Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Malta Today: The chickens coming home to roost

What a grotesquely incongruous situation: the campaign manager of the anti-divorce lobby is today the Permanent Secretary of the ministry introducing the Cohabitation Bill.
Michael Falzon, Blog, Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Frans Borg (left) formerly campaigned against the introduction of divorce.

The Minister for Justice, Dialogue and the Family, Chris Said, on Tuesday held a press conference to launch a consultation process about Malta's first act to regulate cohabiting partners - a law that is expected to be debated in Parliament in October.

Minister Said said the new bill will safeguard the right of cohabiting partners and also recognise same-sex partnerships, giving homosexual couples a standard form of recognition in terms of rights and obligations.

The Minister explained that government was recognising that cohabitation has increased and cohabiting relationships are not illicit: "Such couples have rights and duties, and the law will be looking at both de jure as well as de facto couples who have elected not to regulate their position with a contract. It's time to recognise these circumstances as well."

During the press conference, the Minister was flanked by his permanent secretary, Frans Borg. Nothing abnormal, one would be tempted to say. Except that Frans Borg, former Permanent Secretary of the Education Ministry - and 'parked' as Deputy Cabinet Secretary until last January when he was appointed Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, Dialogue and the Family - had actively participated in the divorce referendum: he was the official campaign manager of the anti-divorce lobby (Zwieg bla divorzju).

In April last year I had written an article in MaltaToday (Defining moment) from which I feel I must quote extensively:

"The duty of the higher echelons of the country's civil service to distance themselves away from controversies on public policy is a 'sine qua non' in the democratic system, as we know it.

"This principle has been thrown to the dogs with the official green light given to the Deputy Cabinet Secretary to take time off from his responsibilities in order to be able to dedicate two months to effectively manage the referendum campaign of the anti-divorce lobby, 'Zwieġ bla Divorzju'.

"Adopting a Kafkaesque mindset, bordering on the surreal, Dr. Godwin Grima, the head of Malta's Civil Service, was reported to have defended this bizarre decision by bizarrely 'explaining' that "The introduction of divorce is not considered to be of a party political nature." By whom? This is not really true, anyway. We have a political Party, the Nationalist Party (PN) that has taken an official anti-divorce stand and another political party, Alternattiva Demokratika (AD) that has an official pro-divorce stand while the Labour Party has opted to sit on the fence, at least officially.

"However, this is hardly the point. If our top civil servant really believes that public policy controversies exist only when our political parties disagree, then he is not fit to be in the position that he occupies. I tend to think that he has stupidly assumed responsibility for a stupid political decision that is not his own doing, but this does not exonerate him from his folly.

"The divorce issue is a controversial public policy issue. No more, no less. The decision to allow one of the country's top civil servants to be officially active on one side of this hot debate is a bad omen. It means that when push comes to shove, the current administration believes that the end justifies the means and is prepared to throw caution to the wind by acting in a way that undermines our country's democratic credentials.

"As one who has spent the best years of my life to see the restoration of these credentials that had been sorely dented during the days of the Mintoff administration, I cannot but be saddened. I am seeing all that we had fought for - and achieved - literally evaporating into thin air. For what is the difference between the police force openly and blatantly discriminating between the supporters of two opposing political sides and a top civil servant blatantly abetting one side of a public policy controversy? One is crude and one is subtle; but the crass disregard of principle involved is the same and both situations lead to the undermining of the people's democratic rights."

I am sure that the Cohabitation Bill would have been very different had divorce not been introduced as a result of its approval in last year's referendum. Indeed, I always argued that government cannot recognise a cohabitation relationship when one of the parties is still legally married to another person and therefore proposing a cohabitation bill before the introduction of divorce would have created a legal mess in which Government could have even been accused of legally accepting situations that would be tantamount to bigamy. But this just the cherry on the cake.

I cannot but find it grotesquely incongruous that today the former campaign manager of 'Zwieg bla Divorzju' is the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry responsible for the Family that is introducing a Cohabitation Bill. The decision to allow a top civil servant to take sides in an issue of public policy has now boomeranged, confirming how wrong and unethical it was.

The chickens have indeed come home to roost.

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