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Editorial | Wednesday, 30 December 2009

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A gamble that paid off

The Christmas fundraising marathon in aid of the President’s Community Chest Fund has raised a highly respectable sum for charity, despite the gloom of recession and above all despite the absence of prizes for donors.
It was an outstanding achievement for President George Abela who took the bold step of banning the prizes.
The President’s conviction that it was not greed or the prospect of gain that drove thousands to make a donation has been amply vindicated. There seemed to be a serious risk involved. What if the event was a flop? What if fear of water and electricity bills dampened the show?
George Abela has triumphed allowing the Maltese to declare themselves disinterested donors and taking a good dose of kitsch out of the whole performance. Somehow that feat put the established L-Istrina Master of Ceremonies, Peppi Azzopardi, a little in the shade. His previous achievements did not require the melding of Christmas with lotteries.
Of course the tear-jerking clips of probable recipients, so much less-fortunate-than-ourselves, continue to beset the show with niggling doubts as to the propriety of such displays. But we have made one significant step forward this year.
With the exception of a dizzy spell at a funeral, President Abela brings to the Presidency an altogether fitter and younger-looking figure, better able to perform at a fun event than any of his predecessors. Try as they might, previous Presidents carried the dignity of office as a straitjacket, making any rare escape seem more like a failure than a laudable exploit. A President known to run marathons for fun has a splendid advantage over the scarred survivors of grim political battles.
In his case, political allegiance has turned out to be a major advantage. Whereas former Presidents struggled to jettison their political baggage, George Abela gains from it in so far as it has always been modest and moderate and is now key to his embodiment as the unifier following appointment to the post by his political rivals.
The shrewd, the sceptical and even the paranoid may have read much into Lawrence Gonzi’s choice of President, but the crowd refuses to peer below the surface. Labourite Abela, appointed by Nationalist Gonzi, becomes a truly Maltese President. If machinations there were, they are overwhelmed by the appearances. George Abela has been given a presidential status enjoyed by none of his predecessors with the near exception of Malta’s first President Sir Anthony Mamo, who came to the post from the Bench, and not from politics at all.
His shortcoming is almost a natural consequence of his advantages: he lacks the political stature and perhaps the personality we have come to expect from our Head of State. Charming and affable as he might be, we have no experience of his leadership in trying circumstances, his steady hand on the helm in a raging storm.
Hopefully he will not be tested and if he is, he may have grown into his role enough to succeed brilliantly. Who can tell?
Meanwhile his main challenge is to continue to exploit his Uncle George charm without losing sight of his principal task of providing the country with a figurehead that binds the whole edifice of State together. What is the right mix in this day and age? How much pomp and ceremony can we stomach and how much can we abandon in safety?
The President is a bit like a fire extinguisher. He has to be there, especially in case of emergency. If he is never called upon to put out a fire, so much the better; but if we face a crisis he must be able to act and act well to put the fire out. Too much Uncle George could rob him of the clout he may need.
It may be early days yet but he has set himself a task to give the Maltese a sense of State and this may be his greatest legacy. Already the fact that he notes the lack of it is a major gain and any headway he may make in that direction will be a momentous achievement.
However, here again he must walk a tightrope. Affability and Uncle Georgism draws him inexorably to be more Catholic than suits a President, even a President of Malta. A sense of State, a common ground for the People must be defended from the encroaching political parties who have misappropriated it and who have robbed ordinary people of a sense of ownership of the state with accompanying responsibilities. The same sense of State also marks out the boundaries between Church and State. The Archbishop is not the President, and the President is not the Archbishop. George Abela, Maltese Catholic par excellence, is President of all Maltese citizens, of all religions and of none. Here too his belonging to ‘the other side’ may help him in his task. He can afford to be a stickler on Church/State detachment precisely because his personal affiliation is well established.
His risk-taking and his success in l-Istrina bode well for a clear definition of roles and spaces in his trademark friction-free manner. Well done, George and keep it up.


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