Is divorce turning the PN into Malta's Tea Party?

Is the PN becoming too conservative for mainstream public opinion? asks James Debono in his analysis of the aftermath of parliament’s debate on the divorce referendum.

Concluding the debate on Wednesday, Opposition leader Joseph Muscat denounced that “the PN’s social soul is going back 30 years and looking less like a Christian-democratic party and more like Sarah Palin’s Tea Party movement.”

The comparison between the traditionally centrist Nationalist party and a loony movement of creationist nutters, gun toting rednecks, anti-tax populists and immigrant bashers is somewhat far fetched and a bit rich on Muscat’s part, as he has pandered to populist instincts on issues like immigration in the not so distant past. 

But Muscat has found plenty of ammunition to link the PN to the fundamentalist vision which came across in the various speeches made by government MPs over the past few days.

Judging by some the speeches made during the 10 sessions on divorce, Muscat’s claim partly resonates with a reality with which not all Nationalist MPs seem comfortable.

Some of the speeches made during the past weeks gave the impression that PN conservatives have outstretched themselves, undermining the party’s traditional strength as a moderating force between conflicting interests represented in the party and exposed a raw nerve of dogmatism which tarnishes the image of the party as a voice of reason.

Of God and Ferraris

Only a few minutes after Muscat’s observation came Finance Minister Tonio Fenech,  invoking the holy spirit and comparing man to “a beautiful Ferrari” – effectively comparing God’s values to a car’s manual; a bizarre twist to Fenech’s theology, considering that Ferraris are the ultimate symbol of hyper-consumerism, rather than Christian humility.

“If the car needs petrol but you put diesel in the car, that Ferrari is going to stop: the values God gave us were for our own good. He did not give us such values because He is some spoilsport,”  Fenech said, tarnishing his image as a no-nonsense Finance Minister and evoking that of a member of a theocratic regime.

And a few days before quoting Pope Benedict’s encyclical Deus Caritas est (God is Love), backbencher Edwin Vassallo articulated his confessional view of politics, insisting that even laymen, in their public roles, had to live their faith.

“The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society… is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State… they cannot relinquish their participation in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good.”

The situation became even more surreal in the past weeks, with an arch economic liberal and harbinger of ruthless privatisations – Gatt – invoking religio et patria.

In this scenario, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando’s question emerges as the most profound and perceptive expose of the PN’s current ideological quandary.

“Was the liberty we fought for under the ‘Work, Justice, Liberty’ banner of the 1980s only limited to the choice in toothpaste and chocolate?” he asked. “Is not the liberty to choose within one’s family and happiness not valid?”

While old school Thatcherites like Gatt feel no contradiction between economic liberalism and social conservatism, a minority of PN voters are sensitive to this paradox, and yearn for a modern centre-right party similar to that of Germany’s Christian Democratic Party, whose leader Angela Merkel is a divorcee.

Yet what emerged in the debate is that apart from the outrightly pro-divorce front represented by Pullicino Orlando and Jesmond Mugliett – who voted with the opposition – a third front of loyalist but moderate has emerged.

Right wing shift

Muscat’s observation on the PN losing its Christian Democratic identity  was incredibly similar to observations made in the past two years by Jean Pierre Farrugia, an exponent of the party’s centre-left, who denounced a rightwing shift in the PN on both moral and economic issues.

Interviewed by this newspaper in January, Farrugia had made it clear that “I am a Christian Democrat and a Catholic. But I am not a moral conservative. The Nationalist Party I know is not confessional. It is a party which, whenever confronted by an issue, does not desist from studying and tackling it…”

On Tuesday, Farrugia – who unlike Austin Gatt stands to the left of the party on social issues – said the PN needed to be clear that it was not a confessional party.

“As Fr Peter Serracino Inglott said recently, with regard to IVF but equally applicable for divorce, the government should not be looking exclusively at the Church’s view on this, but its impact on society.”

Moreover, Farrugia hinted that he would have voted for the Opposition’s motion asking for a referendum on divorce for couples living apart from each other for more than four years, if it did not go into detail about alimony and the welfare of children, while disagreeing with a generic yes or no to divorce question as proposed by the Prime Minister.

De Marco finds a niche

Equally significant was Mario De Marco, whose speech not only steered away from religious arguments but went on to propose a referendum with more than one question, criticising the wording of the referendum question proposed in the Opposition motion because it failed to give voters a choice between fault and no fault divorce, arguing that people should be asked to choose between various scenarios.

De Marco’s proposal of multiple referendum questions sounds fuzzy and came too late in the day, but could be interpreted as an attempt to portray himself as a moderate conservative open to some form of limited divorce.

In fact De Marco, who is considered to be a rising star in the Nationalist party, has refrained from pronouncing himself on whether divorce should be introduced or not. He remained non-committal when asked how he would have voted on the divorce bill in a survey of MPs published in the Sunday Times in February.

De Marco had already spoken of the need for a national discussion on divorce during a public forum which I had chaired in November 2006, long before divorce became a national issue. 

“A discussion on whether divorce should be introduced or not is inevitable.” On that occasion, he also insisted that “discussion should transcend ideological and partisan divisions” and should be based on a “serious study.”

He also expressed himself against using religious arguments for not introducing divorce.

“From a religious angle, we have to recognise that the church does not accept divorce. Yet the same church also accepts that one cannot impose a religious idea on others, as this would suppress freedom of expression.”

Tackling the argument from a social angle, De Marco conceded that by introducing divorce, the state could end up legitimising new forms of families by enabling divorcees who already have a family to remarry, have children and set up a new family.

“But this is already happening, as people are simply cohabiting.”

But De Marco warned that divorce could provide “an escape valve” which would make it easier for people to set up new families.

Gatt has the last word

In the parliamentary discussion, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi himself steered away from religious arguments, to the extent that he recognised that a time might come when divorce would have to be introduced, but he failed to provide a tangible reason why divorce should not be introduced, except for stating that statistics showed that the institution of the family was currently still strong.

This begs the question; if the Maltese family is so strong, why is the Prime Minister so scared of divorce being introduced?

And awkwardly, Gonzi refrained from having the last word on this issue by concluding the debate, leaving this task to the more hawkish Gatt.

The risk for the party is that as temperatures rise during the referendum campaign, the greater the danger of leading party exponents to reveal their true conservative instincts, as it were.

This could endear them with the party’s core confessional constituency, but could alienate them from a critical mass of voters irked by the PN’s dogmatic stance.

@antoin villi Joseph might know a thing or two about coffee mornings but he's not an expert on secret private dinners and secret meetings with criminals under bridges or some Valletta office to back stab his leader.
Jeffrey Vella
Although there was nothing wrong with the PN taking a stand against divorce,it definetely put some kind of pressure on it's MPs. And by taking a stand against divorce,any of the PN's MPs who go against party line seem like they are revolting against the party. The PN should have stayed away from the controversy just like the Labour Party did.
Every maltese person has the RIGHT to LIVE how she or he wants! I don't need any MP or anyone to tell me how I must live my life . In the Divorce Law we will vote for a YES in the referendum. even My old parents , will vote YES in the referendum Because start from ME, NOONE Can Ever Tell em what to do in my life! RESIST OR SERVE!
@Antoine Vella. Ara Gonzipn tieghek la jaf fuq il-coffee mornings u lanqas fuq it-tea parties. Taf x'jaf ? Serje shiha ta' U-turns u kif jidhaq bil-poplu inluz int meta talabna, inkluz int ukoll, naghmlu is-sagrificcji u kien qed jibla zieda ta' 6oo euro fis-sena. Okay sur Vella ?
Christopher Briffa
It says a lot about a party when the 'liberals' in your party are De Marco and Jean Pierre Farrugia. The PN was always a very conservative party, always staunchly against divorce and never shy of the their Christian identity. In the past they somehow managed to also incorporate a more moderate wing and come voting day, people with a more liberal outlook on life, myself included, felt comfortable voting for the PN. Since Gonzi took over the party leadership and the likes of Tonio Borg, Tonio Fenech and Jason Azzopardi were given more prominent roles in the party and in Government, the PN has become a reactionary and confessional party. The divorce issue has made the PN unpalatable to a large section of voters. Come voting day how can we forget what what Edwin Vassallo and Tonio Fenech said in parliament about the divorce issue, speeches more fitting to the Iranian parliament.
Observer, you must be really unhappy in Canada: every one of your posts here and elsewhere shows it. . All that beating up of prisoners when you were a policeman must have warped your mind.
Very good analysis. I don't remember the PN in the nineties being so reactionary as it is now. Maybe it was because confessionalism was seen as a given, and virtually unchallengeable. Now however the party is on overdrive, a closing of ranks signifying a vehement reaction similar to the one the church took during the Counter-Reformation. But it will not last long because this reactionary mood is the ante-chamber of delusion. And which is why politicians like De Marco, who hope for a political future, waffle and act non-committal. He has a political future to invest in. What politicians fail to understand, and not just in Malta but worldwide, is that people have grown tired of their hypocrisy. And they are not seeing the writing on the wall. In Malta they are just lucky that so many people lack the culture, the history, the depth to engage in critical thinking. And we have mostly the church to thank who has put us in all in a mental straight jacket.
Surfturtle, don't waste your time arguing with such an ass-h*** as Antoine Vella. Ass-h***? Yes, Sirree, and a friggin' stinkin' one at that!
so James, you will pinning your hopes on the PN moderates ahead of the next election? on the "aristocratic" De Marco and the "centre-left" Jean Pierre - How do you come up with these things?
Il Parit Nazzjonalista qed jipprova jikkonvinci in nies biex jivvutaw le imma uimbgghad jekk kumbinazzjoni tghaddi tal IVA hafna deputati nazzjonalisti mhux ha jirikonoxuwa fil parlament. Jekk ALLA jrid tghaddi tal IVA fir referendum, id-divorzju iholl iz-zwieg civili biss, izda min ikun izzewweg bil-knisja dan ma jista qatt jinhall, hlief Annulament!
Pauline Moran
Antoine...u siehbek Wenzu jaf hafna aktar hmerijiet, gideb u buzollotti mill bqija tal hrejjefisti taghkom. Spiccajtu siehbi...The Final Countdown.
Joseph Muscat knows more about coffee mornings than tea parties.