The civil liberties minefield

The Nationalist Party is already committed to support the bill by its electoral programme: to vote against the bill today would be a complete reversal of the PN’s agreed position just six weeks ago.

2 July 2017, 7:30am
The debate must go ahead, and the opposition – which is still led by Simon Busuttil – still has to vote on it one way or another
The debate must go ahead, and the opposition – which is still led by Simon Busuttil – still has to vote on it one way or another
The fact that Malta is debating full marriage equality for same-sex couples – and even more so, that both major parties are broadly in agreement on the issue – shows just how far Malta has come on gay rights in the space of a few years.

Such a debate would have been inconceivable little more than a decade ago. It is in fact extraordinary that Malta’s transformation into a world trend-setter on gay rights would have happened so quickly and so thoroughly.

But it didn’t happen easily, and in some cases the transition is still a bumpy ride. Even today, there is a level of political resistance that threatens to undermine the Nationalist Party from within.

With the party committed to approve the Marriage Equality Act at all stages, the emergence of dissenting voices comes at a critical time. It is unclear how representative such voices are of the broader sentiment at grassroots level; but there can be no doubt that a faction within that party feels uncomfortable with the direction it is now taking.

With a leadership election so imminent, it is likely that the choice of new PN leader – and therefore, policy direction – will hinge to a degree on these very differences. At face value, it appears to be impossible to accommodate all divergent views. In this sense, the marriage equality bill is only the tip of the iceberg: clearly, the Nationalist Party needs to forge a coherent, long-term strategy on civil liberty issues... even if its decisions will leave some of its support-base disillusioned.

The timing is unfortunate for other reasons. Busuttil felt the need to weigh in on the discussion; explaining his party’s stand on his weekly Radio 101 interview. This earned him criticism, to the effect that an outgoing leader should not impose any direction on a party that will soon be led by someone else.

In truth, however, he had little choice. It was not the opposition that set Parliament’s agenda, but the government. Our system does not allow for a change-over period to cover the defeated party’s leadership transition. The debate must go ahead, and the opposition – which is still led by Simon Busuttil – still has to vote on it one way or another.

Besides, the Nationalist Party is already committed to support the bill by its electoral programme. To vote against the bill today would be a complete reversal of the PN’s agreed position just six weeks ago.

Regardless of the arguments now brought forward, it appears unwarranted to expect that a party would perform such an immediate U-turn on its own electoral agenda. This raises questions regarding the objections now emanating from members of the Parliamentary group. Why demand a free vote today, when the same people had endorsed a similar law when proposed by their own party? Why did they not object to the PN’s own electoral manifesto, which promised the same thing?

Another factor tying Busuttil’s hand is the Nationalist Party’s recent history when confronted by this same issue. Busuttil is understandably keen to avoid a repetition of the fiasco in 2014: when the PN abstained on a historic civil union bill, and was booed upon emerging from parliament by LGBT activists.

Then as now, the PN’s objections did not concern the issue as a whole, but rather the finer details of the law. But this technical approach did not go down well with a more liberal faction, which felt their party had projected itself as being ‘on the wrong side of history’ (so soon after a similar mishap occurred with the divorce referendum).

All this places the opposition leader is an awkward position. Busuttil knows the PN cannot afford to make this sort of mistake again. But his own position is not (for obvious reasons) strong enough to impose his own stamp on the official party line. His intervention therefore came across as more of an appeal to the conservative elements, urging them to take cognisance of the full political implications of the issue.

From a strictly political viewpoint, he is right. It is not just Malta, but the Western world which is (very slowly, in places) moving in this general direction. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, faced a similar dilemma in her own centre-right party. She, too, eventually had to relent. One cannot fight the current of history; to do so is to drown.

But the issue cannot be viewed exclusively from a political perspective. For the Catholic conservative voter, this is also a matter of principle. Archbishop Charles Scicluna made it abundantly clear that – regardless of what the law states – the Church will continue to define marriage as between ‘man and woman’. 

While respecting all views, one can easily appreciate that the divergence can only cause political tension. Much of the PN’s identity rests on its appellation as a ‘Christian Democrat’ party. This seems to be a case of ‘Christian’ and ‘Democrat’ pulling in different directions.

What remains to be seen is whether the Nationalist party can hit on a new understanding of its own core identity, that can allow these seemingly disparate perspectives to exist within it.

It is not an easy task; but not an impossible one either.