Falling between two stools

If the Nationalist government has no stomach to regulate such matters in a way equitable to all parties concerned then perhaps it were better if it did not legislate at all.

Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna.
Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna.

The newly launched Cohabitation Bill, presented on Tuesday by Justice Minister Chris Said, appears to have once again locked the government on a collision course with a liberal section of the electorate - this time, shortly before a difficult election for the PN.

It is the third case (fourth, if one includes a recent controversy on censorship) where government has attempted to steer a course between vastly divergent interests... only to inevitably fall between two stools, and produce 'solutions' which ultimately end up satisfying nobody.

The other two instances include last year's divorce referendum, and the ongoing debate on assisted reproduction therapy (of which the best known method is IVF).

In the case of divorce, the issue had been forced onto the agenda by a lone government MP, backed by the Opposition and fiercely resisted by the party in government: which even took up a short-lived statutory position against the proposed bill, only to promptly abandon it after losing the referendum.

It will be noted that the referendum was lost in part thanks to a sizeable number of Nationalist voters who defied their own party's position on the issue - making this one out of several instances where the PN appears to have unaccountably waged war on a portion of its own support-base.

But if the decision to fight this war was imposed on the PN in the case of divorce, the same cannot be said for either IVF or cohabitation. In both these instances, the proposed legislation originated with government itself many years earlier; and the same general pattern has played out since almost as though to an invisible script.

When it came to IVF, there was palpable resistance within the ranks of the same government to a practice that is actively frowned upon by the Church. The upshot was a long period of consultation (most of which was duly ignored) resulting in a law which was heavily influenced by the views of people who were all along viscerally opposed to IVF. In fact, even at a glance the bill appears infinitely more concerned with banning practices deemed 'sinful' by the Church, than with heeding the advice or recommendations of medical professionals in the field.

Evidently, the more confessional wing of the PN (which includes its leader, deputy leader and most of the Cabinet of ministers) finds it difficult to set aside its own moral and/or religious biases when it comes to legislating for a wider population that does not necessarily share the same worldview.

And with the cohabitation bill, government now seems to have knowingly (willingly, perhaps) placed a small but vociferous lobby group in a position where it has no option but to resist. By bundling same-sex relationships (now very much a reality in this country, regardless of conservative resistance) in the same category as cohabiting siblings - and above all, by going miles out of its way to deliberately exclude such relationships from its official definition of 'family' - government has embarked on the impossible exercise of openly and unabashedly discriminating against one category of relationships, while simultaneously presenting the bill as 'inclusive'.

This is a circle that cannot possibly be squared. How can it, when the main concern has all along been to standardize social models such as the 'family' along preordained and largely outmoded concepts... whether or not such concepts are still applicable, to a society that has demonstrably changed beyond recognition in the past few decades?

Exactly why government should choose to wade into such a perilous political minefield at precisely this stage, so soon before an election campaign, is anyone's guess. And the question can only deepen, when one also considers that the Nationalist Party's electoral proposal for a cohabitation law was made almost 15 years ago in 1998 - long before last year's introduction of divorce, which the same proposal had originally intended to counter by providing a workable alternative.

If there are any electoral concerns at work behind this legislation at all, it would be the fact that the Opposition party has announced that both IVF and same-sex marriage regularization would be prioritized by an incoming Labour government.

One can immediately appreciate that there are political advantages to be gained for the PN by robbing the Opposition of multiple electoral platforms in this way. But there is also a question of social responsibility to take into account.

On one level it is manifestly unfair on minority groups (in this case, the gay community) for their issues and demands to be constantly hijacked by the private electoral concerns of political parties... especially if the net result is blatantly flawed legislation, which can only relegate the same minority groups to the status of second-class citizens. On another, it is dangerous and irresponsible to raise expectations of social reforms, only to quash them with legislation that falls far short of the original promise.

The bottom line is that if the Nationalist government has no stomach to regulate such matters in a way that is equitable to all parties concerned - and not just to its own inherently biased view of what society should be, and how it should function - then perhaps it were better if it did not legislate at all.

More in Editorial