President George Vella and his conscience are in the news. There have been strong hints, and outright demands, for him to resign given that he was a senior minister in disgraced Joseph Muscat’s Cabinet, which the Board of the Daphne Caruana Galizia public inquiry found guilty of grave omissions (when, in the wake of the Panama Papers, it did not insist on the firing of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri).
The inquiry report urges all the members of that Cabinet to assume political responsibility (without specifying what that is).
Vella has replied that his conscience is clear and that he is doing his duty by working behind the scenes to see the recommendations of the report implemented.
My concern is not Vella the former minister, however, but the President of the Republic. That role happens to be filled by Vella but the following argument applies to anyone who, today, would have been president. Anyone, together with their conscience.
First, a word about conscience. We tend to associate it with an inner personal sanctum, where we find the bathroom mirror of the soul, which replies to our questions like an oracular Alexa. A judge of the last resort, it tells us how much we really weigh after everyone else has told us we need to go on a diet. Vella’s Alexa seems to be telling him that any omission by him (which he has allusively admitted to in public) has powerful mitigating circumstances.
What strikes me is how Vella talks about his conscience as though it’s a purely private experience — something expressed backstage, in private, behind the scenes. That may be how each of us consults our conscience but the result is always reflected in public action.
The reason why the rest of us learn that someone else has an issue of conscience is that that person does something dramatic and meaningful: votes against his own team; objects conscientiously to doing something that’s part of their job description, refuses to obey orders, and so on.
Conscience may be deeply personal but it is not invisible. Its strictures lead to visible, public meaningful action. It’s why we discuss it at all. It is also associated most with controversial action.
Second, although conscience belongs to individuals, there are some roles that personify a collective conscience. Within the Church, for example, it’s the priesthood and the religious orders, who personify the conscience that informs the Gospel. Within the modern democratic State, it’s the president (or monarch) who personifies the public conscience, which informs the values and unity represented by the Constitution.
Why is it meaningful for a president to visit the site of a disaster, or to greet coffins bearing the nation’s soldiers at the airport when they arrive from a foreign war zone? It’s because the sheer presence of the president communicates a powerful message. Be not afraid. The State is with you. You are one of us. The State recognises you.
There is more than a message of solidarity in such meaningful acts. It is also recognition that the disaster, or deaths, have hit and hurt all of us, not just the direct victims.
Third, this brings us back to George Vella the President, conscience of the State.
The public inquiry report has been much discussed but an aspect of it has been thrust into the background. The focus has rightly been on how Caruana Galizia was victimised — dehumanised by Labour propaganda and then the State; isolated to the point that her life was placed in great danger; and then left unprotected, in a culture of impunity, so that her assassination became something her enemies could seriously contemplate.
The report also underlines, however, that Caruana Galizia’s investigations were a public service. Whatever her lapses of judgement — and the report points some out — she performed her duty as a journalist. Even when she got some details wrong, the inquiry board points out, she erred in the right direction for the narrative was essentially true.
The inquiry report does not mince words. Caruana Galizia was just about the only person doing her duty to the rest of us by warning us of grave corruption. She persisted even while others cowered in fear or betrayed their oath of public service or somehow averted their gaze.
When most authorities failed us, Caruana Galizia stood at her post. Yet, her role remains publicly unrecognised by the authorities till today. She is recognised as victim but not as public servant.
Not only that. Many in Malta today — because of past propaganda — refuse to think of her as a public servant.
Words have meaning. We cannot speak of the assassination as an attack on Maltese democracy — as it was — and yet continue to deny public recognition of the person who was killed defending it. We cannot decry — as President Vella himself has done — the gang that took over Castille, as offence against us all, without showing public gratitude to the person who warned us about the gang.
There can be no national unity if we cannot even unify official words and actions. Healing calls for meaningful action. It’s up to the President to decide what that meaningful action should be. But it has to be public because that’s how conscience is displayed. It cannot be afraid of stirring some controversy — because conscience is about what’s right, not what’s popular.
Implementing the inquiry report is about more than righting the wrongs that led to Caruana Galizia being, first, victimised, and then killed. It involves other things, too. A display of conscience by the State. Recognition of her sacrifice. A meaningful action that shows she is no longer isolated but one of us. The embrace of the State.