Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat told Parliament yesterday that he would be campaigning in the run-up to the referendum on divorce because he wanted to be on the side of those who were suffering, independently of vote considerations.
Speaking at the end of a 10-sitting debate on a motion for the holding of a divorce referendum, Dr Muscat said the core issue was not one of divorce or the referendum, but whether Malta should start the process to modernise society so that the country would be truly European.
When Malta voted for EU membership it did not merely vote for membership in an institution but to adopt the social and cultural choices based on the European concept. The debate before the House was a continuation of this European choice.
The concepts of religion and values were often mixed up by speakers when religion did not impose a monopoly on values.
Dr Muscat said his position in favour of divorce derived from a simple aspiration – that of living in a European country. To be a European meant to have a set of values in which one believed in and with which one could live. European ideals cherished democracy, equality, tolerance and solidarity among others. This derived from the doctrine of enlightenment which was also influenced by the Christian ethic.
Tolerance made for the respect of the ideas of others and let them take their own decisions. Tolerance should be the main value that distinguished many from those who wanted to impose their ideas on others but had the means to manoeuvre.
Malta had only the tolerance of hypocrisy, where the state closed one eye in cases of marriage breakups where there were no rights and obligations. This was not real tolerance.
Dr Muscat declared that he was a Catholic but he had, early in his political career, taken advice and solved his internal conflict between his religion and his socio-political beliefs. His decisions would be taken according to his conscience and not based on dogma.
This was no contradiction. There were thousands of Labour Party supporters who were still suffering from the politico-religious conflict of the 1960s where it was a mortal sin to vote Labour and were humiliated by being buried in the unconsecrated part of the cemetery known as Il-Miżbla because of their political beliefs. Among them was Ġuże Ellul Mercer, who died holding the Holy Cross.
Many Labour supporters returned to the Church but others still did not feel comfortable within it. The Church had a right to oppose divorce. And, as a politician he had the right and duty, after examining his conscience, to speak on the need to introduce divorce as part of the process of Europeanisation.
He was speaking as a Catholic legislator who wanted to protect all constituents, not just Catholics.
Dr Muscat strongly criticised Family Minister Dolores Cristina who had declared that the number of marriage breakups was relatively small and the issue resulted from the wrong perception of those favouring divorce. This was the same argument brought on poverty. These people were living in a state of denial reducing the debate to numbers when it affected human beings. Who could deny rights to people who were suffering?
Responsible divorce focussed on this problem and presented the opportunity to take a good look at society and move a step forward to face this challenge.
Those who opposed divorce were inconsistent on separation and annulment. The cases of multiple annulments of marriage were worse than multiple cases of divorce because these declared that previous marriages never existed.
Malta’s legal system accepted multiple annulments but not divorce from Malta. This was a hypocritical situation. Many thought there was no need to regulate this situation.
Dr Muscat contended that it was time to re-examine civil separation and annulment laws in order to address problems mentioned in the debate. He agreed that the Church should also re-examine the way how annulment decisions were taken.
Divorce was less damaging to children than annulment because the latter denied that the marriage existed. It was also less painful than living with family conflict where marriage had failed and children were sometimes abused. Cohabitation was worse because the couple was not legally bound.
He criticised Finance Minister Tonio Fenech who said cohabitation could be regulated because it was a state of fact. Dr Muscat said this reasoning meant that one could regulate drug abuse because it was also a state of fact.
Many countries identified many reasons for marriage breakups. These included rampant consumerism, the urge to want to it have all and wanting it now, spending more hours at work and fewer at home, work pressures, education and expenses relating to health.
Those opposing divorce were comfortable with cohabitation which was unregulated and left children without rights.
Parliamentary Secretary Jason Azzopardi’s argument was one uttered by an extremist and one that confirmed the government had no social conscience.
The Prime Minister had questioned the issue of guaranteed maintenance but he was answered by his own deputy who said guaranteed maintenance already existed in separation cases.
Dr Muscat accepted the harsh address made by Edwin Vassallo as sincere, reflecting his belief, but when he spoke against double standards he had forgotten to refer to the law of cohabitation.
He gave examples of unjust situations that lacked a social conscience and said that Dr Gonzi had spoken with zeal on the evil of divorce but had not taken any action to prohibit the recognition of divorces obtained from foreign jurisdictions. If values were superior to law then international obligations should not be a good excuse.
He also questioned the double standards used by the government in proposing IVF treatment outside marriage thereby assisting the birth of children outside a married family.
Dr Muscat said he would retain his position, which he made clear even before taking up his position in the Labour Party. He said he had clearly stated he was in favour of divorce and should he be elected to govern he would introduce divorce legislation. He stressed he was in favour of obtaining an electoral mandate and for providing a free vote both in Parliament and in the referendum.
The three fronts formed in the government were clear indication that there were cracks in the party which was no more than a coalition between conservatives and liberals and one that resembled the “tea party” of Sarah Palin in the US.
Dr Muscat praised and thanked Labour Party members who were against divorce but were not willing to be anti-democratic. He insisted he would continue to allow a free vote on divorce.
The Labour Parliamentary group had decided on the proposed motion through a free and secret vote, and a free vote would continue to be followed in Parliament.
He questioned whether the PN, having taken a stand against divorce, would be campaigning for a “no” vote in the referendum and consequently refuse the people a free vote.
Should the motion be approved, this would be a triumph for honesty, democracy and common sense and one which gave the island another chance to become a European Malta.
He would vote in favour of divorce as this was according to his conscience, but he would likewise refrain from imposing his opinion on others. Unlike the Prime Minister, he would not sacrifice those men, women and children who want a second chance.
The importance of the question as proposed was that it would give future legislators a clear mandate on the type of divorce wanted by the people. A “yes” or “no” question would be too simplistic and would not bind future Parliaments. In this respect, he said it was irresponsible of the Prime Minister to give a carte blanche to future legislators.
In four years’ time it was expected to have one marital breakdown in every 10 marriages and this even though there was no divorce law. The fight for stronger families was not in prohibiting divorce but in preparing persons for marriage and for the state to take action with respect of marriage stress factors.
No alternative to the proposed question had been made. Although the Prime Minister had spent an hour ridiculing it, he had failed to present an amendment because he feared he would lose the vote.
At the end of his speech, Dr Muscat moved an amendment for the referendum to be held on May 28.
He praised the House for rising to the occasion but expressed disgust in relation to those who tried to throw mud and attack the reputation of the members who were in favour of divorce by attributing to them abortionist motives.
He also expressed disgust towards the words of Justice Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici who compared women to cars, and to the reference that Malta should follow Stalin who had removed divorce.
It was also unacceptable of members to say that those wanting divorce were capricious as this was disrespectful of those women who were in abusive relationships. It was insulting to persons who had passed through the painful trauma of marital breakdown to be told that they capriciously no longer lived with their spouse. Responsible divorce was not capricious but a difficult choice by persons to protect their family. He was hopeful that the debate that would follow a “yes” vote in the referendum would awaken the society from its deep slumber and make it realise there were persons who were suffering and who deserved better. He hoped this would lead to families based on reality rather than appearances.
The motion was approved by 36 votes in favour and 33 against with Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Jesmond Mugliett voting with the opposition.
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