The Presidential rubberstamp

While you are reading through this article His Excellency President George Vella is in the United Kingdom, after attending for the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. He left these islands on Wednesday morning.

As soon as the AirMalta plane taking His Excellency to Birmingham was in the air, the Acting President Professor Frank Bezzina was at the President’s desk signing into law the IVF amendments. Those same amendments which Dr Vella refused to sign in the days before.

This is not the end of the story. By refusing to give his assent the President, George Vella, acted beyond his authority as in terms of law he had no discretion on the matter: he had to signify his assent without delay, as established by Article 72 of the Constitution.

Even His Excellency is subject to the law, in this case the Constitution. His refusal to follow what is prescribed by the law is a serious breach of his Constitutional responsibilities, and, in the view of my party this gives rise to valid reasons to consider the impeachment of Dr Vella from his Presidential duties. His Excellency should show us the way as to what it means to be subject to the rule of law. How do we expect others to carry out their duties if the Head of State acts in this way? – the worst possible example.

There is still time for Parliament to consider impeachment proceedings against Dr Vella and remove him from Office in view of his unacceptable and illegal behaviour.

Parliament needs, however, to go beyond clearly censuring Dr Vella. It is essential to consider in some depth the role of the President of the Republic. Specifically, it should consider whether the President should be just a rubberstamp or else whether he or she should have limited powers of review over Parliament’s legislative authority.

In submissions which the party that I lead presented to the Constitution Convention we focused on this specific matter, among other issues. In a section of the document submitted to the Convention, entitled The President of the Republic: Appointment and responsibilities, my party proposed that the President should have the right to send legislation back to Parliament for its reconsideration, if, in his view, such legislation runs counter to the provisions of the Constitution.

The President, on assuming office, declares that he/she will do all it takes to defend the Constitution. He/she is not however equipped with any (constitutional) tools with which to carry out his responsibilities. The Green proposal, presented almost three years ago, for the consideration of the Constitutional Convention identifies an essential tool with which His Excellency the President can act responsibly within the parameters of the law. We further proposed that should Parliament refuse to budge, the President should refer the matter to the Constitutional Court for a final decision. This is the manner in which the Presidency should function; much better than the present day theatrics.

In this manner the President’s Office would not be a mere rubberstamp, constrained to assent or else act outside the parameters of the law. The President’s actions in the past days conveyed the worst possible message. It almost happened some years ago when another President had (privately) indicated that he would not assent to legislation relative to Civil Unions (Act IX of 2014). In order to avert a Constitutional crisis government had then slightly delayed the final vote in Parliament, timing it with the swearing in of a new President. The Civil Unions Act was in fact signed on 17 April 2014, just 13 days into the Presidency of Marie Louise Coleiro-Preca.

Parliament would do well to consider the issue further. It is essential that the President of the Republic is adequately equipped with the necessary constitutional tools in order that he can carry out his duties in a responsible manner and within the parameters of the law. The sooner this is done, the better.

Carmel Cacopardo
ADPD Chairperson
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 31 July 2022