An academic psychologist in parliament | Katya De Giovanni

As an academic in the field of psychology, it is somewhat easy for me to use my skills also in parliament by empathising and supporting my colleagues on a range of issues, even personal ones

Dr Katya De Giovanni, MP, Department of Psychology

Following the pandemic, in 2022 the Maltese islands faced a general election. Having two members of my family already involved in politics, I decided to contest this election. To my elation, I was elected, the first female ever to be elected in parliament from the 4th district. I was certainly proud to achieve my aim to be in the driver’s seat and part and parcel of the national decisions being taken. I was also particularly honoured with the fact that I managed to be elected through a casual election and not elected through the gender corrective mechanism.

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As expected, the learning curve was a steep one. It was especially steep as far as learning parliamentary procedures and tactics are concerned. There is a set structure in which each parliamentary session is carried out whereby the first half-hour is reserved for parliamentary questions. The next hour and a half are focused on the debate pertaining to legal amendments or new laws under scrutiny. These can be quite interesting to follow but at times are also long-winded and unnecessary, very different to what we are used to in academia. In academia, every uttering needs to be scrupulously backed up by data. In parliament, speeches are mainly based on the contemporary social discourse and personal narratives on behalf of the speakers and not on any research protocol as we are used to.

Finally, the last half-hour of each sitting is reserved to the adjournment during which the agenda of the following sitting is read and where two parliamentary members have the opportunity to speak about a topic of their choice. Normally, this is an opportunity to bring forward any concerns in relation to the constituency or to speak about a topic at heart. To be honest, the opportunity to speak about important and sensitive topics such as miscarriages, educational pathways and other psychological issues, represents a golden opportunity to my quest in bringing improved levels of wellbeing and quality of life to all Maltese and Gozitan citizens.

It is a common misconception that parliament happens only within the plenary session. However, it is worth mentioning that there are also a number of committees within the parliamentary structure that provide support to what goes on in plenary. I am lucky to have been entrusted with membership on committees to which I can contribute due to my knowledge, expertise and experience accumulated throughout my career so far. Therefore, I form part of the Parliamentary Social Affairs Committee, Family Affairs Committee and Petitions Committee. Most of the time, joint committees are also held because social and family affairs have a lot in common.

It is my wish for instance that one day parliament would have a committee dedicated to educational issues. In my humble opinion over the recent years, a lot has been done with regards to social and family affairs, when the crux of resolving most issues in these areas would be to invest even more heavily and directly in education.

Another interesting responsibility that I was given is that of representing the government on the Welfare Committee. This is a committee whose responsibility is that of providing care to older persons in residential homes. Apart from approving medical equipment, we are also working on cultural activities and digitalisation.

Another initiative that I form part of is the Parliamentary Assembly for the Mediterranean. I have been appointed chair of the delegation and together with my colleagues both from the Government and the Opposition, we present position papers on several issues pertaining to the Mediterranean area. In July 2022, I attended the opening session of the Women’s Parliamentary Forum in Lisbon where I presented the Maltese government’s initiatives on female participation in the world of work as well as parliament.

Overall throughout my experience in the past months, I realised that academics have a lot to offer in parliament. First and foremost, we can contribute with regards to the adequacy of the research we are presented with and also on the kind of research that can be commissioned. Moreover, as an academic in the field of psychology, it is somewhat easy for me to use my skills also in parliament by empathising and supporting my colleagues on a range of issues, even personal ones. In relation to this, it is also easy for me to link political proposals or points on the electoral manifesto to real-life experiences.

Academics in politics are also skilled in conducting public consultation processes, especially in my case, through the use of interviews and focus groups. I have personally worked as much as possible on positioning mental health issues as any other health issue requiring medical treatment and therapy, in order to mitigate the stigma associated with these conditions. The same goes for disability issues where I am working on how it can be possible to work with people of different abilities.

Overall, I can say that my experience in politics is a positive one. It is indeed satisfying to be in a position to be able to contribute to significant changes in the lives of people, and that within the parliamentary group I am able to do my part to create a difference.