NEWS The Maltese Parliament yesterday approved the Civil Unions Bill in its third and final reading. All government MPs present voted in favour of the bill, while all opposition MPs abstained. The bill grants same-sex couples the opportunity to enter lawful civil unions, an arrangement which is virtually equivalent to marriage in all but name.
While there was consensus between the two major parties on the introduction of civil unions, the opposition had reservations with regard to the more controversial aspect of the law allowing same-sex couples to make a joint application for the adoption of children.
The Bill was passed with 37 votes in favour – President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca’s former seat was still vacant awaiting the outcome of a casual election scheduled for today, while Foreign Minister George Vella is abroad, although government whip Carmelo Abela stressed that the minister wanted to back the bill personally – and none against, as all 30 opposition MPs abstained from voting. The voting intentions of Nationalist Party MPs were uncertain until the parliamentary group held a press conference shortly before the parliamentary sitting opened.
At the press conference, Opposition Leader Dr Simon Busuttil said that, while the opposition agreed with civil unions, it had reservations on allowing gay couples to adopt children and felt that more studies were necessary. While he acknowledged that there were divergent views within the parliamentary group, it was ultimately decided that opposition MPs should not be given a free vote so that they vote in unison.
Asked to explain the opposition’s decision ahead of the vote, Dr Busuttil noted that MPs would also be voting on a private members’ motion tabled by Ms Claudette Buttigieg proposing to amend the Constitution to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. This is consistent with a proposal that was included in the PN’s 2013 electoral manifesto. He said that his party wanted to send a clear message that gay people deserved the highest level of protection.
The PN leader stressed that his party agreed with introducing civil unions – if anything, he said, it was regrettable that they were not introduced earlier – and insisted that the bill would have been unanimously approved if it solely concerned such unions.
Dr Busuttil said that his party had reservations about gay adoptions and that 80% of society shared them. He said that adoption should have been addressed separately through amendments to the adoption law. The opposition’s reservations were not because it felt that gay people could not be good parents, but because government had not prepared society for this step, as evidenced by widespread opposition to it.
In his shorter address, Prime Minister Dr Joseph Muscat said that the vote would separate the past from the future, and words from actions.
Dr Muscat said that he also hoped that civil unions were introduced earlier, but was prevented from doing so since his party was out of government for the past 25 years. He insisted that the bill had not been presented for political gain but because all government members wholly believed in it.
He said that while parliament often reached a compromise on practical matters, this was not a case for compromise. If society was not ready for this step, he said, it was up to parliament to explain that it was a step towards a more equal nation.
The motion tabled by Ms Buttigieg was presented for a vote and, since it related to an amendment to the Constitution, the approval of two-thirds of the House of Representatives was required. This proved not to be a problem, as the motion, which was seconded by Civil Liberties Minister Helena Dalli in a show of unity, was unanimously approved by all 67 MPs present.
The Civil Unions Bill will become law as soon as it is assented to by the President, who has repeatedly confirmed that she had no reservations about doing so in the face of speculation to the contrary.
Gay community celebrations
There was an explosion of cheers in Palace Square as the vote was taken – 37 in favour and 30 abstentions. The façade of the palace was lit in the rainbow colours.
Earlier Dr Muscat was greeted with applause as he arrived at Palace Square on his way to Parliament. Other Labour MPs arrived wearing the colours of the gay community on their lapels.
Some of those present set up a big wedding cake on the square. Others said they were already preparing their union, now that the bill was becoming law. Sparklers and wedding veils were handed out.
Cheers for PM and boos for Opposition MPs
There were cheers and cries of ‘Joseph, Joseph’ when Dr Muscat emerged from the Palace after the vote, and loud boos and cries of ‘shame on you’ for the Opposition MPs.
Dr Muscat addressed the crowd from a stage on one side of the square. This, he said, was a historic day and he was proud to be one of those 20 per cent in favour of civil unions. He then repeated parts of the speech he made earlier in Parliament.
One of those present, a young man, said: “I am feeling privileged to be witnessing history and experiencing equality this early in my lifetime when so many others were forced to wait their entire lives in vain. Tonight’s party in Valletta is not for people like me but for all those who fought their whole lives to be able to celebrate their love without distinction but did not live to see this day.”
University lecturer Carmen Sammut called it a historic day, saying she did not think it would happen in her lifetime.
TV personality Ray Calleja said that when he was younger, he did not think that civil unions would be legal in his lifetime, but as he grew older, he did expect it to become legal. Today would hopefully pave the way for a time when gay relationships were not an issue any more.
Gabi Calleja, who heads the MGRM said she still did not understand those who were concerned about the bill giving gay couples the opportunity to adopt. Today, she said, was a historic day which had movement had long worked for.
Many of those present listened to radios or their mobile phones to follow proceedings in parliament.
US ambassador present for celebrations in Valletta
Among those present in the square was the US Ambassador, HE Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley. She said this was a historic decision and a change for Malta. “We absolutely support inclusiveness,” she said. “Congratulations.”
British High Commissioner HE Rob Luke in a tweet said: “A historic day for Malta as Parliament passes the Civil Unions Bill.”
Celebrations are expected to continue well into the night. A programme will feature entertainers Ray Calleja, Chunky, Glen Vella, Claudia Faniello, Amber, Davinia, Daniel Testa, Muxu and Renato.
Earlier today, former Nationalist MP Karl Gouder, a senior official within the party, said in a tweet: “Today is an important Day for Malta, just wish that the party I love so much could have done more to get to this day.”
Edward Demicoli, a former PN candidate for the Europeran Parliament elections agreed with Mr Gouder. He said on Facebook: “Agree wholeheartedly. On social issues our party is on the wrong side of history.”
Tenor Joseph Calleja welcomed the legislation. He tweeted: ‘About bloody time too! Congratulations to all my gay friends in Malta.’
European Socialists congratulate the PM
The Party of European Socialists – the socialist group in the European Parliament, congratulated Joseph Muscat. In a tweet, the PES said:
“Congrats Joseph Muscat and PL Malta for such positive record on LGBTİ rights. PES family strong on equality for all”.
AD welcomes civil unions
Alternattiva Demokratika welcomed approval of the Civil Unions Bill. Prof. Arnold Cassola, AD Chairperson, said: “Alternattiva Demokratika believes that there should not be any discrimination on any basis in Maltese society, including sexual orientation, as stated in the Maltese Constitution and in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union citizen, which has been signed and ratified by the Maltese Government.
“Today is a historical day for Malta and we are proud to have given our contribution to enhance awareness about equality and social justice. As members of the European Greens, who have been promoting equality for gay couples for many years, we adhere to the same political ideals. We hope that this law will lead to the legal protection of other couples, such as those in cohabiting relationships, as was promised by the political parties.”
[Source: www.independent.com.mt and www.timesofmalta.com]
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