Divorce conscience gymnastics
In his intervention in Parliament on Thursday, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi was quoted as saying that several MPs were at the horns of a dilemma in their vote on divorce with conscience and the respect for a democratic decision being part of an extremely delicate balancing act. He said the pressure being made on MPs to vote Yes was deplorable and added he was extremely unhappy with such pressure.
What blatant cheek! So we have been clamouring for a decision on divorce to be taken by our parliamentarians for 22 years. When finally Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando took up Alternattiva Demokratika’s invitation to present the Bill in Parliament, what is Dr Gonzi and Joseph Muscat’s reaction? Simple: since Dr Gonzi had three MPs in favour of divorce (Dr Pullicino Orlando, Jesmond Mugliett and Karl Gouder) and Dr Muscat has at least six openly against (Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, Adrian Vassallo, Carmelo Abela, Justyne Caruana, Joe Debono Grech and Silvio Parnis) the two did not have the courage to submit the Bill to a parliamentary vote, as happens in any democratic Parliament.
So, together, Dr Gonzi and Dr Muscat decide to do a Pontius Pilate and shove the responsibility of such a sensitive decision onto the people. You decide, they said, without telling us they were making us decide because they were shirking their responsibility in Parliament. And, last Saturday, we, the people, decided, and in a very clear way too. Despite Tonio Fenech’s mystic apparitions and Gozo Bishop Mario Grech’s threats of fire and brimstone, the Maltese people decided, clearly and squarely, that they wanted a divorce law to be adopted by Parliament ASAP.
The issue is clear with no ifs and no buts. However, after shoving the responsibility onto the people, a good number of MPs are now trying to bypass the people’s decision. This is totally unacceptable.
Of course, there are some MPs who have had their opinion swayed by the referendum result. Mr Abela (PL), Robert Arrigo, Jean-Pierre Farrugia, Ċensu Galea, Franco Debono and David Agius all PN, have changed their original no to a yes. This way they will be respecting the popular will, even though for some this change of heart can be interpreted as a way of clinging on to their parliamentary seat.
On the other hand, Austin Gatt and Giovanna Debono (PN) and Mr Vassallo (PL) are sticking to their guns: whatever the people have decided they will stick to their no. I must admit they are admirable in their consistent stand but if they really believe in dignity and self-respect they have no other option but to resign now.
Then we have the group of the furbi, those who want to have the cake and eat it. Mr Fenech said he would pose no obstacle to the divorce law in Parliament but refrained from answering whether he would vote no or abstain. Anti-divorce campaigner and Labour MP Ms Coleiro Preca said she will abstain and will not contest the next general election. How very comfortable: go against the people’s will and stay in Parliament for another two years.
The Prime Minister’s cousin, Stephen Spiteri, said he will abstain while Charlo Bonnici has come up with the most hilarious of excuses: he is sure the law will pass, so he will abstain, but then if he is not sure that it will pass then he might change his vote to a yes.
Dr Caruana and Dolores Cristina seem to be still meditating on the opportun(ist)e decision at the right moment. Gozitan Labour MP Anton Refalo has done a disappearing act and has kept all his options open by keeping mum since day one on the divorce issue. This possibility of conscience twisting and bending has been brought about by the encouraging words of the two party leaders. Dr Muscat has said that Labour MPs were free to be activists against the introduction of divorce and were free to abstain on the vote of the Divorce Bill. He also said his party had left the door open for abstaining MPs like Ms Coleiro Preca.
Not to be outdone, the Prime Minister “is keeping all his options open regarding his vote in Parliament on the Divorce Bill, which has just been moved in its first reading. Asked if he excluded voting against or abstaining on a vote, Lawrence Gonzi said he did not exclude anything, noting the referendum outcome was not unanimous”.
What disgusting parliamentary behaviour: just playing about with a possible yes, no or abstention… according to convenience.
Well, by my book this is totally unacceptable. Any MP who has a minimum of self-respect should resign from Parliament before the vote is taken if her/his conscience tells her/him s/he cannot vote yes. This is the only honourable way out for those MPs who feel they cannot respect the people’s will.
Prof. Cassola is Alternattiva Demokratika’s spokesman on EU and international affairs.