Muscat tests conservative PN MPs by calling vote on gay marriage Bill

Joseph Muscat says he is concerned at how PN critics of Bill have declared they will vote in favour of it: 'I want politicians to be honest with themselves'

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has demanded that MPs stand up to cast their votes individually in the final reading of the Marriage Equality Bill next week, in a move designed to test the resolve of the PN’s conservative MPs.

Every single MP voted in favour of the second reading of the Bill, that will introduce gay marriage, this evening, except for PN MP Edwin Vassallo who voted against.

It will now be debated at committee stage on Thursday afternoon and potentially on Friday, and the final reading – when the Bill will pass into law – will be held next Wednesday.

In his speech, Muscat said that he was “concerned” at how some PN MPs had criticised the Bill so heavily but then declared that they will be voting in favour of it regardless.

“This is confounding the electorate, and I would like politicians to be honest to themselves,” he said. “I want MPs to cast their votes indivudally at the third reading because this is such a fundamental issue that the people have a right to know where their MPs stand on it.”

Muscat said that Opposition MPs shouldn’t be scared to call themselves conservatives.

“The word ‘conservative’ isn’t an insult but a statement of fact, and many arguments posed by Opposition MPs during this debate were conservative ones, just as when the PN government’s draft cohabitation law had included a proviso for gay couples to be legally considered as brothers.”

Muscat questioned how some PN MPs who disagree with gay marriage had chosen to contest the election with the PN, even though it had included gay marriage in its manifesto

Indeed, he recounted how former Labour MP Adrian Vassallo had once told him that he would not contest under the PL ticket because he didn’t agree with civil unions on a point of principle.

“How can you contest with a party that is saying something that you disagree with in principle?” he asked.

Muscat hailed the Bill as one that is rooted in the values of humanity and equality, and in the Labour Part’s ideology that the state shouldn’t interfere in people’s private lives.

He warned that the Opposition’s proposal to retain the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ in certain articles of the law, while adding the word ‘spouse’ will lead to the classification between straight and gay married couples.

Moreover, he questioned why the Opposition hadn’t kicked up a storm when the government had included the term ‘spouse’ in recent laws such as the cohabitation law and the revised social security law.

He said that the pressure faced by the government on the terminology is similar to the pressure it had faced in 2014 when it had wanted gay couples in civil unions to be allowed to adopt children.

“When we legislated in favour of gay adoptions, the people were in majority against it,” he said. “Their opinions changed when they saw on TV a child with Downs’ Syndrome who had been rejected by five so-called normal couples but was finally adopted by a gay couple.”

Busuttil: ‘Catholic MPs must look beyond personal beliefs’

In what could turn out to be his last parliamentary speech as PN leader, outgoing leader Simon Busuttil urged practicing Catholic MPs to look beyond their personal beliefs when voting on the Bill.

“This is a difficult vote for practicing Catholics from both sides of the House,” he said. “However, MPs must weigh out their own personal opinions with their responsibilities as legislators to grant rights to everyone.

“Although the PN has been infuenced by the teachings of the Church, it is by no means the Church’s spokesperson and we don’t have to agree with the Church on everything.

“It is possible that one of my sons will one day tell me that he is gay. If that turns out to be the case, then I want to be able to tell him that he will be able to marry regardless.”

He described the PN’s decision to vote in favour of the Bill as a milestone in the party’s shift towards accepting civil rights.

He said that the PN has undergone a transformative journey with regards civil rights since he took over as leader back in 2013, back when the party was still smarting from the divorce referendum.

Busuttil admitted that he had wanted the PN to vote in favour of civil unions back in 2014, but that he had decided to abstain because the Bill came “too soon” and he wanted to keep the party united.

The PN then voted in favour of the gender identity bill in 2015, and when Muscat called for a debate on gay marriage last year, Busuttil instantly announced himself in favour of the proposal.

It was only at the end of the speech that Busuttil referred to the political controversy within the Bill – namely that it will replace terms like ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ from certain articles of the law with gender-neutral terms like ‘parent’ and ‘spouse’.

However, he insisted that the PN will not use this criticism as an excuse to vote against the Bill at its third reading, and that it will vote in favour of it even if nothing changes at committee stage.