[WATCH] Mayors at 16: Alison Zerafa Civelli says it empowers youth

Alison Zerafa Civelli is parliamentary secretary responsible for local government. She sits down with MATTHEW FARRUGIA to discuss the proposal that would allow 16-year-olds to become mayors, the electoral system and the gender parity mechanism.

Government is proposing allowing 16-year-olds to become mayors in legal amendments tabled in parliament recently. 

The changes were an electoral pledge and appear to enjoy cross-party support. 

But Alison Zerafa Civelli, the parliamentary secretary piloting the law, is evasive when asked about legal discrepancies that would result from the changes. 

In an interview with MaltaToday, Zerafa Civelli is unable to address a hypothetical scenario where a 16-year-old mayor would be able to sign documents required for the local council to purchase a property, but the same teenager would be legally barred from purchasing a property for themselves, in their own name. 

Instead, she insists the draft Bill emancipates Maltese youth, while safeguarding the electorate’s freedom of choice. 

Another proposal in the PL manifesto was the introduction of the gender parity mechanism in local elections. However, no legal amendments have yet been put forward in this regard. Zerafa Civelli says the effects of the mechanism are still being studied after it was used for the first time in last year’s general election. 

“The analysis is ongoing,” she says. 

A former mayor herself, Zerafa Civelli disagrees with criticism expressed by several mayors from across the political divide that local councils have lost their autonomy. She says councils have been strengthened during their 30 years of existence. 

The following are excerpts from the interview. The full interview can be found on https://www.maltatoday.com.mt as well as our Facebook and Spotify pages. 

Presently, a 16-year-old can vote in a general election but can’t contest it. Are there any plans for this to be addressed? 

It was a Labour government that gave 16-year-olds the right to vote in general elections and other elections. Now we will see what the will of the people is and where that discussion will lead. I look forward to discussions as to whether 16-year-olds should also be able to contest general elections. However, these discussions are yet to start. 

So there are no concrete plans for there to be 16-year-old MPs? 

No, we’ll work step by step. Now we’re discussing this Bill to see that 16- and 17-year-olds can serve as mayors if they’re chosen so by the electorate. 

Let’s say I’m a 16-year-old mayor and I can sign paperwork to purchase property in the local council’s name, however I cannot purchase property for myself. Is this not a lack of consistency within the proposal? 

It’s good to understand how a local council works. The mayor receives the highest number of votes, and the other members work together with the mayor. Then there is the executive secretary and the administration who see that all that is agreed upon within the council is made into reality within the locality. 

So, when papers are going to be signed there’s always going to be the executive secretary working hand in hand with the mayor. 

Another PL proposal was to introduce the gender parity mechanism inlocal council elections. Why was this not introduced with the draft Bill allowing 16-year-olds to be mayors? 

The PL’s manifesto says that discussions are to be held regarding whether or not this mechanism can be applied to local council elections. We still need to discuss if this can happen and how this can happen. 

Don’t you think that the mechanism has left the electorate with a bad taste after last year’s general election? 

We still need to see the results of the mechanism despite the discussion that ensued after its use. I look forward to the discussion on this mechanism five, 10 years from now, after the people see what women bring to the table in parliament.  

The mechanism had problems of its own. We know that Sandra Gauci received more votes than another candidate (Davina Sammut Hili) who got elected through the mechanism. Don’t you think that there’s an anomaly here that needs to be addressed? 

I believe that there are points that need to be addressed. For example when we saw the PN force a female candidate not to contest the casual election and instead get into parliament through the mechanism so that another representative was elected. 

We need to address these anomalies because instead of helping women, we’re not doing them justice. However, the public’s reaction to the mechanism does not reflect the electorate’s response for women in parliament. I think that the electorate is happy that there are more women representing them. 

With regards to Sandra Gauci I think it’s a different issue. She got more votes than another candidate but she wasn’t elected, and ironically she’s a woman. Don’t you think that this should be addressed? 

I don’t see this episode as being related to the mechanism. I think it’s more about the electoral system and how the big parties are elected, so the number of representatives in parliament must reflect that majority of the chosen parties.  

So do you think that the electoral system should change to reflect the electorate’s wishes? 

I think that it already reflects their wishes. The number of members of parliament is a reflection of the wishes of the people.  

I disagree. The surveys show that a lot of people are dissatisfied by the current system. I think that these anomalies that favour the big parties are part of the problem. Don’t you think it’s time for change? 

The surveys are not general elections. 

But the last election had the highest abstention rate in years. I think that’s an indication too? 

But we’re talking about the seats in parliament, and the results of the general election mirrors parliament. If other parties received enough votes to be represented in parliament, that would have happened.