Sunday 11 March 2012 - 09:27 by Raphael Vassallo
Chief promoter of last year’s successful divorce bill, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando is once again testing the limit of his government’s Christian Democrat credentials. But has he bitten off more than he can chew?
Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando
"The divorce referendum was a wake-up call for the Nationalist Party; and especially for the leadership, realising they were cut off from reality, and that they had to adapt and change with the times..."
So declares Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, the main pilot of the divorce legislation passed (amid much political controversy) in 2011, when I ask him whether he feels the time is right for a national discussion on gay marriage.
Admittedly, there has been a noticeable change in government attitude and policy towards 'the liberal agenda' since that referendum: a relaxation of censorship, for instance; and a renewed commitment to regulate IVF.
But when Pullicino Orlando proposed legalising gay marriage earlier this month, he clearly set alarm bells ringing among the more conservative elements of society.
Within minutes of his announcement, an army of online critics besieged the comments boards with reams of quasi-apocalyptic warnings and forebodings.
Pullicino Orlando himself was held responsible for the disintegration of the traditional family unit... and (in what is fast becoming a recognisable mantra) also accused of seeking to introduce all sorts of other 'aberrations' in future: anything from abortion, to euthanasia, to embryonic stem cell research, to human cloning, etc.
How does he react to such accusations?
"They tried the same tactic when we were discussing divorce," he says with a shrug: "Then as now, I never saw the connection."
The Zebbug MP almost sighs as he revisits the same old territory once more.
"Let me declare once again, ad nauseam, that I am one hundred per cent against abortion. In fact I gave what was probably one of the hardest-hitting speeches against abortion ever made by a Maltese politician on the subject, in the Parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe [of which he was Vice President and head of the Malta delegation]..."
Sticking only to the abortion claims - we both agree that the rest are too improbable to even contemplate - Pullicino Orlando argues that any presumed 'connection' was already spurious in the divorce debate... and even more so in the case of gay marriage.
"What is the connection between giving gay people all the rights they deserve, and killing unborn children? What connection can there possibly be...?"
Strictly speaking, the onus of proving such a connection lies with those making the claim... and as I am hardly one of them, there is no point pursuing this further.
However, even liberals have voiced a small concern: this time regarding the extent of 'equality' the proposal will bring about in practice.
Initially, Pullicino Orlando talked of introducing 'full marriage equality'. And yet, the cohabitation bill on offer makes no mention of the word 'marriage' at all. Instead, it points towards 'civil partnerships'... which means that it is debatable whether we are talking about 'full marriage equality', or merely the illusion thereof...
"I have no problem in not calling it 'marriage' myself," he replies. "But I do understand that there is a symbolic importance many people attach to the word."
Here, Pullicino Orlando alludes to a general mindset which had played an important - albeit ultimately self-defeating - role in the divorce referendum debate.
"Many people in Malta tend to equate 'marriage' with 'Church marriage'," he points out. "You can call it strange, but this is nonetheless true for a substantial portion of the electorate."
He goes onto argue that this causes some people to attach a certain emotional value directly to the word 'marriage'... but not necessarily to the concept of recognising the same relationship by any other name.
"It's psychological," he adds. "When I speak about 'civil partnerships', no one so much as raises an eyebrow. But when I say 'gay marriage', all hell breaks loose..."
Ultimately, he insists that the important thing is for the law to guarantee that all the rights, duties and benefits associated with marriage are made available to gay couples, regardless of terminology.
At this point I bring up an anomaly in the current set-up, whereby gay couples may actually have more to fear from the formal recognition of civil relationships, than from retaining the status quo.
The anomaly concerns adoption. At present, a gay couple cannot legally adopt a child... as a couple. But because Maltese law allows for adoption by single parents, it is perfectly possible for one half of a gay partnership to adopt a child: after which the child would be raised by the couple, regardless of the fact that only one parent is acknowledged on paper.
Paradoxically, this loophole may no longer be available if the couple in question were to be suddenly recognized at law. After all, a person cannot go around pretending to be single for the purposes of adopting a child... but at the same time apply for government housing, or submit a joint tax computation, as part of a formally-recognised couple...
Pullicino Orlando acknowledges that this is an issue with the law as it stands today; but points out that it would no longer be an issue with full marriage equality of the kind he intends to achieve: which would extend to legalizing adoption by same-sex couples.
"Personally I am fully in favour of gay adoption," he asserts, when I point out to him that this is probably the single most controversial aspect of the entire issue.
"In fact I can't see any reason why anyone would be against. The way I see it, what is really important is that a child is brought up in a loving and nurturing environment. And being gay does not preclude someone from being loving or nurturing..."
However, he acknowledges that this aspect has not to date been discussed, either within the parliamentary group, or in his recent colloquies with Social Policy Minister Chris Said. Out of curiosity... has he discussed it with the LGBT community?
"Not formally with the Malta Gay Rights Movement, but with individuals within the community, yes."
In the course of these conversations, Pullicino Orlando found himself exposed to an unexpected and occasionally shocking underbelly of raw prejudice directed at homosexuals in general.
"I heard some nightmare stories. Without mentioning names, I recently encountered the case of a gay man who realised that his nephews and nieces were keeping their distance. At first he couldn't understand why... eventually he realised that their mother (his sister-in-law) had told them all to avoid him for fear of being 'molested'."
This type of prejudice, he goes on, is more widespread than people think. "There is a tendency to equate homosexuality with perversion, and then, by extension, with paedophilia. But nothing could be further from the truth..."
This same preconceived notion also lurks somewhere in the equally widespread resistance to the idea of allowing homosexuals to raise children. Pullicino Orlando warns that this distortion of facts can also work directly to the detriment of the same children that such viewpoints claim to 'defend'.
He points towards the universally accepted convention, whereby the law should always act in 'the child's best interests'.
"Take the case of a gay person who adopts a child as a single parent... and then enters into a same-sex relationship. The law will not recognise this relationship, though it recognises him or her as the child's registered parent. So... what happens if that parent dies?"
Answering his own question, he outlines how, in that scenario, the surviving partner would have no legal rights as a parent, despite having helped raised the child in a family unit. As a result, he or she would not only lose custody of the child, but would not even have visiting rights. In practice, a child who was brought up by two parents would lose not one, but both parents in one fell swoop. There is even the chance that the child may be institutionalised as a result.
"How is any of this in the best interest of the child?" Pullicino Orlando asks.
All along, however, there is the small matter of whether the Nationalist Party will share these concerns; and more importantly, whether it will back this legislation. We are after all talking about a party whose motto is 'Religio et Patria'...
"Are we?" Pullicino Orlando asks in mock surprise. "I have been militating within this party since the 1980s, and I had never heard anyone mention the 'Religio et Patria' slogan even once, prior to the divorce referendum last year. If you ask me, it's a dusty old motif going back to the 1930s. They only brought it out and brushed off the cobwebs to combat the divorce issue..."
Pullicino Orlando reminds me that when he joined the PN in the 1980s, it had another motto: 'Xoghol, Gustizzja, Liberta'...".
All the same, there is undeniably an element of conservatism within the PN. The introduction of divorce under a Nationalist Administration must have been a bitter pill for some of these people to swallow. Now, Dr Pullicino Orlando is proposing something that - while uncontroversial to people of a more liberal inclination - is clearly anathema to the same conservative party core.
Isn't there a danger that these people may simply turn around and say, enough is enough?
"If people are overwhelmed by change, I would ask them to consider the fact that we have lagged behind in basic civil rights for too long..."
He also openly questions how 'central' such views are to the Nationalist Party's DNA. "The party claimed to be against divorce last year, and yet the referendum passed thanks to mainly Nationalist voters who voted 'yes'. So notwithstanding all the odds stacked against us at the time - the Church's injunctions, the party adopting a formal position, the government mobilising its resources, etc. - reason still won the day in the end.
"As I said before it was a wake-up call, telling us that society had moved ahead. In fact I would say society has moved ahead much faster than the political class, which now has to catch up."
On another level, some people commented that, when it came to presenting his arguments on gay marriage, he seemed to have gone out of his way to drag the Catholic Church into the controversy... prefacing his entire thesis by arguing that the time had come to break "the shackles that bind the political class with the Catholic Church."
Was this really necessary?
Pullicino Orlando defends his earlier point that politics and religion remain too closely intertwined for the comfort of a fully functional democracy.
"I can't speak for Labour on this point; but yes, the PN - or let's say a number of its prominent members - are very influenced by all that the Church says and does. I have nothing against the Church myself; clearly it has its place in society, and I for one would leave it all the room it needs to perform its social and pastoral functions. But it has no place within the political structures of the country."
Otherwise, he goes on, the implications for public policy would be worrying.
"When I heard a young government MP speaking out against condom-dispensing machines on University campus, to tell you the truth I was flabbergasted. And when I hear certain MPs elaborating on what they think Our Lady feels about the local political situation, it is clear that something is wrong somewhere. This is more than just a case of Catholic influence... the local Church evidently wields excessive political strength."
Last year's referendum result however dealt this perception a crippling blow. "I think the Church was so far removed from daily reality that it was shell-shocked by the result. Let's not forget how much it had invested in that campaign. There were thousands of priests and nuns serving as unofficial lobbyists and campaigners... added to the funds the Church pumped into the No campaign, they must have had at least 10 times the resources that were available to us. And just look at the outcome. Personally, I think... though of course it is up to the Church to decide... that the Church should really invest its energy and resources into issues of a more pastoral and spiritual nature..."
To play the devil's advocate (which I admit is a rather lousy job, as the devil is a notoriously unreliable client), some would argue that opposing divorce - and also gay marriage, and for that matter contraceptives on campus - is indeed an integral part of the Church's pastoral mission...
"I would say the Church is well within its rights to speak about values and to teach what it feels is appropriate; but it is dangerous for politicians to force those values down citizens' throats. After all some of those citizens may not be Catholic. They might be adherents of other religions, or atheists, or people who just don't care about religion either way..."
Yet another negative reaction to Pullicino Orlando's proposal took the form of a rather personal attack in which he stood accused of 'crusading' for attention. Some people claimed that the Zebbug MP was courting polemics for the sake of self-publicity: a view reinforced (they argue) by his own pre-emptive declaration that he would not seek re-election in 2013.
So - this line of criticism goes - is this Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando's swan song? His last hoorah, before hanging up his political boots and retiring from the limelight altogether?
He smiles as he answers. "Let me put it this way: I've taken up a number of issues which have been perceived as 'controversial' in my time. In each and every case, the issue was always an end in itself..."
To illustrate the point he rattles off a whole list of causes for which he has craned his neck out in the past: the Siggiewi cement plant, the St John's Co-Cathedral extension project, the Mnajdra landfills, the golf course at Ta' Cenc...
"In all these cases, people always theorised about my motives.
And with gay marriages there are even those who claim I have a vested interest in the issue because I want to marry a same-sex partner myself! It seems too difficult for them to understand that I might take up an issue simply because I agree with it..."
Meanwhile, out of curiosity... does he still intend to retire from politics at the end of this legislature?
"I will not be contesting the next election," he says with some deliberation, as if weighing each word carefully. "But it doesn't mean I will simply fade away and die, either... that I won't continue making my contribution in other ways. Truth be told I haven't thought it through fully yet, and I'm not sure what my future holds.
"One thing I am sure of, however: it won't just be drilling teeth and botoxing..."
[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on the Malta Today's website.]