Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi with Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando on the campaign trail in 2008 in Mosta.
With Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando now an independent MP, Parliament’s composition and dynamics of lawmaking have changed. Kurt Sansone reports.
This year was not a fruitful one for Parliament, as debates and votes on important Bills were continuously postponed.
Political turmoil on the government benches tested the tenuous one-seat majority and for months on end MPs were faced with lengthy discussions that hopped from one pending Bill to another.
Whether the situation changes after the summer still has to be seen, but the new parliamentary arrangement – a quasi-coalition between the PN and Dr Pullicino Orlando – is likely to bring a new dynamic.
The passage of some important but controversial Bills may not be straightforward and could bring out the differences between the liberal-leaning Dr Pullicino Orlando and the more conservative elements of his former party.
Important laws where agreement may be hard to come by are:
Cohabitation: the gay test
A law regulating cohabiting couples was first promised by the PN in the 1998 election campaign.
A decade-and-a-half later, the legislation has still not seen the light of day.
Dr Pullicino Orlando has already indicated this is one of the more important Bills on his agenda.
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi last year pledged to have the law in place by December 2011. Seven months have passed and even the wording of the Bill remains elusive.
The biggest sticking point will be how to treat stable gay couples. Gay rights advocates have flatly refused any form of legislation that equates gay couples with siblings living together, a position floated by some government exponents.
Earlier this year, Justice Minister Chris Said rewrote the contents of a previous draft drawn up by his predecessor Carm Mifsud Bonnici, which is believed to have made no distinction between gay couples and siblings.
Dr Said went on record as saying the new Bill would introduce the concept of civil partnerships for gay couples – a step or two short of same-sex marriage.
But despite promises the Bill will be published “shortly”, its contents remain unknown.
Dr Pullicino Orlando has declared his support for same-sex marriage and insisted the proposed cohabitation Bill should at least cater for civil partnerships.
This position is likely to put him on a collision course with the more conservative elements in the PN parliamentary group.
Charting the way forward may not be easy, although Dr Pullicino Orlando’s position is similar to that of Labour leader Joseph Muscat, who has pledged the introduction of civil unions for same-sex couples if elected to government.
In-vitro fertilisation: the ethical dilemma
Assisted procreation and its offshoots have been debated at various stages in parliamentary committees for at least seven years.
Despite the reams of paper, numerous expert consultations and parliamentary reports by different committees, no Bill has yet emerged.
The issue concerns in-vitro fertilisation – a medical process that helps infertile couples conceive outside the womb with the resultant embryos being transferred to the mother. Private clinics in Malta have been offering this service for at least 20 years but the sector is unregulated.
IVF is an ethical minefield on various counts. How many eggs should be fertilised? How many embryos should be transferred to the woman’s womb? What happens to the embryos that are not transferred? Should the service be offered for free at Mater Dei Hospital?
The government has until now only presented the Bill’s title: Protection of Embryos Act.
Dr Pullicino Orlando has already stated this Bill is high on his agenda. Where he stands on the individual issues of concern is not clear. He has gone on record saying his aim is to protect the embryo and has also indicated a preference for the service to be offered at Mater Dei.
Only two months ago the MP had said some government ministers were procrastinating on the IVF Bill because of pressure from the Church.
Labour leader Joseph Muscat has also lambasted the government for delaying the issue and pledged that a Bill regulating IVF would be one of the first pieces of legislation a Labour government would present.
Depending on Dr Pullicino Orlando’s position and whether Dr Muscat does have total control over his MPs on this issue, an IVF Bill could be a major ideological test for the PN.
Whistleblower: a tougher stance
The Bill is meant to protect individuals who divulge sensitive information about corrupt or illegal behaviour by their superiors in the workplace.
It is deemed to be an important piece of legislation to expose corruption but although the government published the Bill two years ago, it is still at the second reading stage in Parliament.
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi has repeatedly said the whistleblower Bill was a government priority.
Although the opposition agrees with the Bill, it has often emphasised the need for significant changes to toughen it.
The Labour Party wants the Bill to offer protection to individuals who may have been involved in the illegal act and who want to spill the beans, which it currently does not do.
These changes are unlikely to be introduced unless the government agrees with them.
But in the context of a new parliamentary set-up that sees Dr Pullicino Orlando unshackled from the PN parliamentary whip, the situation may change.
While Dr Pullicino Orlando has not pronounced himself on the matter, from now on any changes the Labour Party wants for various laws will have to be bounced off the independent MP, who holds the balance of power in Parliament.
[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on the Times' website.]