Making (and missing) history

By abstaining in Monday’s vote, the PN projected the image of a static party which is simply too afraid to take a step in either direction

The vote taken in parliament on Monday to approve a civil unions’ bill – which (among many other things) controversially permits same-sex couples the right to adopt children – was historic in many respects.

Certainly, the issue at the heart of this legislation has done more to capture the popular imagination that virtually any other recent political development, both among those who welcomed the law, and those who opposed it. This much was evident in the euphoric celebrations that followed parliamentary vote on St George’s Square, Valletta… and also in the protest staged against the civil unions bill the preceding week.

Emotions have run deep on either side of the divide, and regardless of where one stands on the issue, Monday’s vote undeniably tapped into the collective subconscious of an entire population, in a way that ordinary legislation rarely manages to do.

And yet, on paper, the law itself adds little to the prevailing situation before its enactment. Adoption by same-sex couples is not exactly a new phenomenon in Malta. Owing to a legal loophole, it has long been perfectly possible for such couples to adopt children, so long as one of the couple posed as a single parent for the duration of the adoption process. There are in fact a number of same-sex couples who have raised children in Malta. Some of these adopted children are now parents themselves: a fact which puts the reality of the situation into some form of perspective.

By including same-sex adoption in a law that regulates civilly recognised partnerships, government has merely acknowledged an existing situation, and fulfilled its political obligation under civil law to cater for all sectors of society. And in practice, all it means is that same sex couples will no longer have to resort to subterfuge in order to adopt.

However, none of this really impacts the overall historic significance of Monday’s Parliamentary vote. For the civil unions bill must be viewed in the broader context of a gradual evolution towards greater inclusivity and equality - a context that transcends the purely practical effects of the law itself.

It can be taken as a single step in a choreographed movement in a very clear and unequivocal direction: towards equality, and away from prejudice. Only this can really explain the extent of the sentiment expressed both for and against.

Given the existence of widespread opposition among the electorate – estimated at over 80%, according to at least one survey – it was also a courageous move on the part of a government that ultimately stood to lose more than it gained by pushing it through parliament. Regardless of any failures on other fronts, the Labour government can at least be credited with living up to its ‘progressive’ promises when it comes to civil rights.

But from the same perspective, it becomes increasingly difficult to understand the Opposition’s actions in parliament on Monday. By abstaining on a bill that has provoked such profound reactions across the full spectrum of society, the Nationalist Party has merely absented itself on an issue of major cultural and historical significance to everyone else.

Coming so soon after the shockwaves of the divorce referendum – which had proved so costly to the PN in electoral terms – its failure to take any stand at all also signifies that the party has yet to come together as a unified whole.

Naturally, one can appreciate the practical difficulties a traditionally conservative party must face when confronted with issues of a liberal or secular nature. Opposition leader Simon Busuttil evidently faces internal pressures to retain part of the perceived ‘core values’ of a party that has long associated itself with the conservative centre-right.

In this respect, a collective vote against the bill would have been consistent with the same party’s previous stand on analogous issues and, more cogently, it would also have been construed as a stand taken on principle (regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with either stand or principle).

A vote in favour, by way of contrast, would have signalled a profound change in direction undertaken by the party’s leadership and while this would almost certainly have disoriented a section of the party’s support-base, it would also have publicly acknowledged the party’s need to reinvent itself after last year’s crushing defeat.

Yet the PN chose to send mixed messages on the issue. By abstaining in Monday’s vote, it projected the image of a static party which is simply too afraid to take a step in either direction. And to compound this ambivalence towards such a sensitive issue, the same Opposition party also took initiatives of its own to bolster its image as an all-inclusive organisation.

Three days earlier, the PN launched an “equal opportunities movement” to “promote equality and fight discrimination”. And on the same day, it unanimously approved its own member’s private bill to secure Constitutional protection for the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

But when faced with a practical demonstration of its commitment towards equality, it seemed incapable of taking any stand at all. One cannot help but conclude that the Nationalist Party has yet again missed an opportunity to be part of history in the making.

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