The gender quotas mechanism has, so far at least, failed, as I had vociferously warned it would do, for various reasons.
That is the only conclusion to draw from the fact that there has been no increase in female candidatures for the upcoming general election, the very first opportunity to test the effectiveness of the brand new mechanism. Reforms’ effectiveness are assessed not just on paper, but also in practice.
There will be 42 female candidates running for a seat in parliament on March 26. In the 2017 general election, there were 41.
If the scope of this reform, a main pillar in the last legislature, was to attract more female participation in parliamentary politics this reform, then it has so far completely missed the mark. And things can only get worse, with the mechanism being already challenged in court.
Let’s hope at least that female candidates manage to garner a greater share of the total amount of valid votes cast in the upcoming election. That would be a silver lining to the poor participation cloud, and I take the opportunity to wish them all the best of luck.
It is worth recalling that Roberta Metsola, a woman who has reached the highest heights in local politics, needed no quotas to propel her to the very top of European institutions.
This issue is now no longer an academic issue, but rather a practical, political and constitutional one. This is a measure that, at least for the next legislature, will only serve to disfigure the composition of parliament, without even achieving, at least so far, its primary objective of increasing female participation in parliamentary politics. For at least one would have hoped that increased female parliamentary representation through positive discrimination would be a result of greater participation through more female candidates.
First of all, any measure that inflates an already inflated parliament is wrong on that count. Malta already has one of the world’s largest parliaments on a per capita basis. In the UK, an MP represents 70,000 voters. A Maltese MP represents 5,000 voters, since each 25,000-voter district returns five MPs, and now even more.
We should be striving to reduce parliament in size, not enlarge it. A decade ago, as a Nationalist MP with all this in mind, I had made such a proposal as part of a holisitic constitutional reform, parts of which have been implemented since then.
My proposal was to have a smaller parliament of full-time MPs - not one or the other, but both. Unfortunately from time to time this country discusses the easy part - full-time MPs, an issue of secondary importance - whilst ignoring the hard part - a smaller Parliament, the basic issue of primary importance.
This could be a 49-member parliament, with seven districts returning seven MPs each. Any electoral and parliamentary reform over the next five years should move towards such a 7x7 parliament, which is within the terms of the Constitution.
Just as we are moving to enlarge our parliament, many other countries are moving in the opposite direction. Italy recently legislated to decrease the size of its parliament and senate by a third. Luxembourg, with a population of 600,000 people, has 60 MPs - a larger population than Malta’s, but with a smaller parliament.
Moreover, having more MPs, as this gender mechanism entails, will further accentuate the national political malaise of clientelism. While politicians should always be accessible to their constituents, excessive familiarity breeds contempt and the more politicians per capita can only make matters worse. An over-inflated parliament is a clientelism incubator.
And indeed as I said some time ago, the last thing this country needs is to have even more MPs. If Parliament grows larger and the number of MPs goes on increasing, you will soon not be able to sneeze without an MP or someone from the political class popping up and offering you a tissue! MPs, local councillors and the rest, we’re on the verge of having more chiefs than Indians!
Indeed a smaller parliament of full-time MPs would remedy this problem, attracting the best brains and high achievers, irrespective of gender, and ensuring that the dignity and prestige of the institution is preserved.
Only by decreasing parliament’s size, thus increasing competition for a seat within it and thereby enhancing the institution’s prestige, can one attract the best individuals to what is the country’s highest institution.
A successful person, male or female or otherwise, would be more willing to contribute in an environment of like-minded people, rather than being attracted by lax or diluted requirements. Since when does one achieve higher standards by lowering the requirements or eligibility criteria?
Successful people are used to overcoming difficulties, not to having them removed and parliament needs successful people to run the country.
Restricted parliamentary membership would be a catalyst for attracting the best people. Extending membership and diluting the selection process for MPs, on the other hand, is a disincentive to attracting top talent.
Furthermore, the gender balancing mechanism will further accentuate the problem of some candidates getting a seat in parliament despite having garnered just a handful of votes. This is a problem that has plagued parliament for years, through by-elections. The new mechanism will not create it but exacerbate it.
To reiterate: if we want to improve the quality of local parliamentarians and step up the quality of Malta’s political system, the solution is a smaller parliament made up of full-time MPs: just as I had proposed a decade ago, possibly a 7x7 model of seven MPs from seven districts parliamentary model which would be tailor-made for our realities. Making the electoral process more selective and competitive could also address the current voter apathy and disillusionment that have so far characterised the current campaign.
Wishing all female candidates, as well as all the rest, the best of luck, and hoping the new mechanism, if retained, will be more fruitful in the future.
Franco Debono is a practising criminal defence lawyer and a former Nationalist MP.