1 month ago

President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca reaches the end of her term in the coming days. This is my very personal evaluation of her presidency.

There will no doubt be very different, maybe conflicting appreciations over the coming days, starting from very different points of view.

A president exists as a key component of our Constitution, with a very definite constitutional role and the only way to evaluate a presidential term is to analyse it from a constitutional point of view. Otherwise, anything that can range from the positive to the negative is out of point.

A president may be praised for helping people, for making speeches, for meeting so many people but all that is rather off the point: a president is there to fulfil a constitutional role. The president’s role is quite strictly delineated by the Constitution and its subsidiary legislation.

President after president in recent times have toyed with the reform of the Constitution but no word of the Constitution has been changed so far.

The president is created by a vote of Parliament and only Parliament can change the Constitution. Therefore, the president does not have absolute power: the president depends on Parliament for election and for any change the president wants to effect. When the president signs laws, greets ambassadors, travels abroad, and meets people – all this is done because of the position s/he occupies.

To look at it like this, whatever President Coleiro-Preca has done from election to the end of her term is the fulfilment of her constitutional role.

Other than that, a president tries to find ways of keeping himself/herself busy. One president took it on himself to service all the clocks in the palaces, another president set about restoring as many paintings in the palaces as he could, and so on.

Seen in this light, the outgoing president was not the worst of our recent presidents – there were no scandals involving her or her household, nor were there, at least to my knowledge, abuses involving the private gardens turned into a money-making enterprise. She did not fill the palaces with marble slabs commemorating this or that small personal event. Her staff was competent and dependable if rather stolid.

Yet the outgoing president turned the presidency into an appendage of the Community Chest Fund which at times swamped the presidential timetable. The year-long round of fund-raising reached its apex the day after Christmas with L-Istrina, a national monument of the past years. The 2018 one in particular drew national comment at the sight of so many companies donating huge sums to CCF with more than a hint of pride.

MLCP brought the CCF to a peak of sorts after it, I doubt if any other president can throw himself into it with so much abandon. I am not saying she neglected her presidential duties for CCF but the focus was shifted.

She was then involved, or not involved, in the Paqpaqli accident with very serious consequences – something no president should have allowed. Though never among the accused in court, she was the prime accused in public opinion. That stigma will stick.

Meanwhile, she created a network of institutions that in a way paralleled the working of the state. It is not clear, at least in my mind, what will happen to these institutions when she is out of the way but for me, a president must not carry over into private life something she created in her presidential term. When a president is out of office, out means out.

She has been reported as saying that she feels she can still do more and this brings back memories of MLCP as an MP, holding constituency surgeries and springing into action in defence of this or other of her constituents. Maybe this and her electoral successes were what made Joseph Muscat push her up in the direction of San Anton Palace. When she finds herself out of San Anton, she may well revert to her former role and no Joseph Muscat will be able to stop her. Her constituency is now nation-wide.

I have said this in the past and it remains very true today: unfortunately in Malta we do not have a mechanism where past statesmen can still be useful.

She could have done more, I believe, in her official role rather than in her role as the CCF patron.

 

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The media, without distinction, described it as a technical hitch without deigning to put the words in quotes.

This paper’s editor had gone to some pains to organize a video-conference through Skype from a courtroom in Tripoli to the courtroom in Valletta so that some Libyan witnesses could give their testimony. But moments before the case was called, the magistrate said he could not do it as he did not know how to operate the Skype recording mechanism.

This would not have been the first time in Maltese legal history where Skype was used: in another case some years back, Konrad Mizzi’s Chinese wife had so testified. So there was more than enough opportunity for one magistrate to learn the techniques from another magistrate.

The case was put off until May by which time the magistrate may well be a judge and the case given to some new magistrate. Nice, very nice.

And the poor Libyans had to travel back to their home a long distance after having travelled all that way for nothing.

 

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There were cries of anger and political spin at Mellieha because the Planning Authority approved an application for the building of a hotel and apartments on that waste ground near the new Valyou supermarket and its equally high-rise apartments.

Some people have short memories. I remember the same people organizing support for the Seabank extension on the sand, across the road from Mellieha Bay, with huge swimming pools when the sea is a stone’s throw away.

And the same people being unavoidably absent when Mepa approved the monstrous high wall of apartments right on the bypass as well as other planning bloomers in the same area.

 

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