Thursday, 31 October 2013

Malta Today: The sanitised debate on civil unions

While the introduction of civil unions is a welcome step towards greater social inclusion, it has exposed the lack of a real organic debate within political parties.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013 by James Debono

Malta has truly made performed an incredible summersault: from being one of the last countries in the world to introduce divorce to one which grants a civil status equivalent to marriage (with adoption rights included) to same sex couples.

We did so without first introducing a cohabitation regime for people who want some basic guarantees without assuming the full obligations of marriage. The government has in fact hinted that it will be introducing a cohabitation bill at a later stage.

All the more striking is the lack of debate, which suggests that the conservative camp is still licking its wounds from the 2011 divorce referendum.

It is true that the government has a mandate to introduce civil unions, and that before the election the PL suggested that these unions will carry most of the rights and obligations of a marriage, while leaving space for some ambiguity on adoption rights. In fact, the only party to propose gay marriage in the last general election was Alternattiva Demokratika.

Faced with a situation where it risked alienating liberal voters, the PN has taken the bold step of supporting civil unions while appeasing conservatives by announcing its intention to introduce an amendment to keep a distinction between marriage and civil unions.

But deputy leader Mario de Marco has made it clear that the PN will not seek to take away any of the rights acquired by same-sex couples through the new bill.

On its part the Labour government while proposing a bill transposing the marriage law in the new civil union regime, also keeps insisting on keeping a linguistic distinction by introducing a parallel institution to marriage for both same sex and different sex couples even if there is practically no legal distinction between the two statuses.

In this way both major parties seem intent on denying same sex people the symbolism of marriage while agreeing to grant same sex couples the full rights enjoyed by married couples. The only difference is semiotic, with the PN keener on the distinction between marriage and civil unions.

To arrive here both parties had to accept granting gay couples adoption rights. For otherwise they would be discriminating against same sex couples.

In so doing both parties could be running against public opinion, even if I doubt whether there is the intensity of feeling against adoption rights for gays as there was against divorce. The two major parties could also be wary of shifting demographics, with younger people increasingly adopting a more liberal outlook.

Unfortunately one consequence of an otherwise welcome political consensus on granting basic civil rights to a discriminated category was the absence of a real debate, which was replaced by a sanitised debate.

On its part the gay rights movement has become less vocal on demanding the inclusion of same-sex couples in the institution of marriage while conservatives have largely abstained from the debate.

The PN itself had most to lose from a replica of the divorce saga, which alienated the liberal segment of its electorate from the PN. In fact Busuttil's decision to support the new law was both bold and pragmatic. For in the absence of a conservative party on its right wing, social conservatives have nowhere else to go while liberals can either vote AD or PL.

But there is a sense of surrealism in seeing known vocal social conservatives in the party silent on this issue, supporting the party line.

In some ways it may have been a more honest albeit more risky course had the party discussed this issue in the open, allowing its more conservative elements to voice their concerns along with more liberal elements in the same party who favour full marriage rights.

Ultimately political parties are expected to take a stance on such issues, but I would not have been scandalised if known social conservatives in the PN had voiced their opinions.

In some ways this state of fact exposes the poverty of Maltese democracy.

By reducing elections to presidential campaigns centred around charismatic leaders surrounded by star candidates, Gonzi and to an even larger extent Muscat have killed internal debate in political parties.

For if social conservatives are absent from the debate on civil unions, the left wing in the Labour Party has evaporated completely, judging by the lack of any public internal debate on the privatisation of energy, the selling of Maltese citizenship and Muscat's hawkish immigration policy.

Moreover in Labour, the rise of star candidates with little ideological formation, results in serious embarrassments like Rachel Tua's outburst against immigrants.

Diversity does not mean getting people from the opposite side of the spectrum and herding them around a charismatic leader. It means accepting an open debate between different strands of opinion.

In view of the increased sterility of Maltese politics the creation of organised ideological currents within all political parties would do Maltese democracy a great deal of good. For how can so many different opinions be condensed in two political parties?

While I stick to the opinion that the best antidote to this paralysis is a reform of the electoral system to give third parties a fair chance of representation, it would also be healthy to accept a degree of pluralism within parties.

It would surely be an antidote to the presidentialist credentials of the leaders. Simon Busuttil, who stands little chance to beat Muscat in a presidential contest, can take the lead.

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