The democratic republic of Malta’s president is the figurehead of the nation and its constitutional head of state. Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, who is Malta’s ninth president, has held the role since 2014, during which time she has made great strides in modernising the institution and bringing it closer to the people of Malta. She spoke to The Report Company about her initiatives.
The Report Company: What perspective do you bring the role of president, being as you are the youngest person to hold this office in Malta?
Marie Louise Coleiro Preca: I bring in a working person’s perspective, rather than that of a retired person. The presidency was founded 40 years ago and has been a successful experiment, in that the presidency is loved and respected by the people.
As a non-executive president, I believe the authority I have is more of a moral one, and like any other institution, the presidency needs to be relevant to the realities and needs of our country. My role, as I have seen it since I came to the presidency, is to modernise this institution and to further expand its role.
With my 40 years of experience in politics, mainly working in the social sector, I bring in my experience. This is mainly the work I have done in improving quality of life, addressing poverty, tackling inequalities and fighting discrimination. What I have been doing this last year is first of all taking stock of what the presidency is, but also looking to move forward the presidency closer to the upcoming realities. I have been introducing certain structures to the presidency, such as the founding of the president’s foundation for the well-being of society, which is a very new experiment.
TRC: What work does this foundation carry out?
MLCP: The foundation works with regard to social issues. Its ethos is to bring in a change in culture, in mentality, and try to encourage and promote active citizenship. We work with a two-pronged approach: on one hand, we bring together people to discuss and engage in dialogue; and on the other hand, we have research institutions like the national institute for childhood, the national observatory for living with dignity, the national council for research on families, and also a national centre for freedom from addictions.
We also have a society focussed on agriculture and botany. The idea is to bring people closer to nature. We believe that quality of life can be achieved based on strong relationships, so we always bringing people around the table to have conversations, to speak of best practices and also to identify areas where we need to put in more work.
We have an ongoing interfaith dialogue. Despite its small size, practically all of the world’s religions are represented in Malta. It is very important for us to bring religions together and discuss and find common ground for collaboration, for cooperation, but also in the process of this, see what needs to be done, for example in culture. We have brought together an intercultural dialogue. This is a process where people of different cultures come together. From these fora, we are identifying issues that need researching. We then go to our research institutes and conduct scientific research. The conclusions and indicators that come out from such research will go back into the fora, so that we have a holistic approach to recommendations to stakeholders in the country.
You could say that the president’s foundation for the well-being of society is trying to bring about active citizenship so that people can speak for themselves and become protagonists in the development of the country. We are having people speak up.
“Whatever we are doing in the presidency, the focus is mainly on poverty, inequality, discrimination, diversity and social inclusion.”Tweet This
The president’s foundation also is very concerned with children. We create a lot of opportunities to create safe spaces for children to speak up, because we believe that children need these opportunities. They are the present of our society; and they are the future leaders of our society. I visit schools all the time and it’s not just visiting schools and addressing assemblies, but I actually take groups of different age groups and have conversations with them. Children are always invited to bring in their own agenda. I am alone with the children so that they feel safe to open up and speak about what they would like to see in their society. Children want more spaces where they can play. They talk of stress, they talk of prejudice, and this is such an inspiring experience for me. Many a time in my public speeches, I mention what I hear. I draw the attention of our politicians, of our stakeholders, to what our children are saying to us, because it is our duty to do whatever is needed so that our children are happier and have a better quality of life.
The president’s foundation is my structure where I can create spaces and opportunities as part of a preventative approach to poverty, to inequality and to discrimination. We are trying to prevent issues from becoming big problems. Hopefully, by the end of my term, the foundation will have become a structure on its own, so that it will become a sustainable entity for successive presidents.
TRC: You have also recently launched the President’s Trust. What work does this initiative involve?
MLCP: Whatever we are doing in the presidency, the focus is mainly on poverty, inequality, discrimination, diversity and social inclusion. On the one hand, the foundation is trying to prevent, pre-empt and be proactive, while on the other hand, the president’s trust works in an effective way by creating programmes for underprivileged groups, particularly young people and children, for empowerment and employability. I consider the trust as a partnership with the private sector, where programmes are funded by private enterprises.
We are trying to create situations and opportunities for these groups of people to live in dignity. We will be collaborating with the Prince’s Trust in the UK; we have signed a memorandum of understanding and we look forward to sharing best practices and sharing knowledge.
We also have the Malta Community Chest Fund. This is an institutional entity which was set up by the governor general during British colonial times, and this year we have transformed it into a foundation, giving it a legal framework regulated by civil law.
This is the only national fund that deals with cancer patients and patients with severe, chronic diseases. It provides support and assistance to patients that have to go abroad for special treatment, paying for accommodation, maintenance and transportation.
This is a national fund that is sustained by the Maltese generosity. It is not funded in any way from taxes. We distribute €250,000 every month in things like specialised medicine and support for people who have to go to the UK for treatment.
“We need to create a space for the children of the Commonwealth to come together and speak. We need our heads of government to listen to our children. Children can tell us a lot.”Tweet This
TRC: Malta will be hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings this year. How relevant is the Commonwealth for Malta today, and what can be done to ensure that it isn’t seen as an anachronism?
MLCP: I believe that the Commonwealth can do the world of good. It is the second largest group of countries after the United Nations. It is a diverse group, so it can be a platform of intercultural dialogue. That for me is so important in today’s world, a world in which wars are being fought simply because we are not acknowledging each other’s differences.
There is also another very important element to the Commonwealth. We are the second largest group of island states and small states. We have this commonality between us in terms of struggling for our economic growth with factors such as climate change. The Commonwealth provides a platform for us to discuss and share experiences and face challenges in such a way that we create opportunities among ourselves.
TRC: What needs to be changed in order that the Commonwealth reaches its full potential?
MLCP: There is excitement for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and I believe that things will happen in November, when the meeting is on. I have the impression, from conversations that I have had with a number of key people in the Commonwealth, that many of the countries are looking forward to the setting up of certain entities, for example a centre of excellence in Malta for small island states, where people can meet, share best practices, and collaborate and cooperate.
For the very first time, there will be a women’s forum, and that is very telling. There are quite a number of issues that I am sure will be tackled.
TRC: What initiatives do you want Malta to be the base for?
MLCP: There are a number of initiatives that we have proposed, like the centre of excellence, but from the presidency, I would love to see a children’s forum. We have a youth forum, but we need a children’s forum I have proposed this both to the Royal Commonwealth Society and to the Commonwealth Secretariat.
We need to create a space for the children of the Commonwealth to come together and speak. We need our heads of government to listen to our children. Children can tell us a lot.
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TRC: What type of help would you like to receive from the international community toward the ongoing issue with migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe?
MLCP: Speaking about immigration does not make me popular, but I will keep on speaking about it because this is a reality. Immigration has so many facets to it, and we truly need an international immigration policy. Immigration stems from a number of situations, from wars and conflict to persecution, poverty, and climate change. What are we going to do about populations whose land will vanish? Are we going to relocate them?
We need to start by understanding that migration has to be with dignity. Are human rights only for Europeans and Americans, or are they for Africans who are suffering from wars, and people in the Middle East who are suffering from persecution? To understand these migrants, I try to put myself in their shoes. If I was living in a war-stricken country, wouldn’t I do anything to save my family? I would. If I was living in a country where persecution existed toward people who are gay, wouldn’t I do anything to save my son? I would. If I was living in a country where climate change had taken its toll, and poverty was the order of the day, wouldn’t I do anything to give my children a future? I would. These are the same answers that any human being on earth would give. We need an international commitment, not just a regional solution. We need to face realities.
It might sound ambitious, and idealistic, but we are not going to tackle such a challenge alone. Globalisation has brought about a global movement of people. We are living in an unprecedented time. One in seven human beings on the globe are moving, not just because of wars and conflicts and poverty, but also because people have aspirations. They want to have a chance at life. So these people go abroad.
Malta is small in size and in resources, and I have had first-hand experience when I was family and solidarity minister in 2013, when a boatload of Syrians overturned. There were 500 of them. Only around 100 survived and came to Malta. I got together in an urgent manner a group of psychosocial professionals to give support to these hundred or so Syrians. We practically had to drain our only hospital of professionals, and that alone gives you an idea of how constrained we are. But we can help out.
Even the issue of integration is very difficult. You cannot integrate such a number of people in a population of 400,000. It would not be conducive for the migrants or for the population, but we can for example be a centre for deploying these migrants, so that migrants will not be a burden for us all to share, but they will be an opportunity. This is how I see Malta, but we need help and more resources.
TRC: What would you like international investors and visitors to understand about Malta?
MLCP: We have an excellent location. We are at the crossroads of three main continents. Our knowledge of Africa, our knowledge of Europe, our knowledge of Asia, these are qualities that are rarely found in just one country. We can be a hub in aviation and maritime. Malta is just a few kilometres from the main sea route of the Mediterranean. We have developed a state-of-the-art Freeport, which will be developed into a logistics hub.
We speak the English language very well; it is a second language to us, and we are already established with regard to international English schools. We can become an education hub for the region. In fact, our university is already very famous for its medical faculty, and many international students come to Malta to learn medicine.
In tourism, we have the advantage of being small, but very rich in history. Malta can provide the tourist a unique experience.
I also think that we have a brilliant workforce that is highly qualified and very flexible. This is why we have had internationally renowned companies that have established their enterprises in Malta. They have not chosen to go on the continent, but to an island, so there must be something very special to attract them and I would say that that is our workforce.