Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi declared from the onset yesterday that he would be voting against divorce – a decision, he said, dictated solely by his conscience because when he was sworn in as Prime Minister, he had promised to perform his duties “faithfully and conscientiously” and “without fear or favour”.

Dr Gonzi said it was clear that a substantial majority would vote for the Bill on second reading, and more would vote in favour in the final, third reading vote.

Such a decision was not an easy one for MPs. They were elected to represent the people, who had decided in favour of the introduction of divorce in the referendum. And that decision had to be respected. But MPs also had independence of thought.

Dr Gonzi hit out at those who expected MPs to unanimously vote in favour of divorce, given that a large majority of the electorate had voted in its favour. He did not agree with this simplistic argument, which rendered the parliamentary process a waste of time.

MPs, Dr Gonzi said, must not abdicate their duty to legislate according to the oath of office they had taken. They also had to ensure that the law respected what the people were asked in the referendum question.

The referendum, he insisted had not neutralised MPs. It had not removed their conscience. The voice of the majority should not gag the vote of the minority.

Dr Gonzi said he hoped that liberalism would not reach the point where conscience was side lined in decision-making that involved the future of Maltese families.

He declared that he had a clear difficulty in finding a balance in respecting the people’s will and going against what he believed in.

Dr Gonzi thanked the Nationalist MPs for their contribution to the internal debate within the party – admittedly sometimes furious – but no one ever threatening anyone else on the basis of one’s decision. All MPs should feel at peace with themselves when they cast their vote, and he wished to thank them all in this “moment of truth”.

He explained that after Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando presented his Private Member’s Bill on the introduction of divorce, he had immediately said that MPs had no popular mandate and, therefore, the issue should be referred to the people. This he did and once the people decided, he immediately declared that the outcome would be respected, and that the Bill would be moved in Parliament quickly. He kept his word.

He had also promised that MPs would have a free vote, and that was being done as well. He had told MPs that they could vote as they wished without any fear of repercussions. This promise was also being kept.

He had also promised, however, that the government side would ensure that the outcome of the referendum was reflected in a majority in Parliament.

Dr Gonzi said he would have had major difficulties if the vote in the House did not reflect the outcome of the referendum, but this would not come about.

He said he had been consistently against divorce. Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat had said that as Prime Minister, Dr Gonzi should vote “yes”. By so doing, he was asking him to be a hypocrite with himself and with the people.

The people expected him to be clear and honest. Therefore, he was not even prepared to abstain, because by doing so he would be lacking in honesty with the people and himself.

True, he was Prime Minister and a party leader. He, therefore, had a duty to ensure that the Bill was approved through all stages in line with the outcome of the referendum.

Dr Gonzi said that another reason which dictated his position was the fact that according to legal analysis, the Bill, as presented, did not reflect the referendum question as it did not provide the guarantees that had been promised.

He recalled that he, and several other MPs, had voted against the opposition motion which proposed the referendum question. He had appealed to the opposition at the time for a clear, specific and reasonable question, but Dr Muscat had rebuffed his calls. His proposal would have enabled MPs to tailor the Divorce Bill in a way that achieved broad agreement.

Indeed, his original idea was for the Bill to be first debated in Parliament so that the people would know exactly what they would be voting for. Unfortunately, his suggestion had not been taken up. MPs were now in a straitjacket. They had to ensure that the referendum question was respected in full.

Last March, he had asked how would the legislation guarantee “adequate maintenance” as the referendum question promised. Alas, however, the referendum question remained unchanged, opening the door to various interpretations. Those who had remained stubborn should now explain.

The referendum question had also said that couples had to be separated or not living together for four years to be eligible for divorce. The Bill did not explain this either.

The question also said that children had to be safeguarded. Once again, the Bill did not say how.

As a lawyer, Dr Gonzi said, he could safely say that the Bill did not reflect the referendum question. There was no guarantee of adequate alimony and nothing on how children would be protected. He did not know how, legally, this problem could be solved. He would leave this up to the legal experts.

Guaranteeing adequate maintenance was not possible, and it was about time everyone was honest about this.

Some people had argued that maintenance could be guaranteed if people instituted a court case. That was not good enough. The people were not being given what had been promised only because Dr Muscat and the opposition were hard-headed.

Once this Bill was enacted, the government would also move Bills on cohabitation and IVF and he hoped the two sides of the House would also work together on those Bills in the interests of society.

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