‘This is not a pigsty’, indeed

Individual members of parliament may not have noticed, but the rest of the country has moved on since ‘debates’ were settled with loud threats of violence

For many viewers, the unsightly fracas in Parliament this week will have surely brought back memories of times when unsightly slanging matches were the order of the day at Malta’s highest institution. Its most venerable member, Joe Debono Grech, should know this more than most: having been at the heart of so many altercations in the past.

Individual members of parliament may not have noticed, but the rest of the country has moved on since ‘debates’ were settled with loud threats of violence. Once again, the throwback creates the unsettling impression that Malta’s elected representatives are not evolving at the same pace as the people they represent. Monday’s chaos in the House was for this reason not just an affront to ordinary decency… it was also a national embarrassment.

The Maltese public deserves better representation than the belligerent ravings one associates with a drunken pub brawl. There is simply no place in Parliament for threats of violence of any kind whatsoever. That Debono Grech’s threat was directed at a woman – at a time when violence against women is a very real issue, which his own government is committed to address – makes it all the more utterly reprehensible.

There is plenty of evidence that abusive, violent behaviour targeting women is a major problem affecting Maltese society too. A recent EU-wide survey about domestic violence suggests that 16% of Maltese women said they had experienced physical violence, sexual violence or both by a current or former partner since the age of 15. 

In the light of other studies, the incidence of violence targeting women appears to be even higher. A spokesman for the Ministry of Civil Rights recently indicated that the percentage of women who have experienced physical and/or sexual violence since they were 15 may be as high as 22% – almost a quarter of all Maltese women. A 2011 study showed that a quarter of women in Malta have been physically, emotionally or sexually abused by their husband or partner

Debono Grech may not have physically assaulted Marlene Farrugia, but his threat to ‘beat her up’ falls very firmly within the same sphere of utterly unacceptable, brutish behaviour that has no place in a civilised society.

But it is not just the actions of one member that left very much to be desired. Speaker Anglu Farrugia was heard shouting that ‘Parliament is not a pigsty’ during the uproar. Yet in no way did the facts of this case prove him right. 

Not only was the behaviour itself decidedly churlish – too churlish even for pigs, in fact – but the way the House ‘resolved’ the matter was also redolent of a total lack of seriousness permeating the entire system.

Asked to deliver a ruling on a very serious accusation – a verbal threat to beat up a woman, which in any other context would be considered a criminal offence – Farrugia delivered a neutered, toothless judgement that merely sweeps the entire issue under the carpet.

Asking both parties to retract their words is not an acceptable solution to this impasse, by any stretch of the imagination. This is not a minor scuffle on a football pitch. This is a wholesale affront to the institution that houses Malta’s legislative branch of government. It is an insult to the entire country, and the very worst example to be set by the one category of person that should know better: whose decisions and policies regulate the behaviour of others.

Nor is it appropriate to admonish both parties equally. The most Marlene Farrugia could be accused of is stealing the limelight: if there is a guilty party in this scenario it is the person making the threat, not the person receiving it. 

By equating the two parties Farrugia has reduced Parliamentary procedure to a naked travesty of justice. If this is what we are to expect from the institution which draws up our country’s laws, we should expect no less from the law courts that implement them, and from everyone else too. 

And that would only make a pigsty of the entire country.

Whatever friendships may be at play here (Farrugia and Debono Grech are long-time colleagues), and whatever the rules of the House may say, the Speaker missed an opportunity to send out a clear message from Parliament that abusive behaviour and violence against women is unacceptable, and has no place in society: not in parliament, nor behind the walls of private homes.

In the absence of an appropriate ruling by the Speaker, the ball lands in Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s court. Muscat prides himself on his liberal, progressive agenda, having introduced LGBTI rights and voted for divorce, IVF etc. 

This is an opportunity to give the issue of violence and abuse the attention it deserves. If he is serious about his government’s commitment to good governance and to combat violence against women, he must make it clear that Debono Grech’s behaviour has no place in his party. 

It is debatable whether a public apology would suffice to redress the harm caused to the image of the country’s highest institution. Other MPs have been unceremoniously booted out from their parliamentary groups for far less. 

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