How did we go from ‘gender balance’, to… this?

 

Getting more women into Parliament is one thing; but allowing parliament to be overrun with the female equivalents of Spiridione Sant and Tal-Farfett is something else entirely

All right, let me start with the most glaringly obvious pitfall in the ongoing ‘gender equality in Parliament’ discussion. Obviously, it is not that we are finally looking into ways to boost female representation in Parliament. I am on record elsewhere stating that I have absolutely no problem with gender quotas, if that’s what it takes to achieve a semblance of gender equality in Maltese politics.

No, the problem is that this debate is taking place alongside a separate (albeit related) discussion about ‘reforming the Constitution’… and part of this second discussion also centres on the need to make urgent changes to Malta’s electoral law, regardless of female representation issues.

I won’t bore you with all the details; but I must bore you with some of them. Among many other shortcomings, Malta’s electoral law still fails to recognise ‘coalitions’… evidently on the assumption that Malta was, and would always remain, a two-party state. It actively discriminates against small parties across the board: inter alia, by setting the district quotas too high, across too many districts; and also by denying unrepresented political parties adequate space on public broadcasting.

The voting system itself is also cumbersome and unnecessarily complicated, resulting in a tonne of uncounted (and therefore ‘wasted’) votes. It also fails to offer any meaningful, long-term solutions in the case of a hung Parliament.

Now, I shall bore you a little more with a few practical examples. You will surely all remember how the last election was contested (among others) by a coalition called ‘Forza Nazzjonali’, which included both the PN and the newly-formed Partit Demokratiku (PD). Well, on one level that’s perfectly true… but on another, it’s not true at all. There was a ‘coalition agreement’ between those two parties, yes; but the Electoral Commission had to abide by the fact that the PD candidates contested on the PN ticket.

So when it came to actually voting in the polling booth… there was no ‘Forza Nazzjonali coalition’ on the ballot sheet. There was a ‘Partit Nazzjonalista’ section, which also included PD candidates… distinguishable from the rest only by a ‘nickname’ that wasn’t even colour-coded.

To call the outcome ‘confusing’ would be to put it rather mildly. We ended up with two PD candidates elected on behalf of the Nationalist Party, and who are recognised at law (and parliamentary procedure) as part of the PN’s parliamentary group. Meanwhile, Adrian Delia has dissolved the coalition anyway. So people who thought they were voting for a new political movement, were basically conned. Some of them are no longer even represented in Parliament at all.

Admittedly, however, the day-to-day effects of this anomaly are not exactly earth-shattering. But there is one other flaw that could have catastrophic consequences indeed, if it remains unaddressed for long. The hung parliament scenario.

In the 2008 election, Lawrence Gonzi’s PN won a relative majority of votes, translating into a minority of seats in Parliament. Gonzi could only form a government on the basis of the ‘Constitutional mechanism’ negotiated between Guido De Marco and Dom Mintoff in 1986, which awarded the PN as many seats as it needed to secure a majority in the House (four, in this particular case).

But this mechanism does not envisage a situation where three or more parties are elected to Parliament. So if Alternattiva Demokratika succeeded in winning a single seat in that election – and it came by far the closest to doing that in its entire history – those four seats would not have been awarded. Gonzi would not have been able to form his government. With its absolute minority of votes, Alfred Sant’s Labour Party would technically have won the 2008 election… just as Mintoff had technically won in 1981.

In other words, the 1986 Constitutional amendment is a dud. Its celebrated mechanism doesn’t work. And this for two reasons: one, it was the brainchild of two politicians who were (whatever their other qualities) hugely old-fashioned, and nowhere near foresighted enough to envisage that the duopoly of the 1980s would not last forever. Two, because the underlying district system that gives rise to the anomaly in the first place – i.e., that a party can win a majority of seats, but a minority of votes – has never been resolved.

To do that, we would probably have to scrap the current ’13 district’ system altogether, and replace it with something else: most likely, a ‘one district system’, of the kind that is already in place for MEP elections. But that, on its own, would still not address any of the other flaws. It would have no effect on ‘wasted votes’. It would not allow for the formation of coalitions, etc.

Ok, at this point you might be asking: but what has this got to do with the ‘gender balance’ proposals recently put forward? Well, the short answer is… these ‘proposals’ are designed around the same systemic flaws in their current form: without taking into account that we are in the process of revising the Constitution, partly with a view to changing how our electoral system actually works.

For instance: by far the most striking proposal is the one to enlarge Parliament by ‘up to 12 seats’… awarded, just like the earlier mistake, by a ‘Constitutional mechanism’.

Excuse me for asking, but… how did a remit to increase gender equality in parliamentary representation, suddenly become a remit to actually increase the number of people elected to parliament? Or, to be more specific… how did we manage to simply overlook the tiny detail that, to occupy a seat in parliament, you actually have to get elected: a process which involves reaching a pre-determined quota in your district?

Mess with that principle, and you risk debasing and de-valuing the entire concept of parliamentary representation. And oh look: it turns out that, when applied to the last (2017) election, the system being proposed would have resulted in the election of a female candidate who only got 20 first-count votes in her district.

Naturally, I am not an MP, and have absolutely no aspiration to ever become one. If I was (or did), however… for one thing, I would certainly not accept any seat awarded to me by any Constitutional mechanism, if I only got 20 flipping votes in an election (I stand to be corrected, but I think Tal-Ajkla got more than that in 2017). For another: if I got into Parliament fair and square, and someone else got there under those circumstances… I would resign my seat in protest on the spot.

But that’s just a personal reaction to what I consider the most dangerous aspect of these proposals. Ultimately, the underlying problem is another: all we ever seem capable of doing is tinkering with the same old, flawed system… all along making it more, and more, and more complicated, until it eventually just becomes totally unworkable in practice.

What happens, for instance, if we get another election result like 1981 or 2008? When I asked this question to one of the authors of this report, I was told that: “The gender corrective mechanism is integrated in the present electoral system. In PR-STV the first count votes elect the Party that obtains the majority of the votes. Then candidates are elected. In the third phase, casual elections are held that are followed by the majority corrective mechanism (introduced after the situation that arose in 1981). The gender mechanism comes at the very end of the process.”

Do you need me to translate that for you? It means that: first, we will have one Constitutional mechanism to award as many seats as it takes for the relative minority party to form a government; then, there’ll be another Constitutional mechanism, dishing out even more parliamentary seats – up to 12, if you please – to make up for any gender imbalance.

In a nutshell, we could end up with as many as 20 or more extra seats… only this time, some of those seats will be ‘representing’ fewer people than you’d meet on any evening down at the local pub.

Come on… it’s just not serious. Getting more women into Parliament is one thing; but allowing parliament to be overrun with the female equivalents of Spiridione Sant and Tal-Farfett is something else entirely.

Besides: this approach also perpetuates the bizarre view that our ‘Constitution’ is nothing but a glorified box of electoral tricks, to be dipped into any time a problem arises with our electoral system – which means all the time, as our system is highly problematic – and, hey presto! Like a magician pulls out a rabbit from a hat, we conjure up instant, magical Parliamentary seats to make up for any ‘imbalance’…

Ah, but then, one of the main selling points of this proposed system is that, in the case of ‘unelected candidates of the under-represented sex’ – and ONLY in that case – we will finally be counting votes that would otherwise be wasted.

What, are we supposed to actually applaud that? We all know there’s a serious problem with the system, that results in literally thousands of votes never actually going to their intended candidates… and we propose a solution which only affects candidates who are: a) either male-only or female-only, depending on which gender is under-represented, and; b) didn’t actually reach their quota, on the basis of all the votes that were, in fact, counted?

Erm… wouldn’t it make slightly more sense to fix the system for ALL candidates equally? After all, if we reform the electoral system so that ‘every vote really does count’… a lot of candidates who would usually not get elected, might succeed without the aid of any quotas or Constitutional mechanisms. And who knows? That might include a lot of women… without the need to concoct 12 whole new bogus seats, and expand our House of Parliaments to infinity, and beyond.

And this, to me, is the biggest disappointment by far. Instead of undertaking a root and branch reform of the entire system… we are doing what we have always done in the past, by just patching it up piecemeal here and there.   

It never worked in the past, did it? So what reason is there to suppose that it might suddenly start working now?

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