Monday, 21 October 2013

Malta Today: PN's silence on gay unions belies party's liberal turn

Silence reigns as PN mulls over civil union legislation
Monday 21 October 2013 - 09:48 by Matthew Vella. Additional reporting Tim Attard Montalto and Miriam Dalli

Claudette Buttigieg says Labour is introducing gay marriage, but refusing to call it by its real name.

The jury is still out on how the Nationalist Party will be shaping its political response on a popular civil unions bill that will introduce gay marriage in Maltese law, in all but name.

After throwing his weight behind a historic divorce referendum victory in 2011, Joseph Muscat's response to the pink vote was to promise civil unions. Bleeding support, in their last year of government the Nationalists started tightening the screws on a piece of legislation first promised in 1998: rights for cohabiting partners, both opposite- and same-sex couples.

Now in opposition, the PN has to face up to the fact that Labour is in fact on the upswing on civil liberties. But at least nine Nationalist MPs, and former ministers, contacted by MaltaToday this week were unwilling to comment on their stance on civil unions, all of them citing the fact that the bill has not been debated inside the PN parliamentary group.

One MP singled out as a vocal conservative and possible opponent on gay unions - Jason Azzopardi - was also unwilling to comment. "We're still discussing it internally, to the contrary of Labour's MPs who will not be discussing it."

But that's a moot point: Labour had already pledged civil unions in its 2013 manifesto so it is debatable as to what kind of discussion the party-in-government requires. If anything, it's the PN response to civil unions that the public is waiting for. And a possible clue of the Nationalist mind-frame is from Claudette Buttigieg, who shadows civil liberties.

"Who is the government trying to fool? The truth is that it has no courage to call this a marriage," she said of the civil unions bill, which will amend the Civil Code to give same-sex and opposite-sex couples not contracted by the marriage rite, the same rights and obligations, as well as the legal recourse to dissolve their union.

The government's official line is that its mandate is to introduce civil unions, not gay marriage.

But Buttigieg does not buy into this, aware that Labour wants to keep the words 'gay' and 'marriage' as far away as possible.

"The government is afraid to refer to civil unions as marriage. It is simply trying to please its conservative following. By not referring to it as a 'marriage', it avoids having to admit to them that a civil union and a marriage are, effectively, the same thing," she said.

The MP claims that even the LGBT community are not happy with the term 'civil union'. "The LGBT community believes that by not referring to the bill as a marriage, it is a case of almost being given full rights, just so as not to be given those full rights."

Despite having styled herself as an ideal interlocutor with the gay vote - she is after all, a member of the Eurovision glitterati who has represented Malta - she herself does not divulge her own position on the matter.

"The matter is very delicate, and we are treating it accordingly," Buttigieg said. "I don't think that it is correct to give my position as things are still not clear-cut. What is clear is that this is a bill which needs to be taken very seriously. We will be seeking legal advice on the matter and will be meeting in the coming days to discuss the matter thoroughly."

And that is the kind of indecisiveness, not to mention political silence, that has observers suspecting the PN is still uncomfortable about jettisoning its conservative inheritance.

"The Nationalist Party is at the crossroads again," wrote former PN information director Frank Psaila in his blog.

"The civil union bill is a big test for the party. It cannot afford to get it wrong... the party's leadership will, as expected, come under intense pressure from party officials, and MPs, not least from its own grassroots, to take a firm stand against the proposed bill.

"I trust the party will not rush into taking a decision which, as happened with the divorce issue, comes to regret."

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