So it really is about conscience and faith after all, stupid.
After we were dragged through a bruising campaign, during which all kinds of more-or-less credible excuses – from maintenance, to child welfare, to spurious statistics – were brought up to keep an almost universally-recognised legal mechanism from our shores, the ball is back in parliament’s court after the people (somewhat surprisingly, it must be said) returned a Yes verdict despite all the institutional odds stacked against the pro-divorce camp.
The first, extremely tough hurdle was overcome in defiance of the combined firepower of two extremely privileged players in our semi-secular polity: the Roman Catholic Church and the Nationalist Party. And let’s stop this indecent talk of the Church having the right to give its views like everyone else, which appears to have been the Prime Minister’s main concern when questioned about his voting intentions on the 31 May. The Church is a highly privileged institutionalised organisation in Malta, with its own niche carved out in the Constitution.
We now have fairly credible confirmation that some key members of the ruling party are not simply close to the Catholic Church, but are actually amalgamated to it, as the increasingly eloquent Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando put it on Dissett last Wednesday. Pullicino Orlando revealed many interesting things during his interview with Reno Bugeja, several of which were picked up by the press, but this statement is pretty damning confirmation of what a few of us have been claiming for a number of years. And it goes to the very core of the constitutional crisis we are faced with now.
Along the years, prominent columnists and commentators – from Daphne Caruana Galizia to Ranier Fsadni – have, in their very different styles, attempted to downplay the fears expressed by those of us who warned that consolidating the current PN leadership presented a real risk of confessional politics taking over. When we warned that the key PN figures appeared to derive their central ethos and inspiration from the Vatican, rather than from secular constitutional values and that this was inherently problematic, our concerns were brushed away.
Today, those fears have come back to haunt us. In a big, big way.
What we are witnessing post-referendum is nothing less that a constitutional crisis. There are no two ways about it. It is unacceptable in a secular democracy for members of parliament to simply brush off journalists’ questions about their voting intentions on a matter of such importance. It is equally unacceptable for them to refer the population to their conscience as this creates an irresolvable tension between the democratic process and religious dogma which can never be solved through dialogue – an essential component of modern democracies.
The truth of the matter is that for these MPs – including the Prime Minister – faith will always trump any other considerations. And as we are witnessing emphatically now, those ‘other considerations’ include a clear referendum vote, thereby undermining the democratic process itself. This is exactly what I meant a few years back when I argued that several factors pointed to the fact that the Nationalist Party leadership’s inspiration derives from the Vatican and that this is a serious threat to the democratic process.
The central problem, in fact, is not that certain MPs have said that they might not vote Yes. In certain circumstances, such as for example in the case of a hypothetical referendum vote on the reintroduction of the death penalty (as happened in Switzerland recently), an MP’s No vote can be justified with reference to serious humanitarian concerns and significant international pressure opposing that practice. This should be kept in mind when we argue that the only outcome must be a blanket Yes vote in parliament in the case of every single referendum, especially when that referendum is a consultative one.
In the case of divorce, however, there are no compelling reasons – humanitarian, international or otherwise – to justify a No vote in parliament. Indeed, the world largely treats divorce as an essential civil mechanism. The only remaining objection, then, is faith which is why Gonzi, Fenech, Gatt and Cristina are resorting to two tactics: being evasive and making generic references to their conscience.
Both are fundamentally anti-democratic stances. The first because the democratic process requires dialogue and transparency at all stages of the process, including the phase which precedes an election or a crucial vote. The second because as the philosopher Jürgen Habermas has shown, in the institutional sphere of a properly functioning democracy “all norms, if they are to gain juridical approval, must be formulated, and publicly justified, in a language that all the citizens can understand…The principle of the separation of Church and State obliges politicians and bureaucracies in the domain of state institutions to formulate and justify laws, judicial decisions, ordinances and provisions exclusively in a language that is equally accessible to all the citizens”.
This excludes arguments put forward in the language of a particular faith.
These are absolutely inviolable conditions of the democratic constitutional procedure and no fudging of parliamentary procedures in the form of secret votes will avoid this crucial fact. For Prime Minister Gonzi and those in his inner circle an irresolvable tension has inevitably been created between what – from their perspective – are two absolute values: their ultra-orthodox religious beliefs and the democratic will of the people.
Our duty as responsible citizens is to refuse to be appeased by promises that ‘the vote will pass anyway’. The people have a crucial interest and right to know how each individual Member of Parliament, in particular the Prime Minister himself, will vote in this crucial moment of our parliamentary history. L-interess tal-poplu u n-nazzjon taghna deserve no less.
This article first appeared on Malta Today, 6th June 2001