Party loyalty vs conscience

In retrospect, it is obvious that the PN leadership should have given a free vote to the Opposition MPs regarding the gay marriage law. Using the party whip on such a sensitive issue has probably made things worse

 In Malta, an MP who defies the party whip is ostracised by his own party
In Malta, an MP who defies the party whip is ostracised by his own party

When the vote on the third and final reading of the law approving gay marriage was taken in the House of Representatives the other week, MP Edwin Vassallo (PN) declared he was voting against the law and the media duly reported this fact. This declaration will probably only serve to send Vassallo into the political wilderness, with the PN acting as if he does not exist.

Everyone else voted in favour of the law. But did they? Four Opposition MPs were not present for the whole sitting and therefore they could not have taken part in the vote. One – Mario Galea – is listed in the minutes of the sitting as having been excused. I do not know the circumstances of this excused absence, so I will not comment about it.

The other three were not excused. One is PD leader Marlene Farrugia who had declared herself in favour of the bill and who has gone on record saying that attending Parliamentary sittings in which her participation (and presumably her vote) is not necessary is a waste of time.

The other two are a different category of fish: Claudio Grech and Carm Mifsud Bonnici. Both are known to have disagreed with the bill and instead of openly defying the party whip, they obviously found a ‘compromise’ by not attending the sitting when the voting took place. In such circumstances, not attending for a vote in Parliament can only be considered as an abstention.

Even more interesting, before the vote the Prime Minister proposed that the House take the vote by the Speaker asking all MPs present individually to say ‘yes’ in agreement with the bill or otherwise say ‘no’. Simon Busuttil objected to this procedure – as he had every right to do – and the proposal had to be ditched. Had he not objected, there might have been some who would have been hard pressed to say ‘yes’ when their conscience dictated otherwise. The general public would have had a better picture of the way the different individual MPs think about the law – and Simon Busuttil opted to avoid that situation.

These are perhaps little details but they reveal that it is not true that the PN Opposition members voted in favour of the law as some monolithic bloc with the exception of Edwin Vassallo.

For me, the most important issue that needs to be debated in this situation is not Simon Busuttil’s papering over the PN’s cracks, but the heart wrenching decisions that MPs must take when their conscience is in conflict with the direction that the party whip imposes upon them.

In my experience in Parliament, I faced this dilemma only once. I was a Cabinet member and taking a decision to vote against a proposed law would have meant that I would not only have had to resign from Cabinet but also to forgo my political career for the rest of my life. I decided to survive so as to fight on another day. Even so, the decision was not an easy one to take. Just in case one is wondering, that occasion also involved the marriage law – specifically the introduction of the principle that an annulment case in the Civil Courts would have to stop and subsist until the same case is decided upon by the relative Church tribunal. There were many issues here – including the sovereignty of the Maltese state. That even put me in conflict not only with my conscience but also – as I saw it – with my oath to consider the Constitution as the supreme law of the country.

I understand fully the conflict in which many Opposition MPs found themselves. The surreptitious way in which the PN inserted its agreement with gay marriage in its electoral manifesto made things even worse. Let me be clear. I am in favour of gay marriage but this does not mean that I agree with the internal party manoeuvring and contortions that led to many Nationalist MPs finding themselves in a moral dilemma.

It is ironic that the party depicts itself as a champion of human rights – that include freedom of expression and freedom of conscience – as well as a champion of the rule of law, but is hardly inspired by these lofty ideals when it comes to decisions that require the party to be perceived as a united block. 

In Malta, an MP who defies the party whip is ostracised by his own party – whatever the circumstances.

Lest I am misinterpreted, I am not saying that this is just the way that the PN works. This problem also happens in the case of Labour. At the moment, that party is passing through a glorious patch in its history and going against the grain is something only Marlene Farrugia would do!

However, under different circumstances in the past, the reaction of the Labour party machine to MPs who did not conform has been likewise unkind. Many do not recall, probably, that under Dom Mintoff’s leadership every Labour candidate had to declare in writing his acceptance to be charged a pecuniary fine if, once elected, he or she votes against the party’s directives in Parliament.

Again, here the problem is our electoral system and the manner in which the parties have found a way how to manipulate the election of their own MPs.

The UK’s Leader of the Oppositon, Jeremy Corbyn, was known as an MP with a record number of instances when he defied the party whip, but his loyalty to his constituents was unwavering. In the UK electoral system, the party can hardly replace a sitting MP who is popular in the constituency he represents. With Malta’s system, things are different.

In retrospect, it is obvious that the PN leadership should have given a free vote to the Opposition MPs regarding the gay marriage law – or whatever it is officially called. Using the party whip on such a sensitive issue – in an attempt to cover up fundamental differences within the PN Parliamentary group – has probably made things worse.

The conflict between loyalty to one’s party and to one’s conscience pits any MP against the Maltese obsession about unity within a political party. Conflicting ideas exist whenever a group of people take a collective decision, even when this group of people consists of like-minded individuals. 

A healthy internal relationship between people of the same political party is necessary for the party’s strength. 

At the end of the day, stifling dissenting voices, in an effort to give the impression that the party is ‘united’, can only spell disaster.

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