Michael Falzon | Sunday, 12 April 2009

Unity in diversity?

Malta’s new President, George Abela, told a journalist who was interviewing him practically on the eve of his ‘election’ that he had made it his mission to represent “unity in diversity” – hardly an original choice of phrase. The three words happen to be the official motto of the European Union, Ghana, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and South Africa! The phrase is widely used to describe India – a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious society – and way back in 1938, the leader of the Baha’i faith had described it as the “watchword” for their religion.
Comparing the diversity in Indonesia and India with that in Malta, ours is a petty one leading to petty differences. Still our two political tribes keep soldiering on! In fact rather than a show of unity his nomination has led to bouts of divisiveness driven by pettiness: rather the opposite of what the Prime Minister intended – at least at face value – when he opted for Abela to become President.
The first tests on ‘unity’ came unexpectedly from PL quarters, first with Abela’s previous colleagues in the Labour party leadership – Alfred Sant and George Vella – boycotting his nomination and his swearing in ceremony and then with the controversy on whether Labour Party general secretary, Jason Micallef, was invited to the President’s swearing in ceremony.
On the PN side, there was Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando who had intimated that he was not prepared to vote in favour of Abela’s nomination for the Presidency; and who subsequently did not attend the Parliamentary sitting when the vote took place, although he then – quite correctly – was present for the sitting when the President’s official swearing-in took place.
The behaviour of Alfred Sant and George Vella led to a scathing attack against them in an article appearing a week ago in The Malta Independent on Sunday and written by former Super One supremo and Labour candidate, Alfred Mifsud. The no holds barred attack even accused Sant and Abela of putting their personal tiffs before the interest of the Labour Party and held them responsible for the Labour party’s decade (1998-2008) in the political wilderness of the Opposition. Mifsud even went so far as to insist that Sant and Vella should resign from Parliament to make way for new and younger blood in the Labour parliamentary group.
The funniest thing in all this was that rather than giving his MPs a free vote on the motion nominating the new President, Joseph Muscat opted to excuse Sant and Vella from being present during the discussion and vote on the motion. Why they were excused remains a mystery! No reason was given for their absence in the session when the president took the oath of allegiance to the Constitution in the presence of the Members of Parliament, formality that did not involve any voting. Some did say that Sant was – or could have been – abroad for personal reasons, a circumstance that would have to be a valid reason for his absence. But surely this is not the case with George Vella! In his case there is no excuse for his being excused when the House of Representatives confirmed the Prime Minister’s choice, and – even worse – for his snub of not attending the session when the president took his oath of office.
The obviously premeditated absence of Alfred Sant and George Abela in the Labour side and that of Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando in the PN side from the Parliamentary sitting that ‘unanimously’ elected George Abela as President could – perhaps – lead to a more critical view of our Parliamentary democracy. First of all, the motion passed ‘nem con’ i.e. with no one voting against it, which is quite different from ‘unanimously’ which means that everybody voted in favour. Even so with a number of MPs missing the sitting for one reason or another, quoting ‘unanimity’ hardly makes sense.
Perhaps, it is about time to think about the motion nominating the President as one that is different from other motions that are discussed in parliament from time to time. How about all parties in Parliament agreeing that the vote on the nomination of the President should always be a free vote and not subject to party discipline? How about introducing a compulsory secret vote specifically for that particular motion? Surely, this vote is not a matter of policy or a part of some electoral programme and if we really mean it when we say that the country is reaching newer heights of political maturity, such a different approach makes sense.
As regards Jason Micallef’s complaint on his not receiving an invitation for the swearing in ceremony, it results that these invitations were not issued by the President’s Office but by Parliament. The Clerk of the House felt she had to issue a statement confirming that Jason Micallef had indeed been invited and that when word went out that he had not received the invitation, he was contacted by phone and informed of his invitation. Whereupon Jason Micallef is purported to have replied that he could not make it anyway because of some prior commitment with his family.
What first seemed to be a much unexpected snub on the part of the new President turned out to be possibly a snub on the part of the Labour Party general secretary! But hold on. Jason Micallef is reportedly suing In-Nazzjon for libel, for having carried a report denying that he was not issued with an invitation. The mind boggles. The extent of the pettiness that is being pursued in the cause of our ‘unity in diversity’ is incredible.
The other person who – really – did not receive an invitation for the President’s swearing in ceremony and felt snubbed was Toni Abela, Labour’s deputy leader for party affairs. It seems that according to protocol, a political party is only allowed one deputy leader and hence, from an official protocol point of view, Toni Abela is a non-entity! Perhaps someone should dig further into this story and see whether one can unearth when this ‘protocol’ nonsense was first laid out and who was responsible for it. Pettiness, of course, has long been the name of the game.
We were told that the nomination of George Abela as the eighth President of the Republic of Malta was a move aimed at promoting unity between citizens of differing political views. Instead, we have seen petty personal piques highlighting, in the most preposterous manner, the divisiveness in the way many in the political arena look at things.
Sadly, rather than ‘unity in diversity’ the mood seems to be one of ‘pettiness in divisiveness’.


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