NEWS UPDATED According to Maltese media reports published today, Prime Minister Dr Joseph Muscat this morning refused to comment on the President George Abela’s position against the Civil Unions Bill, stating that whatever he discussed with the President was confidential. However, Dr Muscat said there was no problem with the Bill and it would be approved by Parliament soon.
Times of Malta reported this morning that the government had postponed the final approval of the Civil Unions Bill as the President had informally told Dr Muscat that he was not willing to sign it into law.
The Bill has been awaiting third reading for five weeks. It would then need to be signed by the President before becoming law. The government is now waiting until President George Abela’s term of office ends on April 4.
Asked whether it was normal for a Bill to be left awaiting third reading for five weeks, Dr Muscat said that was normal.
According to sources, Dr Abela’s objections are “on moral grounds”. His spokesman declined to comment. Dr Abela will be succeeded by Family and Social Solidarity Minister Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca who, despite being a staunch Catholic and having opposed divorce, has made it clear she has no problem signing the Bill.
Soon after being nominated for the presidency, Ms Coleiro Preca said since this Bill was an electoral commitment made by the government before the last election she had no problem with it. The new law will put unions between gay and lesbian couples on par with marriage between heterosexual couples.
Although officially the government is saying there were no problems, the Bill is awaiting the third reading before it can be sent to the President to sign it into law, as set down in the Constitution.
Usually, a Bill approved at committee stage is quickly given a third reading and then sent to the President to sign. Asked when this would happen, a spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech, who sets Parliament’s agenda, said only “it will be put to vote soon”.
When Dr Abela met people undergoing rehabilitation for drug abuse at San Blas on Wednesday evening, a reporter from The Malta Independent approached President Abela for a confirmation of reports reaching their newsroom that he had objected to signing the bill but President Abela did not want to comment. Dr Abela was visibly uncomfortable when questions on the civil union bill were put to him.
Sources had told The Malta Independent some days ago that Dr Abela is refusing to sign the civil unions bill, commonly referred to as the gay marriage bill, on moral grounds. This led The Malta Independent to ask President-designate Coleiro Preca about her intentions to sign the civil unions bill two weeks ago, and she had said that she had no problem with that.
President Abela’s term in office expires on 4 April when he will be replaced by Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, and the government had to postpone the bill until the changeover takes place.
The bill will lead to gay couples having equal rights as married heterosexual couples, including the right to adopt children.
Sources told The Malta Independent that, whereas the government had previously been very energetic on the passing of the bill, it had to slow down the process because of Dr Abela’s refusal. The bill has been shelved for nearly two months.
UPDATED on 29 March 2014
Former Presidents agree with President Abela’s stand
On 28 March the timesofmalta.com reported that, when asked by the newspaper for their opinion on Dr Abela’s unwillingness to sign the Bill into law, two former presidents, Dr Ugo Mifsud Bonnici and Dr Eddie Fenech Adami, stood up for George Abela over his decision not to sign the Civil Unions Bill on “moral grounds”, saying they would probably have resigned if asked to sign a law that went against their principles.
Both former presidents declared they would have adopted the same stance if the Bill conflicted with their principles. “President Abela is right and he shouldn’t sign the Bill if he feels that it clashes with his conscience. I would have done the same in his place,” Dr Mifsud Bonnici said.
Dr Fenech Adami argued that no one, not even the President – who is bound by the Constitution to give assent to laws approved by Parliament – should be forced to go against his principles. “In principle I wouldn’t have signed the Bill. Principles are not for sale,” he said.
However, they agreed there were few avenues left if a President was faced with a Bill he disagreed with. “In my time I had made it publicly clear that if a Bill that goes against my conscience is presented to me for assent, I would not sign it and would resign,” said Dr Mifsud Bonnici. “The public’s will as expressed through Parliament has to be respected and in that case one would have to resign. Still, no one can force a President to go against his conscience.”
Dr Fenech Adami’s view was: “If a President does not agree to give his assent to a Bill, there are only two options. Either resign or face an impeachment motion.”
The Nationalist Party said that it was not surprised by the President’s stance. “In the first year of this legislature, the Prime Minister has consistently ignored everyone who departs even slightly from his own position,” a PN spokesman said.
Insisting that Dr Muscat has lost the opportunity for consensus on civil unions, the spokesman said the PN “has consistently appealed for consensus and even proposed amendments that would strike consensus across the broad spectrum of society. These appeals went unheeded and the amendments were all rejected by the Prime Minister.”
Although the President’s role in the Constitution is mainly ceremonial, all Bills approved by Parliament have to be given the President’s assent to become law. It does not offer an alternative, saying that when a Bill is presented to the President, “he shall without delay signify his assent”.
According to the Constitution, the President can be removed from office by a motion approved by a simple majority in Parliament.
[Sources: www.timesofmalta.com; www.independent.com.mt]
President Abela refuses to sign Civil Unions Bill
Opposition motion to repeal Citizenship Legal Notice defeated in Maltese Parliament
Sir Peter Cosgrove sworn in as Australia's 26th Governor-General