The Guardian of the Constitution

Our Constitution expects that the President of the Republic protects and defends the Constitution of Malta. However, that same Constitution fails to provide the President with the required tools in order that this responsibility can be fulfilled. Consequently, to date, the President of the Republic has relied on moral persuasion to carry out this basic duty.

However, in this day and age, when we expect much more than a ceremonial Presidency with a rubber stamp, this is certainly insufficient. We expect a Presidency that can act in specific circumstances, even if it has no general executive powers.

The President cannot rely on moral persuasion alone to bring a government into line and respect our Constitution, when such action is required. The President’s office requires legal teeth to be in a position to fulfil its duty of protecting and defending the Constitution of Malta.

Earlier this week, Her Excellency the current President of the Republic has gone public with a specific proposal. In an interview published on Indepth, the online edition of The Malta Independent, outgoing President Marie-Louise Coleiro-Preca opined that the President should have the authority to send legislation back to Parliament for its reconsideration. This would also signify that the President’s office should be provided with the resources required in order that the President is provided with appropriate advice in real time in order that this essential function can be carried out.

This begs the question as to what extent should the President be actively involved in the local political debate. Sending back legislation to Parliament for its reconsideration would definitely be a very strong political statement. Would a President elected by Parliament in the present political scenario be willing to politically engage with Parliament in this manner? Even if one were to concede that this would be a rare event, it would be logical to conclude that were such an occurrence to happen it would definitely be a highly political and contentious act. The very nature of the Presidency would change dramatically. It could also be a change for the better.

The proposal made by President Coleiro-Preca is valid, but must, however, be seen in a wider context. Alternattiva Demokratika-The Green Party is on record as having proposed, in previous electoral manifestos, that the President of the Republic should be elected by an electoral college that is much wider than Parliament. Alternattiva Demokratika is of the opinion that Local Councils should be involved alongside Parliament in the election of the President.

Parliament should not be in control of all the country’s institutions. The involvement of local councils in the election of the President of the Republic would serve to increase the dignity of the office of President and would help remove the stigma that it is some sort of retirement club for old boys and girls.

Establishing such an electoral college would free the President from political dependence on Parliament. Consequently, the President, would in practice, be shielded from political backlash if he/she acts in defence of the Constitution, by sending back legislation to be reconsidered by Parliament.

The proposed authority of the President to return legislation for reconsideration should be limited to such cases where there is incompatibility between proposed legislation and the Constitution. It would transform the President’s current moral authority to real and effective authority to block legislation when there is a case to be made that such legislation is unconstitutional.

As a result, when the President gives his or her assent to legislation approved by Parliament it would not be simply applying the rubberstamp.

It is an important check on the powers of Parliament that is required in a revised Constitution. Guardianship of the Constitution should not be just lip-service, it should be real and effective.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 17 March 2019

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