The Nationalist Party could have voted against the Civil Unions Bill last night. Or voted in favour. Or given its MPs a free vote. It did none of these things; it instead chose to take the worst possible route: abstention.
Let’s take the options one by one. Voting against would have given the PN the opportunity to explain why.
The most controversial aspect of this Bill is not its marriage-in-all-but-name effect – even though that is a step which even a number of advanced countries have so far shied away from – but the State endorsing the facility for gay couples to adopt children.
Though adoption by gay couples already exists in Malta, by enshrining it in law the State is actively determining the future of a voiceless person: a child who is not old enough to decide for himself. That is a profound responsibility that cannot be taken lightly and where the interests of the child must always be the paramount consideration.
So it would have been understandable for the PN to make an argument saying that although it has no objection to civil unions, it is voting against the Bill because it does not believe the adoption provision adequately takes this important factor into account. Though not necessarily the best course politically, that would have been a clear and principled stand that people could understand.
Conversely, it could have voted in favour of the Bill – in the knowledge that it does contain certain provisions the PN endorses and that it was going to become law in any case given Labour’s majority. In doing so it could have made known its reservations on the gay adoption issue and criticised the contents of a law that it was powerless to prevent. While less of a principled stand, this would still have allowed it to make a point while embracing some of the voters it lost at the last election.
Option three was to give its MPs a free vote. This may have contributed to taking the sting out of any fractious internal discussions on the issue. The pitfalls, of course, would be to show up the PN as a party that is still unable to unify on an important issue that really and truly goes beyond a pure matter of conscience.
This leaves us with collective abstention. It is difficult to think of a single advantage this approach may hold.
The disadvantages, on the other hand, are several: one, it signals that rather than be a party of principle – which the PN has traditionally prided itself on being – it is trying to go for a form of political convenience that is really very inconvenient in political terms because it pleases nobody; two, it shows that the party is not only divided on this issue, but that its leader is not yet capable of bringing it round to his point of view (it would be very interesting to know what that is). Uniting on no position whatsoever is the stuff of village committees – not of the official Opposition. And three, the situation will no doubt cause bad feeling within the party without taking it forward in one direction or another. This is bad politics. It simply does not make sense to allow the spilling of blood within a party without achieving a bigger objective.
Only the PN itself can decide what direction it wants to take. But direction there must be. With its stand yesterday, there is only incoherence.