Divorce: winners and losers
An unexpectedly strong victory for the pro-divorce movement spells a defeat for those campaigning against its introduction. Christian Peregin lists the key players who will gain from this result and those who have the most to lose.
Couples who need divorce
Many people have been waiting for years to be able to divorce their estranged spouses and marry their present partners. This referendum result means Parliament will most probably legislate on divorce, finally giving them a chance to get the marriage status they have been seeking and allowing their children to be born within wedlock. Divorce legislation will also be good news for family lawyers and wedding planners who are bound to benefit from a spike in business.
Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando
Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando took a chance when he presented a Private Member’s Bill on divorce less than a year ago and pitted himself against his one-seat majority government. But this result vindicates him as one of the few MPs to read the country’s zeitgeist. Although his political future had long been considered blurry, he has now etched a niche for himself as one of the more liberal Nationalist MPs.
Deborah Schembri went from being a relatively unknown family lawyer to the leader and most prominent member of the pro-divorce campaign. She has made a name for herself as an eloquent and level-headed politician-in-the-making and a female role model. Although she said she would keep her options open to a career in politics, it has yet to be seen whether one of the two big political parties will rope her in.
Pro-divorce Opposition leader Joseph Muscat was instrumental in getting a large majority of Labourites to vote in favour of divorce. He was also the one to insist on a referendum when it became clear that a divorce Bill would be rejected in Parliament. Although the promise of divorce legislation could have been one of his pledges to win the next election, this issue has helped him project himself as the alternative Prime Minister for people who feel Lawrence Gonzi is too conservative.
Although it never managed to elect any MPs, this is AD’s second referendum victory (the party also backed EU membership). AD is also the only political party to have taken a stand in favour of divorce, which it did many years ago. Dr Pullicino Orlando has also publicly acknowledged that it was on AD’s insistence that he looked at the Irish divorce law to see how it could be adapted to Malta. But can this victory help it do better at general elections?
The other Yes campaigners
The Yes movement brought together a number of prominent and lesser-known politicians who carved a niche for themselves. Among those who will definitely benefit from this experience are Labour MP Evarist Bartolo (who has already been declared spokesman for civil rights by his party) and Nationalist local councillor Cyrus Engerer, who has actively campaigned for gay rights. Former Nationalist minister Michael Falzon may also find that the campaign has expanded his sphere of influence.
By taking an active role in campaigning against divorce – with some of its most prominent members even intimating that voting for divorce is a sin – the significant Yes victory means a big blow for the Church. This is the first time in recent history that the Church’s influence has been tested, and the outcome was not what many of its members were hoping for. But worst of all, the Church’s words and actions alienated many pro-divorce Catholics. The Church may rethink the way it expresses its opposition to changes in legislation which go against its teachings.
Adopting an anti-divorce stance has left the governing political party with a bitter pill to swallow. This may spark an identity crisis within the party which is now struggling to unite social liberals and conservatives under its Christian-Democrat umbrella. However, with the divorce issue out of the way, the PN still has chance to recharge itself before the next general election.
Vehemently against divorce, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi always gave the impression that divorce would not enter the statute books under his watch. But the people have now told him he must legislate, whether he likes it or not. On this issue Dr Gonzi has consistently been made to look weak and at the mercy of his one-seat majority in Parliament. This undesirable referendum outcome could haunt him throughout the next two years and at the next general election.
After Dr Pullicino Orlando tabled his divorce Bill in Parliament, it became increasingly clear that his proposal did not enjoy the support of the majority of MPs. In fact, a number of MPs threatened to vote down the Bill before even discussing it, prompting the Labour Party to suggest a referendum. On this issue Parliament has been seen as shirking its duties to legislate and can now be criticised for not being truly representative of the people’s aspirations.
Taxpayers forked out €4 million for this referendum to be held, making it a costly exercise which could have been avoided if politicians had gauged the public mood better. The campaign also shifted attention from more important issues such as the reform of Air Malta, the impact of the Libyan crisis and the controversy surrounding the salaries of Cabinet members.
People who don’t want to be divorced
Divorce legislation, as is being proposed, will allow people to divorce their spouses unilaterally, meaning some people who prefer to remain married to their estranged spouses will now have divorce imposed on them. It also means those who were comfortably cohabiting and using the lack of divorce as an excuse not to marry their partner will have to explain the real reasons why they do not want to get remarried.