The Wisdom of Age


Italy has a new President, Giorgio Napolitano, and is due to have a new Prime Minister and a new government today (Wednesday 17 May) after 5 years of Silvio Berlusconi.

Italian politics viewed from afar often seems odd and inexplicable, an oddity in the Western world. Yet, Australians should look on with some interest at the Italian Parliament electing the President, as that is precisely the type of presidential election we rejected in the 1999 Referendum when we chose not to be a republic.

Giorgio Napolitano

The Italian President is supposed to rise above party politics and be impartial. The Parliament in joint session (Senate and Chamber of Deputies, with a few representatives of the regions) is given the opportunity to find a consensus candidate with a two-thirds majority or, if they fail, they can then move to a simple majority.

All Italian Presidents (Napolitano is the 11th since World War II) have been beyond what Australians would find an acceptable retiring age of 65, and a large number have been over 80. The retiring President, Carlo Ciampi, who made his career as President of the Bank of Italy before being a technocrat Prime Minister in 1993-94 (when so many of Italy’s politicians were disqualified for corruption), is 85. He would certainly have been elected for another seven-year term by a two-thirds majority, had he agreed.

Italians may have many faults but ageism is not one of them. The recent election of a new President of the Senate saw the younger candidate Franco Marini (73 years old) beat the seemingly eternal Giulio Andreotti (87) by 6 votes. Among the Senators was Rita Levi Montalicini Nobel Prize winning scientist, anti-fascist, life Senator and an active 96 year-old.

Can we imagine Gough Whitlam being our President or, if needs be, Governor-General at 89 the age at which Sandro Pertini was Italy’s most popular President or even Malcolm Fraser at 75? Yet these men have shown themselves to be beyond partisan politics and have the wisdom of age and experience. (Certainly, Whitlam has the touch of greatness in Paris, he is still remembered at UNESCO for his valuable contribution, beyond the Australian retiring age.)

Ciampi represented impartial public service and was much admired as President. On several occasions he refused to sign Bills, sending them back to Parliament which is about his only prerogative as President and guarantor of the Italian Constitution.

The new President, Giorgio Napolitano, will be 81 next month and was not elected by consensus but by a simple majority on a fourth round of voting. When he was elected, we saw scenes on television of Leftist Italian Deputies embracing each other.

We also saw photos of Napolitano at the World Student Congress in 1946, in Prague Napolitano is Italy’s first President to come from what was the Italian Communist Party, now called the Democrats of the Left. He has been Speaker of the Italian Parliament and, briefly, Interior Minister. So, finally, the 30 per cent of Italians who have voted Communist over the last 60 years have their man as President.

This is of high symbolic importance. The biggest loser of the recent election, the outgoing Prime Minister and media magnate, Silvio Berlusconi, aimed to run the Italian State as a private enterprise. Napolitano represents the other Italy of public service to the State.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi keeps getting richer.

Romano Prodi

The new Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, whose nickname is Il Professore, is of the same mould as Ciampi a Professor of Economics who ran and privatised Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale (IRI), the Italian public investment company. From a poor family of nine, he rose to be President of the European Union. A Left-of Centre Catholic, he distinguished himself by selfless public service while those around him filled their pockets with the money of corruption.

The recent Italian election pitched two models of managerialism against each other disinterested public service and communications capitalism. Prodi won by the skin of his teeth and profited from the electoral reform that Berlusconi had brought in, thinking it would be in his favour. Prodi’s majority in the Senate depends on the seats reserved for Italians abroad (including Australia) who voted Left, to everyone’s surprise.

It remains to be seen if Prodi can manage to keep his coalition of six parties (three of them offshoots from the old Italian Communist Party) together. Nevertheless something is up the idea of an independent Europe is rising, one that may oppose both the war in Iraq and triumphant neo-liberalism.

Could it be that President Napolitano who saw the collapse of Fascism and Nazism and his own enthusiasm for revolution slowly mutate into arguments for the reform of capitalism; who saw the collapse of colonialism and the Soviet empire could he be the sort of president who has a certain impartiality with age?

Will he now see the page turning against the American empire and the slow decline of a blind faith in neo-liberalism and American razzamatazz which Berlusconi represents In Italy?

One of Prodi’s first actions will be to pull the 2600 Italian troops of the ‘Garibaldi Brigade’ out of Iraq.

Maybe we Australians need the wisdom of age.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.