The Maltese parliament faces an unprecedented challenge in enacting legislation to give effect to the will of the people of Malta as expressed in the “Yes” majority vote in the divorce referendum a week ago. While MPs on both sides of the House of Representatives are divided in their support of a Divorce Bill, the Prime Minister, Dr Lawrence Gonzi, said today that it is clear that a majority in favour of divorce already exists in Parliament.
As Joe Mizzi, Labour Opposition Whip, explained on the PBS breakfast show Bonġu last Friday, parliament is heading into uncahrtered waters, as this is a situation that has not arisen in recent history, where a private member’s bill is set to be passed into law following a referendum. Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando first presented the Divorce Bill as a private member’s bill last July and Labour MP Evarist Bartolo subsequently became a co-sponsor.
This unusual situation has led the government and the opposition to hold talks on the procedure to be followed in considering the bill. Since the Divorce Bill results from a private member’s bill approved in a referendum, it is being piloted by MPs from both sides of the House. The government and opposition are considering having the Speaker preside over the committee when the Bill reaches the Committee Stage of the parliamentary proceedings, rather than a Nationalist MP, who would normally preside over the Standing Committee for the Consideration of Bills. The composition of the committee that will consider the bill, usually consisting of two government and two opposition MPs, may be expanded to allow the several MPs who have expressed divergent views on divorce the opportunity to attend and take part in committee meetings. No changes will be made to the manner of voting on the bill.
The Prime Minister, Dr Lawrence Gonzi, has made it clear on several occasions over the past week that the will of the electorate must be respected and reflected in Parliament. He said that it was unfair that MPs were being pressured to declare how they would vote in Parliament on divorce, when the legislative process was only just starting and the final version of the bill presented to Parliament is not yet known.
Dr Gonzi claimed that he had been consistent throughout this issue. He had argued that since the political parties had no popular mandate for the introduction of divorce, the issue had to be referred to a referendum. Once the result was out, he had declared that the will of the majority had to be respected.
Dr Gonzi said that this was in contrast to the Labour position in 2003, when the Labour Party contested the result of the EU referendum. At the time, the issue was settled with a general election. The result of the divorce referendum was not being contested. However, Dr Gonzi said, while the EU issue was a political one, the divorce referendum involved belief and conscience. Nationalist MPs had been guaranteed a free vote.
Some of the Nationalist MPs had expressed concern to him that, if they voted ‘yes’, they would have to face repercussions within the party. However, he had emphasised to them that there would be no consequences, and MPs should feel serene to vote as they pleased. Dr Gonzi said that his position is that, while the will of the majority of the people has to be respected, MPs are free to vote as they wished in Parliament.
Dr Gonzi said that he remains personally against divorce, but he is also obliged to safeguard the opinions of others, including those who were against divorce in the referendum debate but had now decided to vote in favour in Parliament. He said that it would be unacceptable to impose how anyone should vote.
Dr Gonzi said that he regretted the fierce attacks made by the Labour camp on the Church and said he hoped that national reconciliation would come about quickly. The country needed to re-focus itself on important issues, such as creating the right environment to ensure that families remained strong, Dr Gonzi said. He hoped that the country would emerge from this phase united and determined to have stronger families.
According to the Leader of the Opposition, Dr Joseph Muscat, the Prime Minister has no choice but to vote in favour of the Divorce Bill in Parliament, unless he wants his position to become untenable. Speaking at a political conference in Paola, Dr Muscat said that Dr Gonzi was not just an ordinary MP but the prime minister and the man who had proposed the holding of the referendum. In Dr Muscat’s view, if Dr Gonzi wished to remain in office and wanted his position to remain tenable, he had no choice but to vote according to the wishes of the people, and vote in favour of the Bill.
Meanwhile, in an article published today in The Sunday Times, President Emeritus Dr Eddie Fenech Adami writes that MPs should “stand up and be counted” when it comes to the Divorce Bill and vote according to their conscience. He writes that unlike political issues, such as, EU membership – which was subject to a referendum in 2003 – divorce should not be decided on the principle of “democratic majorities but, rather, on the principle of what is morally right”. In his view, “as a Christian I believe [that] divorce is morally wrong and therefore wrong for society. Should one change this view because a democratic majority decides otherwise? Definitely not… This (vote) will put to the test each MP’s credibility on moral issues that will leave a permanent effect on the well-being of society.”
The Divorce Bill was given a first reading in Parliament last Wednesday and is expected to be published in the Government Gazette early next week. MPs are expected to be requested to submit amendments well in advance in order to facilitate their distribution to the other MPs and subject matter experts.