Practical politics | Deborah Schembri

Coming from a PN background but pledging her political career to Labour, lawyer and former pro-divorce campaigner Deborah Schembri remains at peace with her choice

Before the 'Yes for Divorce' movement was set up in 2011, no household had ever heard of Deborah Schembri. Then suddenly, this family lawyer from St Paul's Bay was everywhere: on radio, television, on campus fighting tooth and nail alongside then Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, Labour MP Evarist Bartolo and AD chairperson Michael Briguglio for the introduction of divorce in Malta.

She immediately caught the eye of politicians, probably because of her ability to sound very convincing in her arguments and remain calm and composed while others flare up.

Despite coming from a staunch Nationalist family, Schembri chose to accept the Labour Party's offer to join the party. The PN, she says, never made that offer but in any case she wouldn't have accepted. "This is not the party I knew," Schembri keeps saying of the PN - despite having served as vice president of the St Paul's Bay Nationalist commitee, been a member of the PN General Council and also militated in student protests against Alfred Sant and Evarist Bartolo's university stipend reform in 1997.

Schembri attributes her loss of faith in the PN to various factors, but the cherry on the cake seems to be the way things unfolded during the divorce referendum.

"The way it unfolded, including how the Labour and Nationalist parties carried themselves and eventually voted in parliament, made me realise that I no longer felt as comfortable within the Nationalist Party as I once did," she says.

Schembri is pushed by the Labour Party as one of the young, fresh faces with a Nationalist background but who feels at home "in this new movement". It comes naturally to ask her whether there is anything in the PL that she doesn't like.

And just like her leader Joseph Muscat, Schembri's criticism turns towards "certain elements of Labour's past".

"There was much good carried out by previous Labour administrations - such as the introduction of civil rights and the welfare state - but at the same time there were issues in the 80s which one cannot applaud. However," she states, "I believe that the PL has learnt its lesson, has moved forward and is now a wholesome party. "Personally, I think many of these changes were thanks to Joseph Muscat who has done the party a world of good."

She argues that her criticism towards the 80s is not necessarily directed towards the politicians involved in politics back then but to the whole political scenario of the time. "The political scenario was very much different to what it is today, and this applies to both parties. Every era seems to have its own way of doing politics, and I didn't like it then. But I am a firm believer that people change, learn and progress and I think that the 80s have taught many people a lesson."

One of the lessons that have seemingly been learnt is that politicians should be accountable for their actions and transparent in their ways. The PL has lately placed much onus on good governance to the extent that Muscat publicly said - prompted by hydrologist Marco Cremona - that he would resign if his proposed energy plan is not set up and functioning two years into a Labour legislature.

As a prospective MP, would she see that Muscat honours this commitment if push comes to shove? Out comes the reply, typical of the practical person she is: "I think that whoever makes such a commitment has to be pretty sure that the deadline is going to be reached." 

Logically, she argues: "If elected, which prime minister would risk jeopardising his party's and his own position after having spent so much years in Opposition if this wasn't feasible?

"I spoke to both Muscat and Konrad Mizzi [main sponsor of PL's energy plan] and I was told that this was doable... I was reassured that nobody would have to resign," she adds with a half smile.

Yet, while the PL continues to insist on more transparency, it has decided to do away with the tendering process for the company that would be adjudicated the contract to supply 40% of the country's energy, insisting that it would stick to expressions of interest and other EU regulations to ensure transparency.

In light of the oil corruption scandal that erupted, isn't a Labour government now even more obliged to opt for a tender?

For Schembri, the issue lies elsewhere: "Every process is liable to fall under corrupt practices. And that is why it is crucial to have an anti-corruption policy."

She argues that there are different methods that could be adopted for any given project. "The crux of it all is to follow EU standards and be transparent. We are not going to hide any reports and information from the public. And this is the policy which we are pushing forward in every aspect."

She turns towards comments made by Finance Minister Tonio Fenech who said it was impossible for a government to bring forth every report carried out.

"Why not? Government needs to be transparent and less bureaucratic. For some reason, in Malta projects are prolonged unnecessarily. One has to learn how to be practical and get things done," she argues.

When quizzed over whether she would say that a tender should be issued, Schembri replied that she "would toe the party line" over the decision which the PL would deem fit, since she believes "in the democratic process even at party level".

Speaking about toeing the party line... Schembri can be described as liberal - by Maltese standards - on several issues. By way of example, while the PL would be legislating civil unions, she even agrees with same sex marriage. Would she therefore push to achieve such legislation?

"At this stage, the PL is saying that if elected, there is a commitment to legislate civil unions... a legislation that would be carried out hand in hand with the LGBT community. And better than this, we can't go.

"It's not just a matter of giving people what they want but learning what the needs of the people benefitting from this legislation are and catering for them accordingly."

Schembri insists that she "always pushes" for civil rights in their totality and she would have no problem in pushing for same sex marriage when the right time comes.

"But in a country were these civil rights are still coming in, sometimes it would be self-destructive to try and hit the highest target straight away. Everything needs to take its time."

She believes that at this stage, Maltese society is ready for civil unions. "I haven't been to one single household that spoke against civil unions. However, concerns do arise from the electorate over whether gay couples should be allowed to adopt."

For her, adoption depends on what would be the best interest of the child. As a matter of fact, there are adopted children, in Malta, who are raised by gay couples and this is because a single person, irrespective of one's sexual orientation, is eligible to adopt and there is nothing stopping that person from later entering into a same-sex relationship.

"There are studies which show that children living with gay couples are not worse off than those living with heterosexual couples. What I would say is that there needs to be a legal framework that would benefit the child."

Schembri goes on to argue that many think of adoption by same sex couples in relation to adoption by heterosexual couples. 

"But if you are an adopted child, the other option is the institution. So, the questions to be asked are where these children would be? How would their lives be if they were not adopted?"

Schembri argues that the most important thing is that every adoption is scrutinized, irrespective of whether the adopting parents are homosexual or heterosexual, and the decision is taken in the best interest of the child.

A law regulating in-vitro fertilisation had been in the pipeline for years before it was approved by the House of Representatives last year. The IVF law, as is more commonly known, introduces the science of egg freezing, as opposed to embryo freezing, and excludes same-sex couples or singles. The Malta Gay Rights Movement has claimed that the Embryo Protection Act was discriminatory against gay parents and "inherently homophobic in nature".

Does a Labour government intend to amend the law?

"The PL has already given its views on IVF and I believe that the law has progressed from what was originally proposed. But this is not to say that there would be no amendments," she says.

She argues that this was a good framework to start with. "Over two decades had passed without such a law being enacted despite it being practiced in Malta. The urgent need was to regulate abuse.

"I cannot say at this stage whether there will be further amendments, but the fact that gay couples would be recognised as legitimate family units under a Labour government, due to their being recognised as civil partners, makes it possible." However Schembri reiterates her call to take everything in steps.

More than anything, Schembri believes in research - to research everything before anything is legislated upon.

"In Malta, we are practically devoid of any research-based policies and pieces of legislation and I do have a keen interest in seeing that research becomes part and parcel of every proposed legislation, especially in family matters. There is a tendency to go on 'hunches', however, what one believes to be the case could in actual fact be completely off mark and evidence-based research would easily confirm this."

Being a single parent with full-time employment - in law and now politics - Schembri can share - probably even more than the majority of her political colleagues - what it means for a parent to find support if he or she want to progress with their career.

But the issue doesn't lie in simply providing parents with childcare centres. The crux also lies in better working conditions and enhancing the concept of flexible work practices. While the PN have pledged vouchers for both fulltime and part-time parents, the PL's pledge is to provide free childcare centres for parents who work full time alongside an array of other incentives. Why didn't the PL go for a more universal approach?

"We have said this is a scheme that would eventually be extended. Things have to be done in stages because you cannot simply offer a free place for everyone without making sure that it is feasible.

"The longer hours a parent has outside the home, the more the need for childcare, thus making it obvious to start with fulltime parents.

"It's useless to promise everything to everyone... promising a free for all but when push comes to shove you would see there isn't the right infrastructure is a bad idea".

But another important incentive that must be tackled is that of better working conditions. Although the private sector does provide good working conditions, yet it is more stringent than the public sector when it comes to flexible working practices according to the nature of the job.

Schembri explains that there is "no magic formula" to increase female participation to the workforce but it's all about a chain of incentives which provide the solid platform allowing women to make this leap.

"And this what I love about Labour's proposals. Each proposal combines with the other and can be seen as a whole package. But to make it a responsible proposal, we cannot promise the moon.

"It's easy to promise: we have just come out of a legislature during which government had promised so many things but which it didn't honour. People are now apprehensive of what they are promised and appreciate genuine proposals."

Irrespective of whether a Labour or Nationalist government is elected, the justice sector will be a headache for any party in government, especially after the two recent cases that shook the judiciary.

"The legal profession in general, and not just the judiciary, has been taken aback by problems in the judiciary. And when one of the most important pillars of society is shaken, this reflects on society," Schembri says, adding that the reforms were not only important but also necessary.

As a lawyer, Schembri concedes that the Commission for the Administration of Justice must be awarded more power. "It's useless being in a position to only state what is wrong but can do nothing about it."

She also believes that members of the judiciary should be appointed through a two-tier method: an appointment by the Cabinet, or an appointed authority, chosen from among those who are eligible to become magistrates or judges after having set for the appropriate exams.

"This would take the best aspects out of two different schools of thought in order to assure more accountability and better checks and balances." The proposals are doable and it would be a better way of finding judges who won't let us down.

"But having said that, most of the judiciary are fine men and women who do their jobs under difficult circumstances and we must appreciate their role."

Politics, law, poetry, films and art are not Schembri's only interests. Bioethics, a relatively new field for Malta, is what Schembri considers could make a lot of difference in people's lives but is not being given enough importance. She holds that we need to start having public discussions about bioethical issues such as organ donation, stem cell research, surrogacy, clinical trials, mental health, patients' rights and so forth.

"The public has to be educated and stakeholders consulted before any law is enacted. Even more, there must be a clear political will to give this subject matter its due importance."

One issue that has so far not been touched by the PL is immigration, although admittedly there are still four weeks to go. So... what's Labour position on immigration?

"I will not speak about an immigration policy simply because the PL hasn't come to that yet... but there are still four weeks to go and we are touching every aspect on governance and immigration is part of governance," she says.

But, her personal view is that "the world belongs to everyone - we are all citizens of the world not just of our country and we must therefore all help one another when we are in need". She argues that a policy helping people in need is "to be applauded", but when "abuse occurs and people start entering our shores illegally, stricter policies must be enacted in order to protect the livelihood of our people".

Her argument is that there must be a balance between "compassion" and "sustainability".

"We need to be compassionate but at the same time understand that the dynamics of a small country are very particular."

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