Muscat is ‘flattening’ detractors | Simon Busuttil

In one of his most difficult weeks as party leader, Simon Busuttil stands by the PN’s decision to abstain in the civil unions vote, insisting that the party made the right choice

Simon Busuttil (Photo: Ray Attard/MediaToday)
Simon Busuttil (Photo: Ray Attard/MediaToday)

With the country gearing up for the annual Easter festivities, the news headlines and social media sites were dominated by talk on the Opposition’s decision to abstain on the eagerly awaited civil unions vote.

In the vote’s aftermath, Busuttil and the PN were shred to pieces by the independent media and a number of analysts, including PN sympathisers. Others, including party leader Simon Busuttil, defended the decision and insisted that the Opposition was standing its ground.

On Friday afternoon, the streets surrounding the PN headquarters were engulfed in an eerie silence and given that the interview took place on Good Friday, this came as no surprise.

Yet, once we made our way to his office, things returned to normal, with Busuttil defending his party’s decision to abstain with zeal, while never straying away from his calm demeanour.

Among the most stinging criticism levelled at him, the PN leader was accused of lacking leadership and of allowing the conservative element in the party to prevent it from advancing in a clear political direction.

I ask what brought the PN’s parliamentary group to decide to collectively abstain. He insists that that the two decisive factors were the government’s insistence on lumping adoption of children by same-sex couples and civil unions together and secondly, party unity.

“Two unrelated things were deliberately lumped together for political reasons,” Busuttil says, explaining that while the PN is in favour of regularising same-sex relationships, it has reservations on allowing gay couples from adopting children because “society is not yet prepared and it could have implications on children”.

He insists that government could have easily decided to separate the two matters, which would have meant that parliament would have unanimously approved the civil unions bill while government would have had the numbers to approve a separate bill on adoptions.

“We found ourselves in a situation in which we had to express ourselves on two separate matters in one singular vote. We are in favour of one thing and at this stage against the other, so we couldn’t vote, neither for nor against. We repeatedly asked government to separate the two matters and we even tabled proposals to have the two things separated. However, evidently the government wanted the opposition to vote against but we did not fall into the trap, because we are in favour of civil unions.”

“But rather than seeking unity, this government is more intent on dividing parliament, and I would add – the country itself.”

The government’s attitude, the PN leader adds, has resulted in “greater polarisation”.

Busuttil also drives the point home that the decision to abstain was unanimous and despite having conservative and liberal elements within the parliamentary group with manifestly divergent views, all 30 MPs agreed they would find a compromise, and ultimately abstain.

“Even if we have persons with different opinions within the group, everybody, collectively and unanimously, agreed on abstaining.”

However, I note that showing a united front surely played a part in the Opposition’s decision.

“That was our second consideration. The group made its utmost to remain united despite it being a very sensitive issue,” he says, adding that the PN brings together people with different ideas.

“I am proud that party remained united and this has bothered Labour so much that its journalists are hounding down our MPs asking them how they would have voted were they granted a free vote.”

He dismisses this as an attempt to undermine the PN’s unity, insisting that, “MPs had a vote and they used it by abstaining”.

Moreover, he sums it all up by explaining that the ‘propaganda driven’ Labour government piloted the bill to either bring the PN to vote against or appear divided, “but government failed”.

He acknowledges that the PN, a party which over the years has undergone various transformations unlike any other party in Malta, is a “coalition” of conservatives and liberals.

This coalition, Busuttil argues, must remain united if the PN stands any chance in returning to power again.

“Joseph Muscat is fixated with dividing the two elements,” the PN leader says, however he has no doubt that the party will remain strong because “we believe that we can govern the country better”.

Over the past few days, Busuttil’s capability of rallying his party troops was under the spotlight, and this prompts me to ask where he stands on the issue. What was Busuttil’s initial position before the party agreed to abstain?

“What’s the utility in telling you what would have been? There are no ifs and buts – it was a unanimous decision that went beyond everybody’s personal view. If I were to tell you what I would have voted if we agreed on a free vote I would unravel the group’s position and the unity which we all worked very hard for. What’s the point? My duty as party leader is to preserve unity.” 

The message of unity is clear. However, I point out that factions remain, with the strong conservative wing being of particular note…

“There’s more to life than just white and black. In between there are further colours and shades.  Surely, the conservative current did not have the upper hand, because the party would have voted against. The conservative current also accepted and agreed to abstain,” he insists.

Busuttil notes that on Monday, parliament also voted on the Opposition’s motion to amend the Constitution in order to make any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation unlawful, a proposal which he said drew universal support, including both conservatives and liberals within the party.

Although Busuttil used this to underline the party’s unity and stronger commitment with regards to civil rights, he reminds me… in what appears to be a contradiction within the PN’s message.

If the country’s supreme law now makes it clear that citizens cannot be discriminated against over their sexual orientation, then this certainly applies to anyone hoping to adopt children, regardless of the civil unions bill.

“There is no contradiction. Adopting or having children is not a right, irrespective of their sexual orientation.”

But they do have a right to apply, I rebut.

“No, the question is whether they have a right to become a parent and whether they have a right to adopt. This right does not exist. There is a difference between applying and adopting. When it comes to children, the right belongs exclusively to them.”

The Opposition leader adds that the PN looked into this before proposing the Constitutional amendment, confirming that it did not create any conflict at all.

Under no circumstances should adoption of children by gay couples be illegal, Busuttil says, but he insists that society is not ready and the country should have dealt with the issue at a later stage, when schools – and the rest of society – would be better prepared.

Busuttil acknowledges that a number of gay couples have adopted, as a single person, or care for their own children, but further studies should be undertaken.

One notable difference from the 2011 divorce referendum campaign, I note, is the deafening silence of the church and civil society and Busuttil concurs. 

“I am very worried by the fact that society on a whole, including those who backed or opposed the bill, remained silent, too silent. I attribute this to Labour’s victory last year, and given the large majority it obtained everybody believes that Joseph Muscat has a licence to do as he pleases. But that’s far from true; democracy does not function in that way. It is wrong to allow government bully society – including the Church – into silence over such matters.”

He points out that the Church did not say much on the matter, despite its opposition to the law.

“There’s something missing in our democracy. Something is undermining democracy, and I attribute this to government’s attitude and its way of doing politics, especially the Prime Minister, who neutralises whoever does not agree with him.”

The 45-year-old lawyer adds that there’s nothing new in Muscat “flattening” all forms of opposition, insisting that part of the crowd who booed Busuttil and his fellow MPs as they made their way out from parliament after Monday’s vote was “orchestrated” by Labour.

While pointing out that a number of persons who descended to St George’s Square were genuinely celebrating the introduction of civil unions, Busuttil says that others were part of Labour’s rent-a-mob.

“In which democratic country do MPs get insulted in such a way for simply carrying out their duties?” he asks.

Drawing an example from this week’s events, Busuttil underlines the PN’s unity.

But did this come at a cost, I ask, especially with regards to liberal-minded voters who might feel alienated by the PN’s decision?

He said the party is capable of overcoming this because whatever stand a political party takes, “Sometimes you lose and sometimes you earn support”.

Many also expressed doubt over whether abstaining was an easy way out for the PN, though Busuttil disagrees with this analysis.

“We did take a stand. It was an explained abstention,” he says, adding that he was proud of the unity shown throughout “a very difficult week”.

In justifying the Opposition’s decision to abstain, Busuttil has cited a survey commissioned by the church which showed that 80% of are against child adoptions by same-sex couples. Isn’t this a populist approach?

“We are concerned about allowing same sex couples to adopt children not because they are not capable of being good parents. If anything, in some instances they could even end up making better parents than heterosexual couples. However, I am concerned because it’s not just that 80% of the population isn’t prepared for this – they reject the notion of having gay couples adopt children outright. We cited the 80% in this context, reflecting how ill-prepared society is. It’s not a question of being populist because as a matter of fact, judging from the reaction of all newspapers, including your own, we did not take a stand to please the media. Our only concern is the children’s well-being.”

He insists that the PN’s decision was “well-though out” and “in our circumstances, was the best one we could take”.

But on what grounds did he arrive at the conclusion that society is not prepared for gay adoption?

“It is clear. 80% of the people are against adoptions by same-sex couples, so how ready is society if 80% are against? We told government, let’s first introduce civil unions and allow some time for this social change to sink in. We could have then carried out studies, not on whether parents are capable of adopting children, but to identify whether society is ready. I at least hope that government introduces measures to prepare society for this new reality before its too late.”

Turning to the bigger picture, I point out that last week’s MaltaToday survey showed that despite the gap between the two big parties having shrunk, no significant shift from Labour to the PN was registered. Is he concerned?

“Do you expect a party which only last year lost by 36,000 votes to regain 36,000 votes in a year? What I do know is that we have rebuilt the party from scratch, financially, structurally and also in creating policies. We are working hard to reach out to the people, to make it a people’s party once again. In time, if we work hard enough and centre everything around honesty, the truth and seriousness, we’ll regain the people’s trust.”

Busuttil adds that his isn’t a one-year project, and says that his target for the May 2014 elections is to elect three seats to the European parliament for the very first time. If the gap between the two parties shrinks, the PN would make a step forward.

I turn to the imminent spring hunting referendum, which if approved by the electoral commission and the law courts should be held in March 2015.

What stand will the PN take?

“By proposing a referendum, the people have taken the power from the politicians and I believe that politicians should step aside and let the people express themselves. The PN’s stand on the issue has matured along the years. The PN in government had a very clear direction, a short and controlled season, so much so that the party lost the hunters’ backing while Labour promised a free-for-all.”

Busuttil adds that it would have been ambiguous for the PN to participate in the spring hunting referendum campaign, however if and when the referendum takes place, the party will take a stand.

“When the referendum becomes official the party will discuss the issue internally and decide whether we should take a stand. What one must understand is that this is not a choice between the PN’s balanced spring hunting season and Labour’s free for all, but it’s a choice between Labour’s hunting and no hunting at all,” he said, stressing that “ultimately the people will decide and the parties should listen to what the people have to say”.

As time was running out, I ask the PN leader what's his vision for the party in the coming years.

Busuttil explains that he has a five year-plan, in which he would like to see the party strengthen and renew itself while becoming an “effective Opposition” during the first half of the legislature.

“In the remaining two-and-a-half years I want the party to transform itself from an effective opposition into an alternative government with clear policies.” 

This, Busuttil says, will allow the PN to emerge victorious in the 2018 election.