Public policy professor questions feasibility of 'optional' full-time MP proposal in gender equality reform

Speaking during a panel discussion on gender mainstreaming, Professor Godfrey Pirotta acknowledged the need for full-time MPs but said that this should be implemented across the board

Godfrey Pirotta said that the time has come for all members of parliament to shift to full-time role
Godfrey Pirotta said that the time has come for all members of parliament to shift to full-time role

Allowing parliamentarians the choice of becoming a full-time representative will do little to help improving gender equality in the House, according to Godfrey Pirotta, a historian and professor in public policy at the University of Malta.

Pirotta was speaking during a panel discussion during a business breakfast on gender mainstreaming, where he said that allowing some MPs to shift to a full-time role would not address many of the obstacles standing in the way of more equal representation in parliament.

“I don’t think this will mean much for female participation because you still haven’t worked out other issues like increasing family-friendly measures,” Pirotta said.

He added that whereas in the past the government, and parliament, might have had a relatively short agenda that could be dealt with by a part-time parliament, the reality has now changed.

Back in March, the government launched a strategy for increasing gender equality in parliament, consisting of four main pillars, including a reform of the country’s electoral system as well as the mainstreaming of gender-related issues and opening up the possibility for backbenchers to become full-time MPs.

“Most MPs are part-time because of a profession or career. Its time that people must choose what they want to concentrate on,” he said.

Pirotta agreed that the current imbalance between the two sexes needed to be addressed, insisting that a change in culture was essential in this regard.

Men, he said, especially in the past, grew up in an environment where it was expected of them to take up decision-making roles.

We never emphasise the need for quality men

In addition to Pirotta, the panel also included PN Forum Equal Opportunities president Graziella Attard Previ, PL equal opportunities officer Paula Cauchi, Fiona Buckley from the Department of Government at the University of Cork and Francesca Fenech Conti, a co-founder of the Women for Women Facebook group.

Asked what was stopping more women from entering politics, Cauchi pointed out that when discussing women in politics, an emphasis is often made on the need to find quality women. However, this didn’t appear to be an issue with men.

Paula Cauchi questioned why the need for quality candidates often comes up when discussing women in politics but never when discussing men
Paula Cauchi questioned why the need for quality candidates often comes up when discussing women in politics but never when discussing men

“Even the rhetoric we use adds another test that women need to pass before being given an opportunity,” Cauchi said. “Do we ever ask whether we can find enough quality men.”

Cauchi stressed that changing the status quo was not an easy task since men couldn’t be expected to let go of power voluntarily.

“You can’t expect men to wake up in the morning and think that they should take a step back to give women a chance.”

She said it was essential for women to be given enough space for equality to become normalised within the country’s political system.

This was also emphasised by Attard Previ, who stressed that without addressing the barriers women face when entering politics, parties could not hope to attract more candidates.

In this regard, she said gender mainstreaming also needed to be undertaken within political parties, adding that rather than emphasising women’s needs, it was essential to prepare all candidates equally and fairly. 

Nationalist MP Claudette Buttigieg speaking from the audience pointed out that in some instances professionals might lose their warrant if they did not continue to practice for the length of time they were in politics.

Buttigieg emphasised the importance of having role models that other women could look up to. As an MP who runs on two different districts, she said that it was clear that it was easier for a woman to get elected on a district that has always elected a female.

She agreed with Cauchi that the need for quality candidates often came up when discussing women and not men, arguing that there were many male MPs in the house weren’t exactly of high quality. “Just look at the MPs that ask parliamentary questions, or  which MPs contribute to debates.”

Ireland’s story shows change is possible

Buckely pointed out the many similarities between Malta and Ireland, include the two countries’ electoral systems.

She said that Ireland’s story had shown that change is possible if there is the will for it and if a broad network of stakeholders, spanning government and civil society, can work together towards a common goal.

Buckely commended the proposed strategy, which she said included a strong recognition of the issues surrounding gender and the comprehensive nature of the document.

Ireland had also seen the intervention of the state, which she said had brought about a 90% increase in female candidates and a 40% increase in elected women. “The message is that these measures work,” she said.

Moreover, she said the gender balancing mechanism had also started a conversation within society about the quality of the candidates being put forward by political parties.

“Evidence shows that when you bring more women into parliament, the quality of the politics increases,” she said, noting that women were often held to higher standards than their male counterparts.

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