Sunday, 1 April 2012

Malta Today: If the PN says I do...
Thursday 29 March 2012 - 13:31 by  James Debono

Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando’s unconfirmed (but not denied) claim that Simon Busuttil agrees with the recognition of same sex unions, raises the question of how far the PN is willing to go to become palatable to liberal voters again.

Having pushed the envelope with last year's divorce referendum, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando is testing the limits of his party's coalition of conservatives and liberals with a proposal on gay marriage.

In a recent interview with MaltaToday, Simon Busuttil described the PN as a coalition of Christian conservatives, Christian liberals and some liberals who might not even be Christian at all, adding that it has been so since the 1970s.

What is certain is that this coalition was seriously undermined by last year's divorce referendum, which - providentially for the PN - took place two full years before the electoral deadline.

Now, an opportunity to exorcise these unhappy memories has presented itself for the PN. Once again it takes the shape of a Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando proposal, this time to formally recognise gay marriage. It also coincides with the final drafting of the cohabitation law, under the tutelage of Chris Said, a perceived moderate.

Simon Busuttil's tacit backing to this direction could well be an indication that the PN wants a fresh start. But does accepting the notion of civil unions between same sex people fly in the face of the party's identity? And can the party withstand other lacerating issues like IVF?

Confessional identity

Surely since the 1970s what held the PN together was not its confessional identity, but the battle cries of democratisation and Europeanisation in the 1980s and 1990s, coupled with a social model which combined free market capitalism with an emphasis on a Welfare State.

Neither did the party define itself in a confessional way. Even Eddie Fenech Adami's refusal to tackle the divorce issue in 1990s was based on the argument that at this particular moment divorce would have resulted in more social harm than social good, a hint that all this could change in the future if it were to be demonstrated otherwise.

The party was not immune to changing realities. In its 1998 electoral manifesto the party went as far as to propose a law which recognised the rights and duties of persons who lived together.

But equally significant was the failure of the party to find the necessary courage to implement this proposal.

In reality, since 1987 conservative elements have staffed the country's establishment, piloting the country's modernisation while remaining largely silent on moral and social issues. While these issues started making the waves in to the media, the political establishment remained largely immune to the epochal change in the country's social fabric.

The less these moral conservatives spoke, the less the country felt their presence, and for a while many liberals felt that it was simply a matter of time for the country to become fully European.

In fact, if the divorce referendum had an immediate impact, it was in forcing these elements to come out of the woodwork, revealing the true conservative credentials of a large part of an establishment which had previously prided itself on modernity.

In fact EU membership at first had a perverse impact on Malta, with the first cultural battles (like the attempt to entrench the law against abortion in the Constitution) being drawn by extreme conservatives bent on ditching the trenches before the expected deluge.

Curiously, social issues like divorce remained under the surface during the first post-EU Gonzi administration, which had to contend with widespread opposition to the government's collusion with big developers.

This led the PN to commit a number of U-turns and the Prime Minister to promise to redress the country's environmental deficit.

In some ways, the ability of the PN to re-invent itself, albeit superficially, as a green party before the 2008 election could be indicative of the way the PN can re-invent itself as a civil rights party to keep its hold on socially liberal voters. But how far can the PN go this way without disorienting its conservative core?

From divorce to gay redemption?

Unlike the Labour Party, which has failed to discuss moral issues, giving its leader Joseph Muscat a carte blanche to push his "progressive" agenda by taking a personal stand in favour of divorce, the PN had taken a stand against divorce.

After the defeat, the PN tried to come to terms with the new reality in its 'Our Roots' document: which not only accepted the new reality of divorce but anticipated the future by coming close to supporting the concept of State recognition of same-sex couples.

The document describes personal relationships between different persons as "something precious" for those involved. It also states that such relationships are the "family nucleus" for those persons involved "even if they are unmarried".

Finally the document states, "the State cannot close its eyes to this issue and has to legislate wherever necessary to establish the rights and duties of those living in cohabitation, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual".

This proposal remains vague and open to interpretation for it does not commit the party on what kind of arrangement will be offered to same sex couples.

But it goes a long way from the never implemented 1998 proposal, which simply asserted the State's obligation to regulate rights and duties of individuals who for different reasons live in a household.

In contrast, the new proposal refers directly to people in genuine relationships and implies State recognition of the relationships and not just of the rights of the individuals living in these households.

Still, this kind of recognition is in itself pregnant with contradictions for a party, which has to cater for both Christian conservatives and social liberals alike.

Ultimately, it will all depend on which rights a PN government is willing to bestow on same sex partners and which rights currently enjoyed by married couples will still be denied to same sex couples.

New contradictions

Although the PN has never defined itself as confessional party, in reality part of its strength derives from the support it enjoys among social conservatives, especially those hailing from the traditional middle classes.

Christian conservatives believe that the State should favour married couples in its social policies. They also firmly believe that marriage should remain a heterosexual institution.

Probably, in normal circumstances the most Christian conservatives will be willing to concede is a re-edition of the 1998 proposal. As indicated by numerous statements by the Archbishops, the church itself has no problem with the recognition of the rights of individuals living in households to ensure very basic protection from abandonment or eviction from the shared household.

But this would exclude any state recognition of the relationships between the persons involved.

This was exactly the kind of regime offered to separated heterosexuals before divorce was approved last year.

Pro-divorce campaigners decreed this was an attempt to institutionalise an inferior cohabitation regime for separated couples, who are forced to cohabit because of their permanent exclusion from the institution of marriage.

Gay rights activists would probably react in a similar way if the same model were offered to same sex couples now.

Equating the status of same sex couples to that of brothers or sisters who live together would fly in the face of equality between different affective relationships.

The problem for the PN is that recognising same sex couples is only the first step.

For if it recognises same sex relationships but fails to grant them the same rights as married couples, it will still be accused of discrimination.

The rainbow opportunity

Therefore the only way to accommodate the liberal and gay vote, short of introducing gay marriage (which is a no-go area for a party with a conservative wing), is to create a civil partnerships institution which grants same sex couples the same rights as married couples.

This option offers a golden opportunity for the PN to outflank an evasive Labour party by presenting a concrete law, which will usher in a veritable cultural revolution before the next election.

Curiously, while hinting at agreement with civil partnerships, Labour has refrained from stating which rights will be given to same sex couples.

Labour leader Joseph Muscat has made it clear that he disagrees with gay couples adopting children.

So far only Alternattiva Demokratika has stated its full agreement with equality between same sex and married heterosexual couples; and it is only Jeffrey Pullcino Orlando who is waving the banner of gay marriage, perhaps to spur the government into accepting gay partnerships.

Therefore, by legislating on gay partnerships the PN would be making strategic inroads among liberals without taking little political risks since all parties converge in favour of civil partnerships.

In reality even if the PN accepts civil unions, cultural conservatives have nowhere else to go.

By not calling the new regime marriage but granting same sex couples equal rights to those enjoyed by married couples, the PN would have found a way of exorcising the damage inflicted on itself during the divorce referendum campaign and the subsequent vote in parliament.

Old versus New?

What is more problematic for the PN at the moment is the willingness of conservatives like Edwin Vassallo, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici and Austin Gatt - among others - to accept a civil partnership regime which grants same sex couples the same or most of the rights enjoyed by married couples. Crucially, the cohabitation law no longer falls under the conservative Mifsud Bonnici and has been taken over by the more pragmatic and moderate Chris Said, who stands out in the party as a centrist able to reach out both to the conservative base and to liberal exponents. Said, who distinguished himself as one of the first Nationalist MPs to declare that they would be voting for the divorce bill, could have another opportunity to underline his ministerial and leadership qualities. But his more liberal inclinations could be exploited by his adversaries in the Gozo district.

Significantly all those with a stake in the PN's future seem intent on distancing themselves from the conservative ways of the past, with Mario de Marco abolishing theatre censorship, Simon Busuttil allegedly pushing recognition of same sex couples, and Chris Said ultimately drafting the final version of a law which could ultimately redeem the party's liberal credentials.

The stage has been set for the final act before the next election.

Gay marriage in Europe

The Netherlands became the first country in the world to officially allow same-sex marriages on April 1, 2001.

Iceland passed a law to make same-sex marriage legal in June 11, 2010.

Belgium recognized gay marriage on January 30, 2003. The law granted almost all the rights open to heterosexual married couples, stopping short of the right to adopt. Legal co-parenting for Belgium's same-sex couples came into force just over three years later in April, 2006.

Spain passed same-sex marriage legislation on June 30, 2005. The law on assisted reproduction was amended in 2006, allowing co-parenting recognition for married lesbian partners who had used IVF treatment to have a child.

Norway passed a gender-neutral marriage bill in June 11, 2008, followed by a law to allow same-sex marriage on January 1, 2009. The new law also allowed co-parenting same-sex adoption rights and state funded IVF treatment for married lesbian couples.

Sweden, having already passed a law to allow same-sex couples to adopt in June, 2002, became the seventh country to recognize gay marriage on May 1, 2009. Sweden's Lutheran Church voted to permit gay marriages to be carried out in its congregation from November 1, 2009. nearly 70% of the 250 synod members of the Church of Sweden voted in favor of the move.

Slovenia, in July 2006, became the first former Eastern bloc country to recognize domestic partnerships nationwide. In December 2009 the Slovenian government approved a new Family Code, which includes same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption.

Portugal's parliament voted to approve gay marriage On January 8, 2010. The bill was passed by 125 votes to 99. A provision to allow adoption by same-sex partners was struck down.

The United Kingdom's parliament voted on 18 November 2004 in favour of the Civil Partnership Act, which came into force in December 2005 and allows same-sex couples to register their partnership. The rights and duties of partners under this legislation are almost exactly the same as for married couples. Currently public consultation is under way with a view to introducing full marriage equality.

[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on Malta Today's website.]

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