Saturday, 10 December 2011

Independent: PN wants neutrality clause out, same-sex unions in

20 November 2011 by Stephen Calleja

In what can be seen as a breakthrough for a political party that six months ago vehemently opposed the introduction of divorce, the Nationalist Party will today approve a document that paves the way for the legalisation of relationships between homosexuals and unions between heterosexuals who are not married.

But apart from making such a clear shift towards liberalism with this move, reported in this newspaper’s sister daily yesterday, the PN document includes another statement that could be equally highly controversial, and this is the elimination of the neutrality clause in the Constitution.

The document, which deals with the concepts that the party believes in and how these could be implemented, is to be approved today during the party’s general council meeting which will be concluded by party leader and Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi.

The Constitution, according to the PN document, “must be updated to be in line with modern times. Particularly, we must strengthen Parliament’s role… making it more autonomous to be able to keep the government in check as expected in a healthy democracy. This includes the strengthening of the budgetary powers of Parliament as well as the institutions that control the government and public administration, including public spending, such as the Public Accounts Committee, the Auditor General, the Ombudsman and the Commission Against Corruption.”

Added to this, the document says that “constitutional concepts such as neutrality and the role of authorities appointed constitutionally, including the Broadcasting Authority, should also be updated”.

The document does not clearly lay down that the neutrality clause should be removed, but it is easy to understand that by “updated”, the Nationalist Party means “eliminated”.

The neutrality clause was inserted in to the Constitution as part of a package that also included the changes made to electoral law before the 1987 election.

The then Labour government had insisted on its inclusion before it would accept the changes that were being proposed by the Nationalist Party to electoral law, which would eventually allow the PN to win the 1987 election after obtaining more votes but fewer parliamentary seats.

This also comes in the wake of suggestions made for the launch of a discussion on a revision of Malta’s Constitution, which have been also spearheaded by the President George Abela.

While this PN move could create ripples of a political nature, given that the Labour Party has always been reluctant to give up the neutrality clause – for constitutional changes to be made, a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives is required – it is probable that the suggestion for the legalisation of same-sex relationships and unions between heterosexuals who are not married will generate even more public debate.

The PN continues to insist that marriage is the basis on which a solid society is built, but at the same time it admits that it cannot remain insensible to new forms of relationships.

In the light of this, the document states that the party “understands that relationships are precious for persons living the experience and understands as well that for them this relationship takes on a meaning of a family nucleus, even if they are not married. The State cannot close its eyes to this and therefore must legislate wherever necessary to establish rights and duties in such relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual.”

Coming six months after the PN opposed the introduction of divorce – which has since become law after the majority of people voted in favour in a referendum held in May – the move can be interpreted as a shift from conservatism to liberalism within the party.

The PN stops short of saying same-sex marriages – it speaks of “relationships” – but this one paragraph could be the start of a wide change in Maltese society as we know it if, as expected, the document, seen as the basis on which the PN’s election manifesto is to be drawn up in the coming months, is approved this morning.

The PN has maintained its anti-divorce stand, but in the document it lays down that it does not want to be seen as a confessional party, an accusation that was frequently levelled at it in the run-up to the divorce referendum.

Other parts of the document deal with the economy, education, the environment, culture, justice, Gozo, the European Union and young people.

Updating the constitution or an apology to Justyne Caruana?

In an interview broadcast on the Ghandi xi Nghid radio show yesterday morning, which was recorded on Friday, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi referred to the proposed change in the Constitution’s neutrality clause, saying the clause had been drafted in the different geopolitical times of an arms race and a world dominated by the US and USSR superpowers.

And the Libya situation earlier this year had nothing to do with it, he said, since it was still inconceivable that the commercial Malta International Airport could have been used for the campaign’s military dimension when there were actual military bases in the same region.

Such changes, he said, had been proposed and a parliamentary committee had been set up for such a purpose.

The Opposition, he said, had abandoned the House committee on constitutional reform − the Select Committee on Democratic Change − after its demand for an apology to Labour MP Justyne Caruana had not been met.

The apology was demanded after Leader of the House Tonio Borg accused Dr Caruana of having botched her vote after PN MP Mario Galea had done so in the now infamous Delimara power station extension vote, after which all Labour MPs had staged a walk-out of Parliament, and the committee.

“What is more important?” Dr Gonzi asked, “Updating the Constitution or an apology to Justyne Caruana?”

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