A day of celebration and protest

Fears that the new law would somehow affect the way people can legally talk about family relations – to the extent, for example, of ‘out-lawing Mother’s Day’ – are patently absurd

12 July 2017, 8:37am
It is significant that the Marriage Equality Act, which will be approved in parliament today, has been greeted by both jubilation and public protest alike.

As if to illustrate the stark divergences in public opinion on this issue, a silent vigil was observed yesterday evening by Christian activists opposed to this legislation... followed by a celebration today, with the government urging the public to attend festivities marking the historic occasion in Castille Square.

Both reactions appear to be excessive. While it is true that this legislation represents a further milestone to mark just how far Malta has come on the issue of LGT- BIQ rights, the reality is that the new law only adds an additional legal dimension to rights that were already made available in 2014.

This is not to minimise the importance of the new development: despite the Civil Unions Act, the law continued to discriminate between civil partnerships and married couples, creating a two-tier marriage scenario that, sooner or later, needed to be addressed.

From the point of view of those participating in today’s celebrations, the event is truly one to be greeted with festivity and joy. From the government’s perspective, however, there are political reasons to amplify the achievement into something more ‘historical’ than it actually is in practice.

It is no secret that the Nationalist Party is more internally divided on this score than Labour. Already we have seen MPs such as Edwin Vassallo vote against the bill at second reading... with former PN ministers like Tonio Fenech openly urging the Opposition party to give its MPs a free vote.

PN leader Simon Busuttil has already ruled out such a move. It is fairly certain that, given a free vote, at least one MP (Vassallo) would vote against. Others may do likewise. Without entering the merits of the issue itself, Busuttil is politically compelled to be firm in his position. The last thing his party needs right now is another display of incompatible internal disagreements, on an issue that has already proven politically costly for the party.

This might explain why Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is so intent on maximising the historical dimension of the new law: on one hand, it allows Labour to project the Nationalists as a party ‘on the wrong side of his- tory’... on the other, the issue itself (same-sex marriage) represents a quandary for the PN which Labour is only too keen to exploit.

All this is unfortunate, for at every level the new law is one that should really unite the two parties... (if not, to be fair, the apolitical lobby- group that opposes gay marriage in all circumstances).

After all, both were com- mitted by their own electoral manifestos to introduce the same rights. Both agreed that marriage equality should be complete in all aspects, including nomenclature.

All other things being equal, the PN should technically have no objection to a law it had after all promised itself. Yet the party remains clearly divided, and must resort to its whip to keep the discontent from overflowing into full-scale rebellion.

All this casts a shadow over the historical occasion, and calls for serious reflection.

Simon Busuttil is clearly being consistent with his own party manifesto. The same cannot really be said for his party’s internal critics.

This seems to indicate that while the Nationalist Party – as a single entity – did indeed change its policy on same-sex marriage since the Civil Unions debate,

its transformation did not necessarily take root at all levels of the party. It appears to have been imposed from above, in the absence of any real dialogue and discussion.

The malcontents, too, have some questions to answer. It has never been satisfactorily explained why objections are only being raised now... and not when the PN included that promise in its manifesto last June.

As for the individual objections, they appear at best vague and misinformed. Fears that the new law would somehow affect the way people can legally talk about family relations – to the extent, for example, of ‘out- lawing Mother’s Day’ – are patently absurd. The pro- posed changes in nomenclature are intended to remove ambiguities from the law... they have no bearing on how one actually addresses their parents at home, at school or anywhere else.

To give an analogy: the criminal code refers to ‘grievous bodily harm’ as a blanket term to describe injuries that merit criminal prosecution at law. It does not follow that all people everywhere should be compelled to use the same terminology in their every- day speech.

Other objections include the view that this law may lead to other contentious issues like surrogacy and embryo freezing... if not to the introduction of abortion. This is harder to counter, as the argument feeds into a national culture of hysteria whenever such issues are raised.

Ultimately, though, these issues should already have been addressed through the Civil Unions Act. Even minister Helena Dalli acknowledged in February that the Civil Unions Act had introduced gay marriage in all but name. The Marriage Equality Act, then, only adds nominal changes to rights that have already been enjoyed in Malta since 2014. As such, these objections are three years too late.