Absent MP ducks under the radar
PM has lost control - Labour
Nationalist Party backbencher Franco Debono, who on Monday left his party without a parliamentary majority when he walked out before a vote was taken, failed to come forward with an explanation yesterday as speculation grew over why he was absent at that crucial moment.
The MP did not make himself available for comment despite strenuous efforts to reach him. His law firm colleagues would not give information of his whereabouts while he failed to answer several calls, with his phone even hanging up at times.
The same happened with a number of PN officials who were trying to contact him, a party source told The Times.
Dr Debono was seen in Parliament at around 7 p.m. on Monday but was not present later when two votes were taken on amendments proposed to a motion for the setting up of a select committee to draft regulations on assisted procreation.
One of the amendments was proposed by the opposition, which was to have the Speaker of the House, rather than a PN parliamentarian, chair this committee. The other was proposed by the government side. For some reason which remains unexplained, Dr Debono went missing during these votes and would not answer calls on his mobile phone during a lengthy absence from the House.
As a result, both votes garnered 32 MPs in favour and 32 against.
The proposed amendments were then defeated through the Speaker's casting vote. The original motion was only passed after Dr Debono returned later in the evening.
The situation did not mean much for the government in practical terms since it was not a vote of no-confidence or a financial vote, which could have threatened it. However, the episode provoked much speculation within the PN yesterday and provided it with a chilling reminder of the vulnerability offered by its single-seat majority.
Labour's media speculated that a parliamentary group meeting yesterday afternoon was intended as an emergency meeting in which the Prime Minister would threaten a snap election to rein in people like Dr Debono.
However, PN sources flatly denied this, pointing out that the meeting had been scheduled well before Monday. In fact, the group was given a presentation by planning authority chairman Austin Walker as part of the agenda of the meeting.
On leaving the meeting, PN Whip David Agius also denied there was pressure on Dr Debono to resign after his absence in Parliament on Monday.
Still, the Labour Party insisted that events confirmed the Prime Minister had lost control of his parliamentary group which would have serious repercussions on the country.
Instead of facing what happened in Parliament, Dr Gonzi typically tried to evade the problem by not speaking about it, the Labour Party said.
One theory being peddled by flabbergasted PN officials was that Dr Debono is angry at a rumour making the rounds that the Speaker and main rival on his constituency, Louis Galea, could find his way back into the Cabinet again after John Dalli's departure to become a European Commissioner.
"To be completely honest, nobody knows why he acted the way he did but the main theory seems to be this Louis Galea connection," one PN source said, adding this was only speculation. "Whatever the reason he has really crossed the line as far as many are concerned in the party."
The fact that Dr Debono was incommunicado yesterday meant he could not be asked to confirm or deny this suggestion.
The MP has been often lumped with a list of other "disgruntled backbenchers", however, he has consistently denied forming part of this camp and recently even declared that he does not feel disgruntled.
However, the rivalry between himself and Dr Galea's faction on the fifth district, which was won by the 35-year-old in the last general election, is well known.
What happened in Parliament
In a statement, the Office of the Speaker gave an explanation of why Dr Galea cast his vote twice over proposed amendments to two parliamentary motions.
Two motions were before the House on Monday evening and two votes were to be taken: to set up a select committee to draft regulations on assisted procreation and to set up another to make recommendations on the re-codifications of Maltese law.
There was a tie of 32 votes in favour and 32 against when two votes were taken on amendments proposed to the motion for the creation of the assisted procreation committee.
One amendment had been forwarded by the government and the other by the opposition. Both were rejected by the Speaker's casting vote.
Parliament then voted on the original motion for the assisted procreation committee which ended up with a government majority of 33 votes in favour and 32 against (when Dr Debono returned to the Chamber).
Another vote was taken on the opposition's proposed amendment to the second motion, on the select committee on re-codification, and it was rejected with 33 votes against and 32 in favour. The motion was then passed by the same margin.
According to Erskine May, seen as the bible of parliamentary practice, the Speaker should always vote for the original motion to remain in its original form, the Office of the Speaker explained.
Furthermore, the Speaker should always vote so that, if possible, debate could continue and, where further discussion was not possible, the final decision should not be taken unless backed by a majority of MPs. That was what happened yesterday, the Office said.
The last time the government failed to muster a majority in the House was during the 1996-1998 legislation when Alfred Sant was Prime Minister. The government currently has a one-seat majority in the 69-member House, compared to a five-seat majority in the previous legislature.