Charging the electorate
On March 16, Parliament approved a motion – with a majority of 36 out of 69 members – for the holding of a consultative referendum on May 28 on the introduction of divorce. It also approved the referendum question: “Do you agree with having the option of having divorce for married couples who have been separated for four years when there is no reasonable hope for reconciliation and when adequate maintenance is guaranteed and the children are cared for”. Both sides were given a free vote.
Joseph Muscat expressed the view that the Bill should be withdrawn during this legislature if the people voted no in the referendum.
The two MPs who presented the Private Members’ Bill, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Evarist Bartolo, emphasising that the people’s voice expressed in a referendum would be heard, declared they would withdraw it if the majority voted against the introduction of divorce in a referendum.
Lawrence Gonzi, speaking after the motion was carried, said he would respect the vote of the people and would grant another free vote to the Nationalist Party.
Immediately after the motion was passed, The Sunday Times asked MPs how they would vote after the divorce referendum (March 20). Not all of them appreciated the initiative. Nationalist MP Edwin Vassallo, referring to the survey, said “this exercise can only prejudice MPs’ sincerity. This is a consultative referendum that is not binding and you cannot twist MPs’ arms when divorce was on nobody’s mandate”. Mr Vassallo, together with Dr Pullicino Orlando, is one of five PN members for the 11th district.
Out of 69 MPs, The Sunday Times succeeded to put the question to 67 of them. Of those contacted, 10 –seven PN and three Labour – did not commit themselves. In the words of the journalist, the result “shows the majority will not thwart the democratic process, even if in certain cases the result and their beliefs are intrinsically opposed”.
Let’s consider the composition of this democratic majority.
Forty-five MPs – of which 16 PN and 29 PL – declared that, whatever their personal convictions, they would vote in Parliament during this legislature in line with the will of the majority in the referendum. PL’s Carmelo Abela is a case in point. With admirable clarity, this is what he replied: “I’m against divorce but if we’re going to the people to hear what they have to say I’m morally obliged to follow the will of the majority”. The PN’s Ċensu Galea is another: “Hopefully, there will not be a conflict between my values and the outcome in the referendum result. However, we have to take note of what the people say”.
Another six – three from each side – revealed that if it comes to a conflict between their moral convictions and the referendum result, they will abstain.
Francis Zammit Dimech (PN) is an example: “I will act in such a way that will respect the people’s decision, so if the result is a win for the yes camp, I will abstain to ensure the people’s will prevails”. Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca (PL) has chosen the same path: “I will not hinder the democratic process. I will respect the people’s wishes but my convictions against divorce remain, so I will abstain from voting on the Bill in Parliament”.
And then there is a minority of 12 – of whom 11 PN and one PL – all of whom are (I presume unconditionally) against divorce, that have declared that they would vote against the Bill even if a majority at the referendum vote in favour of it. The word “even” is actually unnecessary for the simple reason that if a majority vote against divorce, then the Bill will be withdrawn by the two members that presented it and no MP would need to “thwart the democratic process”.
As uncompromising on this issue as his father, Beppe Fenech Adami (PN) is one of them. He said: “I will vote against any divorce legislation irrespective of the referendum result”. Why do I bring Eddie Fenech Adami into the picture? For the same reason that prompted Fr Renè Camilleri, on this paper on February 26, to argue that the PN – and, consequently, the opposition – would have taken a more arms-distance position had Eddie Fenech Adami not intervened so heavy-handedly. Quote: “What I believe changed the scenario at the eleventh hour was the unexpected and unwarranted pressure exerted by a former President and by a Cabinet member to bring the party in government to change direction”.
In my previous article I suggested that the former PN leader has stepped in to enable the PN to appeal, on the one hand, to its hard-line electorate and, and the other, to a more moderate, more reasonable and less conservative electorate. While Eddie Fenech Adami appeals to the PN’s traditional core constituency – with his son Beppe positioning himself to reap the personal political dividends – Lawrence Gonzi, reassured that the core is taken care of, can afford to reach out to the more modern floating fringes so crucial at the coming election.
On August 2, I argued that we should avoid emotionally aggressive crusades on this issue so as to permit individuals to make up their mind with the serenity that such a decision demands (www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100802/opinion/plea-for-sober-civilised-debate). I underestimated the appeal of crusades for those that understand that emotionally charged electorates are easier to dupe.
This article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on April 11, 2011, and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110411/opinion/charging-the-electorate