Thursday, 29 December 2011

Independent: Conviction and convenience
by Stephen Calleja

04 December 2011

The jump in six months has been remarkable.

The Nationalist Party, so adamantly against divorce in the run-up to the referendum held last May, has now opened the way for legislation that establishes the rights and obligations of people in a steady relationship other than marriage – and this for both heterosexual and homosexual couples.

The PN has not changed its stand on divorce. In principle, it is still against the concept, although it has accepted the people’s will and the divorce law was enacted on 1 October. So the inclusion of rights for couples who are not married as part of the Party’s aims for the near future came like a bolt out of the blue, and naturally grabbed the headlines.

Let us not forget that, when the debate on divorce was the highlight of our everyday life a few months ago, the PN was reluctant to have a cohabitation law that catered for couples living together outside marriage and, even more so, homosexual couples. This newspaper carried a story, which was never denied, that the cohabitation law the government was planning at the time related only to siblings and relatives who lived under the same roof. There was no intention of including homosexual and heterosexual couples living together in the proposed law.

Matters seem to have changed since the divorce referendum result. The PN seems to want to avoid having a repeat of the situation last year, when one of its MPs went to the House of Representatives and presented a private member’s bill on divorce.

If some other MP in its ranks had a similar idea regarding homosexual unions, the Nationalist Party would have been embarrassed again. Of course, this could still happen, but the inclusion of such a provision in such an important document will leave the PN with much more room in which to manoeuvre than it had on the divorce issue.

The question that needs to be asked is whether the PN made this remarkable jump out of conviction or out of convenience. Does the Party really believe that the time has come for gay couples to be recognised? Does the PN really believe that heterosexual couples, those who were (still are?) labelled as “living in sin”, should be brought within a legal framework?

Has the PN done this because it has accepted that society will continue to move in this direction anyway? Has it done so to avoid having a repetition of the division that was created within the party at the time of the divorce referendum? Or is it just to open up to the liberal section within its fold and among its supporters?

Perhaps we will never know the real reason. What is sure, however, is that the PN seems to have recognised its mistake over the way it tackled the divorce issue, and wants to be seen to be at the forefront in other social matters that, sooner or later, will have to be put on the country’s agenda.

The PN has stopped short of saying that it is open to gay marriages, and it has not said what kind of legislation it has in mind. Maybe we will know more when the election manifesto is published in the coming months. But by paving the way, the Party will not find itself with its back to the wall as it did when the divorce debate started.

What I found intriguing in the document that was approved at the PN’s general council two weeks ago was a sentence in the first section, which says that the PN is not a “confessional” party.

I wonder why it felt the need to include such a declaration in the first of its Ten Commandments. During the divorce campaign, the PN was accused of being a “confessional” party because the stand it took was the same as that of the Church. Maybe it wants to distance itself from such a tag. But stating it loud and clear in the first few lines of its political creed is something I do not really understand. Usually, political parties state what they stand for, not for what they don’t.

There’s another point I would like to make, and this concerns immigrants. In the document, the party speaks of “tolerance” for other cultures, traditions and religions. This is a very mild way of putting it. To me, tolerance smacks of, well, accepting something one would rather do without.

It then adds that immigrants should seek integration in our society and its traditions and laws. The PN does not say that Maltese society should also help these people to integrate. It seems that the PN wants to put the onus on immigrants, when integration is like the tango – it takes both sides.

And it will take both sides – this time of the House of Representatives – to remove the clause on neutrality in the Constitution, as the PN is suggesting. The PN document does not say this in black and white; it just says that the clause on neutrality should be updated. But the aim is to have it removed.

However, I am sure the Opposition will not accept this easily. It was the Labour Party that insisted on its inclusion before it would accept changes to the election laws way back in 1987, and although the world has changed several times over since then, the PL has clung to this clause as if its life depended on it. So it is hard to believe that there will be a change of heart on Labour’s part.

I think the neutrality issue will lead to more political controversy than the subject of cohabitation laws, on which there seems to be more common ground between the two parties.

But the PN is right on this one. The clause is outdated, and there should be no place for it in our Constitution.

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