[ANALYSIS] Is gay marriage Simon Busuttil’s last stand?

Simon Busuttil is determined to seal his legacy by stamping his feet to ensure PN support for gay marriage.  But will the party be tempted to retrench itself on conservative ground in its elusive search for identity after 2 consecutive defeats?

The Marriage Equality Bill will legalise gay marriage
The Marriage Equality Bill will legalise gay marriage

In a short interview on Sunday last week Simon Busuttil felt the need to intervene in the gay marriage debate by drawing the lines and announcing that his party will be voting in favour of the bill, while presenting its own amendments to improve it.

Busuttil said same-sex marriage already existed “in substance” and this was why the PN would support the proposed legal changes when it was debated in the House. 

Busuttil noted that the PN had already included the proposal in its electoral manifesto. The party, he said, would support the law at all stages in parliament. Busuttil’s declaration came in the wake of reports that a small group of PN MPs are insisting on a free vote.

Busuttil’s stance has irked exponents in the party who were clamouring for a free vote.

They also saw Busuttil’s intervention as an attempt to condition the future leadership of the party after Busuttil’s announced resignation. Some saw this as an attempt by Busuttil to use his power of incumbency and that it should be up to the future leader to set the agenda. Yet Busuttil still retains the role of opposition leader and the timing of the bill was set by the government not the opposition. Moreover, full marriage equality was a principle enshrined in the manifesto of the national force – a platform under which all PN and PD candidates accepted to contest last month’s election.

From abstention to supporting gay marriage

Simon Busuttil is determined to seal his legacy by stamping his feet to ensure PN support for gay marriage. But will the party be tempted to retrench itself on conservative ground in its elusive search for identity after two consecutive defeats?
Simon Busuttil is determined to seal his legacy by stamping his feet to ensure PN support for gay marriage. But will the party be tempted to retrench itself on conservative ground in its elusive search for identity after two consecutive defeats?

Busuttil may well be keen on stopping a conservative retrenchment, which would turn back the clock and undo all the progress made in the past three years after Busuttil realised the magnitude of his mistake to abstain on the civil unions bill in order to appease conservative factions in his party. 

For back then the party resolved its factional infighting over accepting gay adoptions, by resorting to an abstention which provoked the anger of the local LGBTI community on a historic day of celebration which cemented the unofficial alliance of the gay lobby with Labour. This backfired badly on the PN, re exhuming the party’s conservative brand, which was so evident during the divorce referendum.

It was only after that fiasco that Busuttil chose to impose his will on his party. When Muscat first sounded his intention of introducing gay marriage amidst the Panama scandal, Busuttil was quick to endorse the proposal. In this sense, although Busuttil is still determined to resign, he is keen to stop conservatives in his party from turning the clock back.

One drawback of Busuttil’s top-down approach is that it ignores the reality that the PN includes both liberals and conservatives. Some argue that some conservatives did not vote in the election because of the party’s liberal turn under Busuttil. Yet one may well argue that the cost of conservative retrenchment far outweighs any losses among conservatives. The party still suffers the damage done to the party’s brand by its divorce and civil unions fiascos.

Yet the issue of the party’s identity has never been resolved through a comprehensive debate in the party, which resolved the split between conservatives and liberals in the party. The risk of having such a debate is one of paralysis. One potential solution is the realisation that there is a diversity of views and the party is essentially a coalition of factions with different views, which converge on governance issues. In this sense Christian democrats, social democrats and liberals in the PN may converge without sacrificing their views on ethical issues. Yet it is more than clear that the party can’t afford to be cornered by Muscat whenever socially liberal issues crop up. For it is becoming clear that Muscat's intention is that of using socially liberal issues to creates rifts in the PN.  This explains why Muscat is adamant on refusing any compromise on the wording of the law, to further split the opposition, while retaining an edge among liberal voters.

In Merkel’s footsteps?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Moreover the debate in the PN coincides with similar debates in centrist and socially conservative parties across Europe. 

Only this week Angela Merkel has hinted at a change of heart over gay marriage within the CDU – which has so far opposed full marriage equality – giving her MPs freedom of conscience on this issue and thus clearing a stumbling block for a coalition with the greens and the liberals. This also repudiates claims by Tonio Fenech that being in favour of gay marriage defies the Christian democratic tradition, which in Europe is embodied by Merkel’s party.

Under David Cameron the UK Tories, who unlike Merkel, are not members of the European People’s Party, went as far as introducing gay marriage while in governing in coalition with the liberal democrats. Still one has to appreciate that compared to most parties represented in the European People’s Party, the PN’s stance on gay marriage is one of the most progressive. Ultimately just as discrimination based on ethnicity has been eradicated from mainstream political opinion, mainstream centre right parties may also evolve to accept full equality with regard to orientation.

Forced unity or free vote?

Clyde Puli
Clyde Puli

One major issue facing the party is whether it should keep seeking a united stance on these issues or whether to allow freedom of conscience. Both paths are full of land mines. For if the party chooses to grant freedom of conscience to its MPs, it risks giving free reign to the most conservative elements to go on record with regressive views. 

On the other hand, seeking a united stance through a balancing act, which sees the party seeking amendments to tone down the law while ultimately supporting the bill, the party risks sowing more confusion, irking conservatives by supporting the law and irking liberals by resorting to a discourse which irks liberals.

In fact the gay marriage issue has solicited three different responses from the party: Tonio Fenech’s stance against the bill and the concept of marriage equality, Clyde Puli’s and David Agius’s legalistic stance against gender-neutral definitions in the bill and unequivocal support for the bill from Mario de Marco and the two Democratic Party MPs.

Tonio Fenech
Tonio Fenech

On this issue as was the case with drug laws, the PD’s stance flies in the face of an attempt to depict the party as a conservative one, in what could be an indication that the only red line for the party’s junior partner revolves around reproductive rights and life issues. But the party has also indicated its support for surrogacy to ensure that gay people have a right to use IVF to have children of their own, something which conservative PN MPs oppose.

In his bid to secure full support for the bill, Busuttil has had to concede to his MPs the right to present amendments. In so doing he has so far prevented a damaging mutiny of MPs who are opposed in principle to gay marriage. Still some MPs seem to have used this opportunity to underline a more socially conservative orientation and thus play the flag of retrenchment. Clyde Puli is the most sophisticated representative of this strategy, which does not openly defy the granting of rights but seeks to appeal to popular common sense in suggesting that the use of gender-neutral terms like spouses is a threat to the use of words like mum and dad in everyday parlance.

“The law will now give some the right to have their same-sex marriage recognised while at the same time, taking away the right for someone to be called a husband or a wife, or a father or a mother,” Puli said in parliament. He argued that while striving for equality was positive, the bill introduced a “perverse” way of recognising equality.

The law and everyday parlance

David Agius
David Agius

Yet the latter strategy has its pitfalls. For it fails to distinguish between terms used in laws and everyday parlance. David Agius went as far as suggesting that the new law may be invoked by lobbies to ban the celebration of mother’s day. But the insertion of gender-neutral terms like spouse does not change in any way the use of terms like husband and wife. Moreover such an exercise may look like legalistic bickering, which simply creates banter but does not in any way impact on the rights granted by the law.  It also indicates a lack of intellectual depth which is out of tune with the greater understanding of gender fluidity which makes it impossible to pigeon hole identities in binary terms. Moreover it may also be a question of emphasis. 

For while presenting a token amendment to appease the conscience of conservatives is something one may expect from a party which includes different shades of opinion, it is clear that this has given conservatives MPs the opportunity to emphasise this aspect rather than their support for a revolutionary bill which stands as a monument for Labour’s progressive agenda on civil liberties, which has seen Malta transformed from a laggard to a trend setter. The PN’s choice is between being perceived as a spoiler or to take ownership of this national achievement, especially in view of its pre-election acceptance of gay marriage. 

  • A question of emphasis

Nationalist MPs Jason Azzopardi and Karl Gouder interviewed on party’s stance on marriage equality bill:

Jason Azzopardi

Jason Azzopardi
Jason Azzopardi

“We are all for equality but not for uniformity” – The Nationalist Party shadow minister for Justice insists that he supports same sex marriage, recognising that this formed part of the party’s electoral programme and because the reality has already been recognised in the civil unions bill.

But he is strongly opposed to the substitution of references to husband, wife, mother and father with gender-neutral terms such as spouses. Asked whether the emphasis on linguistic detail risks obscuring the party’s support for the principle, Azzopardi reiterated his stance that the law as it is includes “aberrations.”  

“A liberal government does not impose. What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. In the same way that the government should not impose a particular lifestyle on the rest of society, it should not impose uniformity on all. If the government was truly liberal it would have kept references to mothers, fathers, husbands and wives alongside terms like spouses.”

Asked whether Nationalist MPs were exaggerating when they suggested that the law is a threat to the use of terms like mother and father in everyday life, Azzopardi insisted that “the law sends a clear message to society from parliament” and therefore has a direct bearing on the use of these terms in public administration. He also insists that laws introducing same sex marriage in New York and Ireland, and laws presented in Australia all keep the references to husband and wife along gender neutral terms.

Jason Azzopardi also expressed his concern that the phrase “born to sex partners” could pave the way to practices such as gamete donation and surrogacy to which he is opposed.

Despite his reservations Azzopardi confirmed that he will vote for the law in its second reading “because he agrees with it in principle” but will be seeking amendments at committee stage before the final vote on the third reading.

Karl Gouder

Karl Gouder
Karl Gouder

Nationalist MP Karl Gouder insists that he is supporting the bill with “no qualms” and with conviction.

“This is fundamentally a matter of ensuring that nobody stays behind. It was the next logical thing to do after civil union.”  

While emphasising his support for the new law he appealed for compromise when it comes to the inclusion of words like father, mother, wife and husband.  

“We can easily solve this without undermining the principle and objective of the law.  Good sense should prevail. Why should we bicker on small things, which can be solved by accepting the opposition’s amendments? Ultimately the aim is equality and as long as we agree on that we can find a compromise.”

Asked whether he is concerned that some PN MPs are more concerned with linguistic detail than the main objectives of the law, Gouder replied, “We are not robots… God forbid that we agree on everything.”

Gouder welcomed the fact that instead of the usual Yes or No the debate on the new bill is more nuanced.

But Gouder also insisted “all Nationalist MPs have agreed to stick to the whip and vote for the bill at all stages.”

Asked how the current debate on gay marriage reflects the PN’s identity, Gouder insists that throughout its history the PN was a party which stood for “openness.”

“The PN always represented openness. This was the case during the EU referendum. Unfortunately we were derailed from this path by our stance on the divorce referendum and the abstention on civil unions.  Both were mistakes. We have not only learned from these mistakes but we are acting on it by supporting this bill.”

Gouder also insisted that the party’s stance in favour of gay marriage is one based on “conviction” not convenience.

But Gouder also thinks that being more open and liberal would help in making the party electable again.

“We always won when we were open. We need to remain on track by opening up further. This does not mean that we should not be open by conviction.”

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