Unity or insignificance?

Last Monday’s mass abstention by the Opposition was a parliamentary first. One hopes it will also be the last.

Botticelli's map of hell, where the souls of those who did not take a great moral decision were ignored by both God and Satan alike.
Botticelli's map of hell, where the souls of those who did not take a great moral decision were ignored by both God and Satan alike.

In Dante’s Inferno, on his way to hell with his guide Virgil, the poet passes by a group of dead souls outside the entrance to Satan’s realm.
Virgil explains to Dante that these individuals, when alive, remained neutral at a time of some great moral decision and that their souls cannot enter either heaven or hell because they did not choose one side or another.

They are therefore worse than the greatest sinners in hell because they are repugnant to both God and Satan alike, and have been left to mourn their fate as insignificant beings: neither hailed nor cursed in life or death, endlessly travailing below heaven but outside of hell.

It is at this point that Virgil’s advice to Dante contains the famous frequently quoted line: ‘non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa’ - we do not discuss them, we just look and move on.

The decision to abstain puts in doubt the honesty with which this part of the electoral programme was formulated or at least the honesty with which a section of the PN parliamentary group embraced it.

Recalling this incident in Dante’s famous epic poem was my immediate reaction to the news last Monday that the PN Parliamentary group decided to abstain in the final third reading vote on the law giving the right for same-sex civil unions.

The stumbling block - the PN leader’s ‘pons asinorum’ so to speak - that gave rise to this way of not doing things, was the inclusion of a clause in the law that makes it possible for same-sex couples to adopt children together as a couple. This was the most controversial aspect of the law and the PN had made it amply clear that, while it agreed with giving legal status to same-sex civil unions, the adoption clause was a jump in the dark with which it and the majority of people did not agree.

When I entered Parliament after the 1976 elections, I was taught that in the House of Representatives one could not abstain: you either had to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

The PN Parliamentary group made its position quite clear during the passing of the other stages of the law and proposed its own amendments to eliminate the conundrum. The government side did not agree and the clause survived the Parliamentary process. Yet the record makes the PN’s position on the issue quite clear.

The third reading of a law is its final approval before it is forwarded for the President’s signature that makes it the law of the land. The PN’s objection led to an obvious difference of opinion within the parliamentary group with regards to what the Opposition’s vote at the third reading should be, considering that it agreed with the law except for one particular clause.

It is now an open ‘secret’ that there was an internal shambolic disagreement about what the PN opposition should do. There were those who argued that a vote against at the third reading stage could be interpreted as the PN opposing same-sex civil unions in spite of what it had promised in its own electoral programme. Others argued that a vote in favour at that stage meant that the PN was abdicating its position against the adoption clause. The ‘solution’ was for the Opposition to abstain en masse.

It has been said that what the PN leader chose to do was the worst option available, even worse than giving a free vote to all Opposition MPs. This is a moot point, but if the abstention road was preferred in order to give a sign of unity within the ranks, the reasoning was completely wrong. To decide not to take sides because there were serious internal differences was no sign of unity: it was a sham way of covering up disunity. The acid test is the question whether anyone out there believes that the PN Parliamentary group were united because they abstained rather than that they abstained in order to cover up their lack of unity.

In other words, one can only conclude that in order to project a sham ‘unity’, the PN opted to show a lack of decisiveness rendering them insignificant, much as Virgil explained to Dante about those who are not wanted either in heaven or in hell.

To me, it was obvious that the Opposition should have voted in favour of the bill since it is generally in line with its own electoral programme. The decision to abstain puts in doubt the honesty with which this part of the electoral programme was formulated or at least the honesty with which a section of the PN parliamentary group embraced it. This is much more politically damaging than any other consideration because it raises the question of whether the PN’s electoral programme’s promise on same-sex civil unions was the result of a genuine political vision and a sincere concern of the predicament that gays found themselves in or just a matter of electoral convenience.

This brings to the fore the old tension between the Christian fundamentalist and the liberal currents within the PN – two factions making up the PN ever since the 1926 merger between the Maltese Political Union (UPM) and the Democratic Nationalist Party (PDN). Historically the merger flourished because, more often than not, the two factions had a common enemy.

In this context, the decision to abstain appears to be an exercise in papering over the cracks brought about by this internal tension within the PN, something that is all too obvious when issues such as divorce and same-sex civil unions arise.

Undoubtedly, one can make a number of good arguments to justify the decision to abstain but the man in the street is not impressed by cold logic used to justify a choice on the grounds that, in the circumstances, there were no other options.

What matters is perception. The perception that, once again, the PN is split between its two factions is certainly palpable and for all to see, leading to too many people who would normally vote PN taking up Virgil’s advice: ‘non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa’.

Haunted by Mintoff’s ghost
When I entered Parliament after the 1976 elections, I was taught that in the House of Representatives one could not abstain: you either had to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The only way an MP could possibly abstain was to declare his or her position and leave the Chamber during the voting process when the Clerk reads out the names of MP’s with each one replying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as the case may be.

In truth, this traditional convention resulted from the fact that the standing orders made no reference to the possibility of abstaining. All this reasoning was suddenly ditched, courtesy of Speaker Miriam Spiteri Debono, when Dom Mintoff insisted he had a right to abstain on one particular vote during the term of Alfred Sant’s ill-fated 1996-98 Labour government. Typically, Mintoff turned the argument upside down, insisting that since the standing orders did not specifically preclude the possibility of abstention, he had a right to abstain. And Madam Speaker obliged.

Since then, there were a number of abstentions recorded in the third reading of the law that introduced divorce.

Last Monday’s mass abstention by the Opposition was a parliamentary first. One hopes it will also be the last.

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