The disappearance of Labour’s ‘moral minority’

Joseph Muscat made Malta a happier place for minorities but has Labour become too homogenous in the process?

Deborah Schembri was the leader of the divorce campaign but emerged as a conservative on IVF
Deborah Schembri was the leader of the divorce campaign but emerged as a conservative on IVF

Labour has never been so homogenous on ethical and moral issues than during this legislature.

It suggests an unarrestable drive to complete the secularisation process initiated by the divorce referendum of 2011.

But President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca’s appeal for more reflection on the IVF law and embryo freezing earlier this week could reflect misgivings among a segment of Labour voters.

Since its inception in the 1920’s, Labour – once represented in the senate by none other than the prelate Mikiel Gonzi – contained within it a strong pro-clerical element. Under the Fabian socialist Dom Mintoff that dominant position was lost, but the party remained conditioned by the prevailing mores of a traditional society – to the extent that divorce remained taboo for the party till the 1990s.

Dr Alfred Sant was the only prime minister in Maltese history not to take his oath of office by kissing the cross, but he faced open dissent in his party when he appointed a commission for the future of the family, which recommended the introduction of divorce. Opponents in his parliamentary group included a young MP called Joe Abela. But even more secularist MPs like Lino Spiteri sounded caution, insisting that Labour had no mandate to introduce divorce.

After 1998, back in Opposition Sant sidelined moral and ethical issues to focus on Labour’s mission to block EU membership. Prominent on Sant’s front bench was the vociferous conservative Adrian Vassallo, a medical doctor and son of Times columnist J.G. Vassallo. Vassallo went as far as denouncing the screening of porn in hotel rooms, apart from opposing divorce and gay marriage.

Joseph Muscat was himself elected Labour leader on a platform which included a pledge to introduce a private member’s bill in favour of divorce. This highlighted the contrast with the more conservative and Church-aligned George Abela.

Yet even Muscat was initially cautious, and while favouring civil unions he declared his opposition to marriage equality. Abortion remained a taboo, with some party stalwarts like Justyne Caruana going as far as to propose a “curator” for the womb in a bid to help husbands stop women from leaving the country to get an abortion.

Muscat himself was wary on committing his party to support the pro-divorce campaign – something which he did energetically on a personal level. Party stalwarts like Carmelo Abela and Marie Louise Coleiro Preca did declare their stance against divorce even if they refrained from campaigning against it. The referendum was the watershed moment, which convinced Muscat that social liberalism was an asset of the party. In what signalled a clear departure from the Sant era of co-existence, Adrian Vassallo decided to call it a day, accusing Muscat of behaving like a dictator.

The current uniformity in parliament is not representative of all Labour voters, a bloc that also includes moral conservatives

After winning the 2013 election by a landslide Muscat renegotiated the agreement regulating marriage annulments with the Vatican and proceeded with the introduction of civil unions without facing any internal opposition.

It was on the contentious issue of embryo freezing that internal dissent was brewing, with prominent MPs like foreign minister George Vella and parliamentary secretary Deborah Schembri expressing reservations.

Neither of the two are particularly close to the Church. Schembri was herself the leader of the divorce campaign while Vella had no qualms on divorce and LGBTI rights. But both have red lines on this particular issue.

Still, with Marlene and Godfrey Farrugia defecting to the Democratic Party, George Vella not contesting the 2017 election and Schembri failing to get elected, Muscat ended up with a more cohesive parliamentary group. If there are any conservatives left, they do not speak.

This new consensus in Labour may reflect the more liberal attitudes of Labour voters on various contentious moral issues as confirmed in numerous surveys. But the same surveys also show a vast majority of Labour voters in favour of retaining Catholicism in the Constitution and overwhelmingly against abortion.

The current uniformity in parliament is not representative of all Labour voters, a bloc that also includes moral conservatives as well as voters who are generally liberal but may have red lines on specific issues like surrogacy. In some ways the President’s intervention gave back some representation to this category.

The exclusion of Labour’s moral minority may prove tricky for a big tent party. It gives Muscat the opportunity to complete a legacy as the politician who changed Malta from a world laggard in civil liberties to an open society based on the pursuit of happiness. This gives Labour a distinctive ideological mark which partly compensates the loss of socialist values.

Labour’s unity also contrasts with the more embarrassing but perhaps more real diversity of opinions on the Opposition’s benches.

But it also raises the question on whether the current consensus is based on a genuine belief in a progressive agenda or is simply based on deference to the leader. It may not be surprising if the first cracks in Labour start emerging on the moral front rather than on the corruption one.

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