Gender quotas should be part of a holistic electoral reform

It is a pity, then, that yet another opportunity to kick-start this much-needed reform appears to have been missed

In the context of an undeniably male-oriented political landscape, one can only welcome the fact that Parliament is now discussing some kind of mechanism to ensure a proper gender balance in Maltese politics.

As things stand, only nine out of 71 MPs in the current legislature are women: which places Malta at 142nd worldwide in terms of female parliamentary representation, behind countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Guatemala.

It was to redress this imbalance that the Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto specifically included reference to a system of gender quotas. But while there may be broad consensus regarding the aim of that electoral promise, there remains a lot of room for discussion regarding the details.

The bill currently under discussion proposes a gender corrective mechanism, whereby up to 12 extra seats would be added for women if they make up less than 40% of the House of Representatives after an election. Each political party would get up to six seats, which would be taken by women who failed to get elected on the first round.

Other proposals include State funding to parties to support women contesting elections; gender balance in the (currently all-male) Electoral Commission; and the introduction of more family-friendly facilities to Parliament, among others.

But while these measures may address some of the lacuna in our present set-up, government’s approach remains a purely mathematical solution that is unlikely to solve the core problem at hand. For the issue here has less to do with ensuring that enough female candidates get elected to Parliament, than with addressing the lack of women contesting elections in the first place.

Moreover, the preferred ‘top-up’ solution clearly has its roots in the 1987 Constitutional amendment, which had likewise introduced a mechanism to dish out additional seats, in a situation where neither party obtained the 50%+1 target.

Then as now, this system has its severe limitations: not least, the fact that it does not even cater for the possibility - remote as it may now appear - of a third, fourth or fifth party one day getting elected to Parliament.

Both sides of the House therefore need to foster serious discussion on the fact that the bill itself is built on the premise of a bipartisan outcome in the electoral results. This is blatantly imperfect: partly because it risks failure in the event of multi-party representation; but also because it constitutes an undeniable injustice towards smaller parties.

On a separate level, the bill is also flawed because it hinges exclusively on the number of female candidates fielded by the two main parties. As this has never been a high proportion to begin with, it would have been far preferable to place the onus of gender quotas directly on the political parties themselves.

This way, the parties would have to present a 50/50 balance in their list of candidates for election; rather than ensuring a final result based on 50% of an already very limited figure.

Instead, government is proposing the use of State financing, specifically directed at the parties, as a means of ensuring a proper gender balance. But this is suspicious, to say the least. Why should political parties be State-funded to promote gender quotas? Surely, that money would be better invested in project-specific initiatives, granted to any NGO that can decently promote the same aim?

By limiting funding to political parties – and even then, only to the two parties capable of securing 40% in the House of Representatives – it becomes clear that gender quotas are simply being used as a smokescreen to bail out political parties in financial difficulties.

On the plus side, perhaps the most cogent of the bill’s proposals is the idea to make Parliament a more appealing environment for female candidates. As with the quotas proposal, however, this seems to be limited only to ad hoc changes here and there: as opposed to thorough reform of Parliament itself.

This does not address the underlying structural reality: i.e., that without a full-time Parliament, that offers proper remuneration to MPs (and better ‘value for money’ for citizens), as well as the family-friendly measures on offer in this bill, attracting new people to contest elections - male or female - is always going to be difficult.

To effectively achieve these aims, however, what is needed is not a piece-meal approach: but rather, a proper, holistic reform of both Parliamentary procedures, and also Malta’s electoral law as a whole.

It is a pity, then, that yet another opportunity to kick-start this much-needed reform appears to have been missed.