Quotas by any other name…

If we are going to study what are the Constitutional amendments that Malta needs, why don’t we make one radical change rather than changing the Constitution piecemeal?

The proposed mechanism to balance the genders in Parliament is applied only if one of the two sexes has less than 40% of the elected MPs
The proposed mechanism to balance the genders in Parliament is applied only if one of the two sexes has less than 40% of the elected MPs

The consultation document about the proposed steps to be taken to ensure gender balance in Parliament makes interesting reading. The first thing that one notices is that it goes to great lengths and verbal gymnastics to avoid the use of the word ‘quota’. For a very good reason of course: quotas are opposed by many who consider their imposition as a form of discrimination – even if only a case of temporary positive discrimination.

Indeed, I know women who are opposed to quota systems to boost female participation in politics or wherever as a matter of principle – even as a kind of insult from the inference that to attain some position in life a woman needs some help from a quota system, rather than resting on her own merits.

The proposed amendments do not propose to establish quotas for women MPs but make reference to “the under-represented sex” in a way that they even entertain the possibility that one of these decades, men will become the under-represented sex in Parliament. Hence the proposals are not discriminatory!

The PN has still to decide whether they will give a nod or press on the brakes. Since the proposals include Constitutional amendments that need a two-thirds majority to be approved the PN’s reaction that it requires some time to decide on the proposals is understandable. Even so, I find the comments made by the PN Executive President, Mark Anthony Sammut, to be quite enlightening. He worked out the statistical chance of a candidate being elected and found that, based on their actual numbers, male and female candidates enjoy a roughly equal probability of being elected. Therefore, his argument goes, the problem was not voter prejudice but lack of female candidates.

The report indirectly acknowledges this problem by proposing that political parties should be subsidised by funds depending on the number of candidates that were fielded in the previous election that belonged to the under-represented sex. The more women candidates, the more funds! Here again the inevitable question pops up: would political parties push to field more female candidates in order to get this subsidy, rather than because they are worthy candidates?

The proposals have two limiting factors: the proposed mechanism to balance the genders in Parliament is applied only if one of the two sexes has less than 40% of the elected MPs and, moreover, the proposed amendments have an unconditional sunset clause such that the proposed mechanism would expire after 20 years, unless other legislative steps are taken in the meantime.

What bugs me most is that, in the end, the proposals are yet another tweak to our electoral system. Since 1987 our electoral system has undergone a lot of tweaks that undermine the mathematical principles on which the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system is based – to the extent that many like me wonder whether our system needs a complete radical change, especially considering the futility of candidates of the same party battling it out against each other. Proposing to tweak our current system again implies that the radical change needed will never be realised and that everybody is happy with the culture of favours and cronyism that are an intrinsic part of our electoral system.

Essentially, the proposal seeks to leave things exactly as they currently are but then adds seats to the ones already duly elected, to be filled by female candidates. This means that no one could complain that he was precluded from a seat in Parliament that he would have got if the current system was applied. So far so good! Avoiding such complaints led to increasing the number of seats – by not more than 12 – to be filled by female candidates.

The Gender Corrective Mechanism will then butt in. First by considering the sixth unelected and uneliminated candidate in all districts. The document does not use the word ‘uneliminated’ but resorts to a shoddy translation of the Maltese idiomatic ‘imdendel’ to call them ‘hanging’ candidates. Rest assured, however that this is no reference to washing day or to the gallows...

If any of the ‘hanging’ candidates are of the under-represented sex they will be declared elected and will retain one’s parcel of votes; the remaining seats, necessary to approach the 40% threshold of the MPs forming the House, will be filled through a casual election open only to unelected General Election candidates of the under-represented sex.

These casual elections will be held utilising: i. the votes of hanging candidates from the under-represented sex that were not elected; ii. the votes of hanging candidates from the over-represented sex that were not elected; and iii. the wasted votes of those candidates elected through a casual election.

The idea is that – additionally – the Gender Corrective Mechanism minimises the number of so-called ‘wasted’ votes because currently parcels of votes of candidates elected by casual elections remain unutilised if they give up their seat, as the Member replacing him/her is co-opted by Parliament. The document forgets that these ‘wasted’ votes are already being represented by the added seats so that the composition of the House reflects the percentage of votes cast for each of two parties. In effect, these ‘wasted’ votes will now be doubly represented.

The Gender-Corrective mechanism leads to the election of such a number of candidates from the ‘under-represented’ sex so as to respect the difference in seats between the two parties in Parliament as per current situation. When this is not possible, co-option is resorted to as a final option.

Again, the system assumes a two-party House of Represetntatives and applying it, if there is more than one party represented in Parliament, creates many problems. No wonder Alternattiva Demokratika and Partit Demokratiku immediately gave it the thumbs down.
All in all, it is quite a credible attempt at introducing a mechanism that attempts to correct under-representation of women in the House of Representatives.

That doesn’t mean I am fully convinced, however.

I still think that we should scrap our electoral system – as I have insisted so many times.

We should make a radical change to the system rather than keep on tweaking it every now and then for some reason or other.
Another thing that crops up: if we are going to study what are the Constitutional amendments that Malta needs, why don’t we make one radical change rather than changing the Constitution piecemeal?

Perhaps, Joseph Muscat can only take this piecemeal approach in the time left before his much vaunted early retirement.

This means that his ‘new republic’ dream will never become reality!

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