The Malta Independent 11 August 2022, Thursday

TMIS Editorial: The President’s accountability

Sunday, 31 July 2022, 11:00 Last update: about 11 days ago

Like every one of us, President George Vella has a right to his opinions and, as a newspaper that believes in freedom of expression, we will be the first to defend him if this right is challenged.

But the President also has his constitutional duties to perform, including the signing of laws which serves as the last green light to their implementation after they are approved in Parliament.

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Parliament is made up of representatives democratically elected by the people, and the President has the duty to sign any law that is passed in the House.

If the President does not agree with the law, then he is free not to sign it. If his conscience prohibits him from putting his name to a piece of legislation, then he should resign.

George Vella did not choose to do this on the IVF law that was passed in Parliament before it rose for the summer recess earlier this month. The law opens the way to embryo testing, enabling doctors to spot certain conditions before the embryo is implanted in the womb. The law was passed with an overwhelming show of support in the House, with only three of the 69 MPs present voting against (another 10 were missing).

We defend Vella’s sacrosanct right to be against the law.

But we must criticise the way he chose to circumvent his moral conundrum. What he decided to do brought disrepute to the Presidency.

George Vella should have had the courage to say he did not agree with the legislation and, as a result, hand in his resignation. Had he packed his bags, he would have been praised for sticking to his personal convictions.

Another option would have been to sign the law, against his wishes, with an explanation that he was doing so out of respect to the democratic process. When Vella’s predecessor Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca was faced with a similar situation in 2018 on the Embryo Protection Act, she had signed the law “solely out of respect and loyalty to my country’s democratic process and to the Constitution”.

“I could have taken the option, mooted in the press, to absent myself from the country while this Bill received its third reading in Parliament. However, I have never been one to shirk my responsibilities or my duties as President of Malta and I will not do so now,” Coleiro Preca had said at the time.

Vella chose a different road.

Instead of resigning on a point of principle or signing the law with an explanation as that given by Coleiro Preca, we had a full three weeks of a vacuum between the time the law was passed by Parliament and Vella’s first trip abroad, which allowed for the taking over of his office by a newly-appointed Acting President, who signed the law as the wheels of the airplane on which Vella was travelling were touching down in Birmingham.

In between, Vella avoided responding directly to questions on who would be signing the law. The law will be signed, he repeatedly told reporters. It was clear that he had no intention to sign it, but he was never bold enough to say that he would not be the one to do it.

That we had a three-week delay in between Parliament’s approval and the Office of the Presidency’s signature was in itself already disrespectful to what the Constitution says. The supreme law of the land stipulates that the President’s signature on a law passed by Parliament must take place “without delay”. This “without delay” proviso was put aside, according to legal experts.

Malta has arrived at the unfortunate situation where the Constitution ends up serving the President and not the President serving the Constitution, Kevin Aquilina, a Professor of Law and Former Dean of the Faculty of Laws at the University of Malta, wrote in an opinion piece published in The Malta Independent as the country was waiting for the signature.

He goes on: “This is a case where the guardian of the Constitution breaches the rule of law or, better, the express written wording of the Constitution, the highest law of the land, to suit his own purposes. Needless, to say, government – the defender of the rule of law in Malta – will ignore such incident as though nothing has happened, and the conclusion is that they all lived happily ever after in the banana republic of Malta.”

Aside from the delay aspect, which is a serious issue, there is another consideration that needs to be made.

The last decade or so has seen many of Malta’s institutions under the spotlight for the wrong reasons. On many an occasion, the behaviour of these institutions fell way below expectations.

The Office of the President is now part of that growing list.

 

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