Pressure is mounting for the President of the Republic to trigger a constitutional crisis by blocking the cannabis reform at the final hurdle.
Academic Andrew Azzopardi started off the calls for George Vella to refuse to sign the bill into law, listing nine reasons, including that it’s a “national issue that requires consensus” and that several NGOs and associations have criticised it.
The nurses’ union MUMN then said Vella should refuse to sign the bill unless it specifically allows hospital management the right to stop stoned staff from dealing with patients.
Yesterday, the Chamber of Pharmacists tried to appeal to Vella’s softer nature, urging him “as President of Malta and a medical doctor by profession” to force the bill back to committee stage until a solution is erased “based on science and beneficence”.
President Vella has yet to respond to these calls but, for the sake of democracy, he must absolutely ignore them.
Malta has a parliamentary democracy, whereby laws are enacted after gaining the support of the majority of MPs, who are voted in by the people.
In practice, this means that the government first debates bills behind closed doors, in Cabinet and within the PL parliamentary group, to ascertain that this majority actually exists.
Once that is done, the bill is tabled in the House and the Opposition decides whether to support it or not.
The logic is clear – a bill supported by the majority of the people’s representatives has the democratic authority to pass into law.
While all bills must technically be approved by the President before passing into law, this is a purely ceremonial process, similar to the role played by the Queen in the UK.
A Maltese President has openly opposed legislation in recent history, when George Abela refused to sign a bill legalising civil unions. However, even in this case, his term was about to expire and he just left it on his desk for his successor Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca to sign, not send it back to Parliament.
There’s good reason the President’s powers are extremely limited.
If the President had to start deciding which laws to pass, which to send back for revision and which to scrap for good, it will basically turn his office into an ultimate centre of power.
No matter how much you lobby your MPs in favour of a specific law and no matter how many MPs support it, it will all count for nothing if the President doesn’t like it.
Our democracy will fast turn into a farce.
There’s another route for the likes of Andrew Azzopardi, the MUMN and the Chamber of Pharmacists to take if they really have huge problems with this bill.
The Nationalist Party is opposing this bill, using many of the same arguments that critical NGOs, associations and academics have posited. Although the PN hasn’t pledged to repeal this bill if elected to government, there’s clearly more chance of it getting repealed under the PN than under the PL, which has actually endorsed the full legalisation of cannabis.
Rather than blocking democracy, people who are so concerned by this bill should utilise democracy and openly endorse the PN ahead of the next election, or else pledge to endorse it if it promises to repeal the bill.
It will be hugely controversial and will be frowned upon by the people in power but surely that’s a small price to pay if the bill is as dangerous as they’re claiming it is.
Strategically, it could also convince the PN to fight harder against the bill after its prohibitionist stance resulted in backlash from some of its own supporters. Ironically, it could perhaps even convince the government to water the bill down.
But pleading to the President isn’t going to convince anyone to do anything and such calls should be seen for what they are – a sign of disdain for democratic processes.
Do you agree with the proposed cannabis reform?