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No remorse about divorce

Nationalist Party general secretary Paul Borg Olivier tells Herman Grech his party has been consistent on the divorce issue.

How would you describe the state of your party at this point in time?

Considering the current political climate, the PN is still strong. The PN never feared having contrasting voices within its fold. On the contrary, it’s these contrasting voices which make the party stronger.

A party in government has to govern according to a political mandate and update its policies. This party is working and delivering in line with its programme.

From an outsider’s point of view, the PN is making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. There’s party infighting, frequent backbench unrest, very public fallouts...

It’s not wrong for a backbencher to speak out and take action in the interest of his ­district.

There’s nothing wrong in speaking out, but we’re seeing threats which could destabilise the government.

I don’t think it’s the threats that destabilise the government. Take the divorce issue. Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando is expressing himself freely, after the Prime Minister made it clear he would give a free vote, and he still voted with the government.

It might be perceived instability.

It could well be the case, but when you see a track record – Jesmond Mugliett criticising the government about the black dust issue, former Commissioner Joe Borg criticising the unethical way he was told he would not be reappointed, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando raising several issues...

These things also happened in the past. Before 2008 Dr Pullicino Orlando himself had raised the issue of the cement factory and the proposed landfill close to the temples.

Things never escalated the way they are today.

You have to see why this is happening. Every time a government MP is a little out of line, you see the opposition pouncing. The government backbench is being more proactive.

Don’t you fear that the PN has something intrinsically wrong with its strategy?

I don’t think it’s a matter of strategy.

It appears that the party is not being managed when you have backbenchers saying they’re not being consulted and when you see the PN washing its dirty linen in public.

It’s a matter of diversity. It’s a strength, not a weakness.

We are living in a time when the media and political limelight are more intense than ever before. We are more exposed.

The honoraria issue made the headlines this year. Did it damage the party?

Yes, undoubtedly. Especially because of the way it was presented by the opposition, the honoraria case triggered off a negative perception and damaged us.

I agree that every MP should be paid for his work and ministers should not be disadvantaged. The shortcoming was an administrative one, and that has been amended.

Ultimately, the government made a spectacular U-turn on this issue.

It was the Labour Party which made a spectacular U-turn because it was opportunistic.

While saying it disagreed with the introduction of the honoraria, it knew very well about the issue in 2008, as evidenced by statements made by (MPs) George Vella and Joe Mizzi.

At the same time, in 2009 The Sunday Times reported that the PL made a €7.2 million annual state funding proposal at the expense of the taxpayer.

We can ask the Labour Party about that...

... But it’s my duty to expose the opportunism of a political party.

There seems to be a pattern of U-turns – from the St John’s Co-Cathedral extension to the U-turns on the divorce issue.

In politics you have to take decisions and you have to be courageous to correct decisions. That’s not a shortcoming.

The Prime Minister first said he favoured a divorce referendum. The PN executive then decided the issue should first be sanctioned by Parliament. Two days later there was a knee-jerk reaction from the PN, saying it would not oppose a Labour proposal.

The PN didn’t make any U-turns on divorce. It’s Labour and its leader that made the U-turn.

Several times in the past, the oppo­sition leader said the ­referen­dum was a waste of time and that Parliament should decide. Since Dr Pullicino Orlando’s Private Member’s Bill, we’ve consistently said the electorate should decide.

The ‘double hurdle’ always exists. A no vote in the referendum would mean the issue won’t be discussed in Parliament.

Do you think minority rights issues should be dictated by the majority or Parliament?

This party was not given a mandate to legislate in favour of divorce.

That’s why I’m asking whether you consider divorce to be a minority rights issue.

The divorce issue doesn’t concern just those facing the problem.

Many would disagree with your assessment.

The PN started off on the premise of strengthening the family and it’s stated in the (approved party) motion that the state of the family is still strong.

Several people, including (former Human Rights judge) Giovanni Bonello argue that divorce is a minority issue which shouldn’t be dictated by a popular vote.

If we agree that Parliament should discuss the issue, why are so many claiming the Prime Minister wants to kill the issue in Parliament. We’ve been consistent about the referendum because we had no mandate to legislate.

The government likes citing the word ‘mandate’. But in reality it introduced several measures without a mandate – Malta’s membership to the Partnership for Peace just four days after the election, the honoraria increase...

...But you’ve got issues which are so fundamental in nature when you’re dealing with the family... Let’s not forget the Labour Party opportunism...

...yes we can forget it. I’m asking you about the PN.

As general secretary I have a duty to reply because we operate in the context of a two-party system.

The Labour Party has remained silent on this issue without taking a position. The PN has taken a decision, it knows it has no mandate, it proposed a referendum, and no one can accuse the party of any U-turns.

There are some issues we consider as foregone conclusions nowadays, like giving rights to the disabled, to gays. Dr Muscat has always argued that divorce is a minority rights issue which shouldn’t be dictated by the masses.

So why is he now proposing a referendum?

Maybe because that is the only way divorce can be decided upon in this country.

Or maybe because the minority against divorce in the PL is bigger than the minority in favour of divorce in the PN.

Let’s also not forget the democratic system in our country. Nobody can wake up in the morning and decide to hold a referendum.

Ten per cent of the population can decide to change a law. You need the majority of MPs to propose a referendum, the same way you need a majority of MPs to propose a law.

Let’s use the moral argument. The PN makes it clear it wants to promote the family. So why is it proposing a cohabitation law?

They are two different arguments.

The difference is that divorce gives you the right to re-marry, cohabitation doesn’t.

The PN has consciously kept the two issues separate even if we did consider making reference to cohabitation in our resolution. The obligations of cohabitation should consider the vulnerable in an established relationship.

In the UK, several court statements made it clear that rights should be given to the vulnerable who are cohabiting. Cohabitation is not necessarily the result of something that went wrong. Divorce is a means, not a value, to regulate a failed marriage...

...while giving the right to the couple to re-marry.

But one should keep the two issues separate. The PN needs to continue discussing cohabitation.

Let’s not forget that the party did not abolish the internal and parliamentary divorce debate.

The PN argues that divorce was not mentioned in the electoral manifesto. The cohabitation issue wasn’t either.

The cohabitation issue was less specific in the electoral programme but was described in the government programme as declared by the President.

A government operates according to a party programme.

It was described less in the programme. It was explained in the 1998 programme and there were statements to that effect before the election.

You are talking about 1998.

It was clear there would be legislation towards protecting the vulnerable who are cohabiting. It’s less specific in the 2008 programme.

It wasn’t mentioned.

No, it wasn’t.

The PN loves talking about values and strengthening the family. If divorce is so bad for society, why did traditionally Catholic countries like Ireland and Italy introduce it years ago?

Comparisons are odious. It’s not just a matter of culture. The social texture of our country is different to others.

So we’re the only ‘different’ country in the world.

In Europe, we’re the only country along with Germany which registered progress in its economy.

The economy is different to social aspects.

The Maltese family is still strong.

It’s not true. Figures don’t reflect what you’re saying.

Figures do reflect it.

It depends which figures you’re using.

God forbid we decide on numbers.

Twenty per cent (are separated).

That’s a cumulative figure. You can’t compare it with three per cent... The way it’s measured is different. I don’t want to get lost on discussing figures.

Figures are very important.

It’s a misnomer to say that the state of the family in Malta is deteriorating. The family is still strong.

The political thrust of the PN is to protect the state of the family and to stop it being fragmented.

Figures simply don’t bear out your argument.

The 22 per cent figure of separations is cumulative.

Let’s look at the element of solidarity. The strength of a united family and the definition of the immediate family and the greater family is much stronger. We’re closer to one another in affinity.

The Irish would argue in the same way and they did introduce divorce.

I think in our case it’s stronger.

Who decided that?

The institution of the family is still strong in Malta. We can agree to disagree.

Some people argue that the PN is not a secular party and its decisions are merely dictated by the Church.

That is absolutely false. The PN makes a distinction between the Church and state. The party is driven by its own values.

I have my own Christian values and I use them in my political work.

But if I look at the common good, the family – these are principles of natural justice independent of the Church.

Why wasn’t a secret vote taken during last week’s PN executive meeting when it discussed divorce?

The executive doesn’t normally take a secret vote. The discussion in the PN was open. We heard arguments in favour and against divorce.

Could the open vote decision have stopped those who are pro-divorce from choosing to vote otherwise, simply to appear to be in line with the Prime Minister’s views?

I don’t think this was the case. The internal debate in five meetings of the executive was open with contrasting ideas.

The motion I drafted reflected the spirit of the executive.

One argument made in the executive meeting was that couples should be prepared to make many sacrifices and not resort to divorce. Do you back these arguments?

Everyone has a right to make arguments. It’s not a matter whether I agree or not.

I respect everyone’s opinion. When I proposed the motion I made it clear we need to respect everyone’s opinion.

The PN has now taken a decision against divorce, while respecting diverse opinions. Is the decision cast in stone?

This decision was taken in light of a Bill it was presented with and in the context of social realities.

Will this policy remain for years to come?

Politics is a process. Today, that motion binds the PN according to the values it believes in. It’s not a conservative decision which alienates the liberal element within our party.

Aren’t you seeing parallels with the Labour Party’s anti-EU stand in 2003 and the way it was forced to change its position?

The PN took a decision after five meetings...

...ignoring the fact that the rate of separations has increased.

The party is not saying it’s insensitive to them.

It’s ignoring them.

No it isn’t. That’s an unjust statement.

We have to respect each other’s opinions. I hope that whoever disagrees with me or my party’s stand also respects us and not treat us as though we’ve committed a mortal sin.

We’re moving towards a referendum. Will the PN campaign against divorce?

The PN knows there are two movements in favour and against divorce. I think this issue should not be politicised in a partisan manner, even though the PN took a stand.

We should allow the two movements to objectively express their positions so people can take a mature decision.

So you’re saying the PN will not campaign against divorce.

No, I’m not saying that. It depends what you mean by campaign.

I’m asking you as general secretary. What do you intend to do?

The PN understands there are different movements. The PN has to see in which context it’s going to participate.

Will you join the anti-divorce lobby?

My position is clear. Whether I join the bandwagon is secondary. Let’s remember the PN is also giving a free vote to its MPs.

Do you think the PN should make reference to divorce in its next electoral manifesto?

The PN has never made reference to divorce in its manifesto.

I think we’ve always managed to attract the liberal faction to the party despite not mentioning divorce in our manifesto.

The liberal faction doesn’t just think about divorce – it takes every political decision into consideration.

But the liberals are normally in favour of divorce. Don’t you fear that in one fell swoop you’re going to alienate these people from the party?

I don’t think so. If we wanted to do so we would have stalled the Private Member’s Bill process.

It was the PN which invited the liberal movement to participate in the referendum even though divorce wasn’t mentioned in our manifesto.

Our party is open to diversity.

After all this, can the PN afford not to mention divorce in its next electoral manifesto?

We have to draw up a programme in the context of what we want to project.

Divorce won’t be the be-all and end-all of the next election. There are other issues. It’s a long-term vision.

Don’t you fear that by objecting to divorce, you have donated a trump card to Labour?

I disagree. The PL is being opportunistic and that’s why it abdicated from taking a stand.

In the midst of all these issues, the polls can’t be too encouraging for the PN, especially in the third year of an administration.

God forbid if the PN had to look solely at the mid-term polls. They are just indications. You get into government with a specific programme which you have to carry out.

In the context of the local and international scenario, the PN has taken the most courageous decisions.

Despite the difficulties, it’s yielding concrete results, especially in the economy. Let’s not get carried away with issues like divorce at the expense of other important decisions.

Together with this administration, I became general secretary during one of the most difficult periods – when faced with the biggest global financial crisis.

But the statements made by (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel, the International Monetary Fund and the European Parliament president about our economic achievements are all a credit to Lawrence Gonzi’s leadership.

When the time comes for the election do you think the electorate will recall these achievements you mention or will it remember the problems within the backbench, the U-turns, and issues like divorce?

It’s our duty to make our achievements known, to show the way workers have retained their jobs, while other countries have been crippled.

It’s also the media’s duty to make them visible. It would be good for the media to expose the economic achievements the way it’s exposing the divorce issue.

These achievements come about through difficult decisions.

What about your own plans? Will you contest the general election?

I already had the opportunity to be a candidate for the co-option when Michael Frendo became Speaker.

I’ve shown the executive members that my choice is to continue serving in my current post.

This interview was carried out on Thursday afternoon, before the Prime Minister proposed the May 28 referendum date.

Watch excerpts of the interview on www.timesofmalta.com

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