Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Independent: Civil unions bill rushed, opposition MPs insist

Tuesday, 26 November 2013, 21:24 (UPDATE 1)

Opposition MPs argued that the Civil Unions Bill has been rushed and avoided directly stating whether they agreed with allowing same-sex couples to adopt or not as debate on the bill continued in parliament.

Debate on the bill continued this evening, roughly a month after it had begun, only to be interrupted by debates on the controversial citizenship bill and the 2014 Budget. Claudette Buttigieg, the opposition’s civil liberties spokesman, resumed where she had left off, and fellow MPs Ċensu Galea and Mario Galea rounded off debate for the opposition.

All three insisted that the government was rushing the bill, drawing parallels with the way debate took place on the citizenship bill. They noted that the opposition’s proposed amendments had been dismissed by the government, only for discussions to reopen after the bill was approved.

Dr Buttigieg stressed that the opposition was ready to back the introduction of civil unions, and would seek consensus. Later on, however, Mario Galea insisted that the opposition never maintained that it would vote in favour of the bill under discussion.

In her intervention, Dr Buttigieg insisted that consultation was lacking, even though the PN was willing to contribute, and that this was particularly the case on adoption. She noted that while erecting a large building required an environmental impact assessment, no “social impact assessment” was being held over such an important proposal.

The MP insisted that any changes to adoption procedures should have been tackled through changes to adoption laws, pointing out that adoption was children’s right – and not that of parents.

While she said that she was on the same wavelength as Minister Helena Dalli on adoption by gay parents – to Dr Dalli’s protests – and that she personally knew gay couples who would make ideal parents, she stressed that the proposal caused a great uproar, with many constituents pointing out that while they agreed with legally recognising gay couples but believing things should stop there.

She also noted, as the other two PN MPs later did, that there were numerous studies on adoption by gay couples and that not all of them were favourable, adding that the authors, location and age of the study had to be taken into consideration.

Dr Buttigieg also insisted that civil union legislation which simply borrowed the provisions of civil marriage was an example of a weak law which was open to interpretation, and said that the law should be strong enough to stand on its own. This, she said, was important to ensure that the law did not create anomalies which only brought about a false equality.

Ċensu Galea subsequently said that he agreed that everyone should be granted certain rights, but insisted that amendments were needed to ensure that the eventual law reflected the reality of present-day Malta.

Mario Galea observed that it was ironic to have a government buy time on many issues by publishing green papers or white papers, but rushing through others. He insisted that while the government’s strong majority gave it the right to govern, it did not grant it its gift of omniscience.
What’s in a name?

But while the opposition MPs expressed their concerns on adoption by gay couples and were generally non-committal on the issue, Parliamentary Secretary for Culture José Herrera subsequently stressed that gay people have already been allowed to adopt children in Malta, even though it was known that they were cohabiting with their partner and would raise the children jointly. The only difference, he pointed out, was that could only adopt as single persons in the absence of any legal recognition of their relationship.

Both Dr Herrera and Luciano Busuttil clarified that the only effective difference between civil unions and civil marriage was in the name, with the former stating that the government took Maltese culture in tradition into account but ultimately sought not do differentiate between straight and gay couples when it came to their rights. Dr Busuttil, on his part, emphasised that what interested the government was the end result, and not the names.

Dr Herrera also focused on a legal point, clarifying to Dr Dalli that he agreed with the spirit of the law, but nevertheless felt the need to clarify some legal aspects. One issue that was not yet clear, the parliamentary secretary said, was whether criminal provisions against bigamy would apply to civil unions, and particularly to those engaged in a civil union and a civil marriage simultaneously.

In his address, Dr Busuttil recalled that in recent years, the Nationalist Party’s stance on gay rights was somewhat different, insisting that the party’s spell in the opposition benches appeared to be beneficial in this regard. He noted that in 2009, then-Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg had spoken against ensuring the protection of cohabiting and gay couples during debates on rent reform.

Parliamentary Secretary Michael Farrugia, on the other hand, noted that the PN first appeared to back the bill, only to mysteriously change its position along the way, which prompted Mario Galea to insist that he mention whoever said that the PN would vote in favour of the bill.

He recalled that as the minister responsible for family affairs between 1996 and 1998, he had to sign various care orders concerning children who were not being cared for properly by married couples, stressing that gay couples would only be allowed to adopt, as everyone else is, following proper scrutiny.

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