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‘I was shocked to be offered presidency’

Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca speaks to Ariadne Massa about her initial shock at being asked to become Malta’s ninth President and dismisses theories she was booted upstairs for being conservative – a label she shuns.

“I’m a people person.” Photo: Matthew Mirabelli“I’m a people person.” Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Being handpicked to become the next head of State is normally an honour, but for the most popular Cabinet minister it was a blow she did not see coming.

“My first reaction was shock. It wasn’t something I was expecting or aspiring for,” she says, her voice cracking, momentarily exposing her internal battle to warm up to her new position.

A woman who is driven by her passionate nature, the 55-year-old Social Solidarity Minister admits she shed more than a tear after leaving the Prime Minister’s office last month.

Did she feel she was being coerced into accepting the position, seeing she could not exactly rebuff Joseph Muscat’s offer?

“Don’t worry, I had already turned it down,” she quips.

She admits the offer initially saddened her because she was imagining a more “ceremonial, restricted” position.

“I’m not a person who enjoys ceremony and pomp. I’ve always felt these were bigger than me. So while I continued to see the presidency in that way, I felt it wasn’t for me. I truly am a people person,” she adds.

It was only after Dr Muscat expressed a willingness and disposition to open up the remit of the President’s role that she started to reconsider. Both have denied dictating conditions and Ms Coleiro Preca insisted that the process of widening the President’s role to incorporate the social issues closest to her heart was born from several meetings and “a natural discussion”.

The Sunday Times of Malta had first revealed that Ms Coleiro Preca was being tipped as the next President on February 23, just a few days after her meeting with Dr Muscat.

The news took many by surprise and few could understand why the Prime Minister would choose to lose one of his top, most liked ministers.

When he made the announcement last Tuesday, Dr Muscat made it clear he chose her because he wanted a female role model and somebody who was in their prime to be the “social soul of the country”.

Many have refused to accept this explanation at face value and several theories have been popping up in opinion pieces and blogs. The one that seemed to stick was that Dr Muscat was booting his most conservative Cabinet member upstairs.

But this is a label Ms Coleiro Preca vehemently shuns: “I object to being branded conservative. I’m assuming I’m being pigeon-holed because I was against divorce [in the 2011 referendum], but my sole interest then was the impact it would have on the children.”

On the contrary, she insists she has “always been a reformist and a fighter for human rights and anti-discrimination. I have always been, and will continue to be, a voice for the vulnerable, the marginalised and the underprivileged in society.”

This is something few would contest, because throughout her entire career she has championed the causes of the vulnerable, a value instilled in her by her parents from a very young age.

I don’t look back. I’m a very positive person and I try to look forward

The eldest of six siblings – five girls and a boy – Ms Coleiro Preca was raised in an environment where her father, a teacher, constantly drilled the importance of education in their psyche.

“Education was the key to dignity, the key against poverty, the best vitamin of life. I remember my father bringing in children who had lost a parent, or poor, low-income families to eat with us. I witnessed social justice happening in my house,” she recalls.

Emboldened by this spirit and her parents’ belief that she could pursue her dreams – “we were taught that we could do whatever we were capable of achieving” – Ms Coleiro Preca joined her first NGO at 13 and three years later entered politics.

“At 16 I realised that if you want things to happen you had to influence politics.”

Ms Coleiro Preca, who was raised in Qormi, spent all her adult life in politics and at just 21 was elected general secretary of the Labour Party in 1982 – a volunteer rather than a functionary – during the politically turbulent years.

Dwelling on the 1980s is a painful process for Ms Coleiro Preca because she genuinely believes history has yet to be properly documented.

“I don’t feel history has been properly presented, but I don’t wish to enter into polemics,” she says.

Few, she believes, know of how hard she had worked in the 1980s with the Nationalist Party’s up-and-coming politicians, such as Guido de Marco, Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, Louis Galea and Austin Gatt, to maintain a semblance of calm.

“They know what person I am; they know the truth because we worked together to calm the people. Bad judgements hurt me. It’s easy to be an armchair critic and tar people with the same brush,” she says.

In 1991, she took a break from politics to raise her daughter. Being a single mother was very hard and she acknowledges the difficulties women face in institutions structured by men for men.

“I never remember any of the men trying to wrap up a meeting because they had to go pick up their child, so I had to adapt to their ways not the other way around. If there are more women in top positions, these attitudes will change,” she says.

Ms Coleiro Preca only returned to political life when former prime minister Alfred Sant insisted on setting up a nursery within the Labour Party headquarters in Ħamrun.

“That nursery was my return to public life,” she says, adding, however, that when she was elected to Parliament for the first time in 1998 it was hard to juggle family life with evening sittings.

Ms Coleiro Preca, who has since married Edgar, has been returned to Parliament in every election since then. In the 2013 election, she obtained 5,707 first-count votes, making her by far the most popular politician in her district.

When asked if she felt the Prime Minister’s choice of President was an unfair decision, seeing she has repeatedly emerged as the most liked minister in surveys, a look of pain fleetingly appears on Ms Coleiro Preca’s face but she simply shrugs her shoulders.

“I’m not going to be drawn into this. It was certainly not a promotion. But we now need to look ahead and I’m confident we can do a good job. I want to make it clear that the presidency is for the people,” she says.

We need to understand why there is this hatred for migrants

“I can only see myself in this position because of the creation of the new functions and assurances that I can work closely with the people.”

She stresses that the function of this presidency is new with certain responsibilities and demands. Not just in terms of its existing role, but also in terms of the important anniversaries the island will be celebrating, coupled with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in 2015, the EU presidency in 2017, and the European Capital of Culture in 2018.

“There’s also the Second Republic, which is an integral part of the government’s agenda and the need to adjourn the Constitution,” she adds. Malta has been forever discussing the need to empower the President and it seems the Prime Minister has gone ahead and changed the rules in one fell swoop.

“I understand there are a lot of questions surrounding the changes because the situation is completely new. The Prime Minister himself said this is an experiment and as any experiment it needs to develop,” Ms Coleiro Preca says.

The way she sees things developing is that the presidency will be tasked with issues of a national interest, where society can take ownership away from party politics.

“At the moment, certain policies change when a new administration is voted in, but on issues of poverty, for example, these will have a national profile. If we are to agree on a strategy for policy, the presidency needs to ensure everybody is on board, not just political parties,” she explains.

“The presidency will be given the tools and resources to develop policies of a national interest that will then be recommended to the ministers, on a Cabinet level.

“There won’t be any overlap with the work of the future social solidarity minister... the presidency will ensure that coordination between the ministries, say on poverty, is more effective and harmonious.”

Despite working in the cutthroat world of politics, Ms Coleiro Preca retains a certain naiveté and a profound empathy many find endearing.

“I believe a lot in love, which many may pooh-pooh, but it’s the basis of everything. It’s through love that we can tolerate different ideas and better appreciate diversity,” she says.

Her motto is “of the people, with the people, for the people” and she plans to continue living by this maxim when she becomes President on April 4

She believes the President is the guardian of society, and she insists that although she militated within the Labour Party from a young age, making the apolitical transition will be easy.

“Just because I identify with a political party it doesn’t mean I’m not capable of rising above politics. Is the need of a Labourite greater than that of a Nationalist? I’ve never asked anybody who sought my help what their political views are; I look at their needs not their political colour,” she says.

The Nationalist Party is likely to support Ms Coleiro Preca’s nomination in Parliament despite berating the government for not consulting it over her appointment, Times of Malta reported yesterday.

The PN has yet to pronounce itself after debating the matter internally, but if this materialises, it will be the first time the Opposition votes in favour of somebody hailing from government ranks. Five years ago, George Abela had become the first head of State to receive the Labour Opposition’s unanimous backing, but this was no surprise seeing Dr Abela came from the same camp.

Ms Coleiro Preca is not holding her breath, but would “greatly thank God” if the PN voted in her favour.

“I’m being given this role and I plan to set an example that the only time we should distinguish between Maltese and Maltese is once every five years when we go to the polling booth to vote,” she says, urging society to look around and embrace the changing realities Malta was facing.

“If we believe we’re part of a globalised village, then we need to accept all that comes with it. So if immigrants reach our shores by boat, we cannot shun them,” she stresses.

Among those who are disappointed by news of her appointment are NGOs working in the field of irregular migration because they feel Ms Coleiro Preca is possibly the administration’s only voice of solidarity.

You cannot live clinging to yesterday

“I want to put their minds at rest that once I take on the presidency I will continue to remain a voice for this sector,” she says, expressing her dismay when the racist label is pegged to the Maltese.

Although Malta was rapped by the People for Change Foundation for an increase in hate speech, Ms Coleiro Preca refuses to believe that a nation of people with so many foster carers, who have always come forward to help strangers facing a tragedy, can be cruel.

“We need to understand why there is this hatred. We need to instigate a discussion to analyse why we’re reacting this way. Maybe I can be a catalyst to help...

“I cannot accept that we’re a cruel people. We’re a nation that rises to the occasion and goes out of their way to help. We need to delve deep into what is sparking this fear of being gobbled up by immigration,” she says.

This is where Ms Coleiro Preca perks up at the possibilities of her new position and is eager to bring about as much change as the presidency will allow her.

“I don’t look back. I’m a very positive person and I try to look forward. I describe myself as a submarine – I hit the bottom but resurface.

“I always believe we can change things, I believe in the validity of people and refuse to look back. Every experience leaves an impact and teaches you something new. That’s how I look at my life. You cannot live clinging to yesterday.”

Watch excerpts of the video on timesofmalta.com.

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