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‘Something I had to do’

Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando tells Herman Grech his party will only be spared embarrassment if all MPs reflect last week’s Yes to divorce.

A few days after the electorate gave the thumbs up to the introduction of divorce in Malta, how do you feel?

I’m proud to be Maltese.

Do you feel the Yes result has helped reintegrate you into the mainstream?

I never felt out of the mainstream. This was a political issue I took on with friends. The most interesting aspect of the campaign is that all parts of the political spectrum pooled in their resources. I think we managed to get there notwithstanding the odds stacked up against us.

You were up against a number of factions in this referendum, especially your own party and the Church. Has it altered the way you look at them?

Not at all. I still feel part of the Church, which is ultimately made up of those who believe in its teachings. It was a few prominent Church members who were pushing the wrong buttons. They are definitely not representative of the Church as I see it.

I could never understand why my own party took a stand against divorce, especially keeping in mind that the main driving forces, most notably the Prime Minister, said they were against divorce being introduced for ‘the time being’.

I think it came across as an attempt at shifting responsibility to the future. There’s an element of management by crisis in Malta. The party is now in a sticky situation.

The Yes campaign constantly attacked the Church for carrying out dirty tricks among the congregation. Do you still stand by these accusations?

We never focused on what I refer to as ‘spiritual terrorism’. Our main focus had to be to explain to the electorate what the divorce law was all about. On a personal level I was disappointed when it came to the behaviour of certain priests.

We know for a fact that elderly women were refused absolution and Holy Communion because they said they were in favour of responsible divorce. We know this because clergymen apologised to us. There should have been clearer direction from the Church hierarchy. But we’re not going to dwell on the past.

Let’s dwell on your own behaviour. You were criticised for your attitude throughout the campaign, you appeared to lose it when challenged. Why did you take it to heart so much, or is this the way Jeffrey campaigns?

It’s just that Jeffrey is a passionate individual. What made me passionate at times was the hypocrisy exemplified by certain individuals who were driven by the wrong motives.

Do you think the PN came out so strongly against divorce simply to ostracise you from the party?

That’s definitely not the case. Certain high ranking people from the party came out against divorce because of their Catholic beliefs...

...not because you are the villain and they couldn’t let you have your way because you were going to humiliate the Prime Minister.

I’m pretty sure that’s not the case and I was never given that impression.

The Prime Minister immediately said he’d ensure the referendum result will be respected, but now we’re hearing of government MPs saying they will abstain or even vote against the Bill, because divorce goes against their conscience. What goes through your mind?

It’s unacceptable.

Have you spoken to these people?

I haven’t spoken to them individually. I spoke out during Monday’s parliamentary group meeting. The standing orders do not contemplate a situation where an MP abstains. So the only choice left for those who do not wish to vote in favour or against is to not attend the sitting.

Had this situation not been escalated to the level of referendum I would understand that there would have been a certain amount of leeway for MPs to vote according to their conscience, or what they feel is the ‘common good’, a term bandied about too much over the past weeks.

Both sides of the House agreed on the amendment, drawn up by the Leader of the Opposition and seconded by the Prime Minister, stipulating the referendum date.

So I can never accept individual members of the House saying they will vote against the will of the people. Once the Prime Minister suggested, and I accepted, that this issue was too important to be decided upon by MPs and that we had to go to the people, everyone, from the Prime Minister down, has to accept the people’s decision. That decision was a very clear Yes.

So you’re saying that a head of government, especially, should bow his head to the people’s popular vote?

I personally feel that especially in his case, since he suggested the referendum and seconded the amend­ment to the motion, I feel it’s difficult for him not to vote yes.

What if he doesn’t vote yes?

That’s his personal decision.

At this stage, the Prime Minister has made it clear he hasn’t decided how he’s going to vote, but that he will make sure the vote will still go through Parliament. What if he abstains or even votes No, in line with his anti-divorce stand?

It’s not up to our personal feelings any more. I have gone on record a number of times before the referendum result saying I would have definitely withdrawn the Bill had the people voted against divorce. That’s the only way one can act when faced with a popular decision. This is even more specific than, for example, the EU referendum.

When people voted for EU membership, we were speaking about hundreds of points which weren’t made obvious to the electorate because there were so many.

In this case, we were discussing a specific topic encapsulated by a specific question which had within it the three main pre-requisites for responsible divorce. I can’t see any way out of it. Every MP has to bow his head to the people’s verdict.

Some commentators are saying Nationalist MPs who are not voting in favour should resign.

I will never judge any of my colleagues. But it would be a bitter pill to swallow for the thousands of Nationalists who voted in favour to realise that the divorce Bill will be approved simply because of the Labour Party’s parliamentary group.

I can’t envisage a situation where my party has to rely on the opposition’s input. As a Nationalist it’s unacceptable and it would seriously damage our democratic credentials. I can’t accept our party doing a Pontius Pilate.

Do you think the Prime Minister should resign if he votes against?

I’m not even contemplating that kind of action by the Prime Minister.

But what if he does?

That’s not up to me to decide.

I’m asking for your opinion.

I haven’t even thought about it.

Let’s assume the vote will go through thanks to the Labour votes in Parliament...

...There will obviously be a small number of Nationalist MPs who will also vote in favour.

How many of them?

Some Nationalist MPs are annoyed that they’re not being given clear direction, and I can understand line of reasoning. The party should say it will support the people’s democratic right.

Some Nationalist MPs who want to vote Yes are being put in a difficult situation because it could mean that they’re betraying the party’s principles. This is why I was against the party coming out against divorce in principle because I envisaged the kind of embarrassing situation our MPs are now in.

Is the PN out of touch with reality?

At that particular time it was, yes.

What about the present time?

I’m hoping the party realises we have to do something to retain our democratic credentials and be proud our legacy. People like me joined the PN when we were fighting for basic democratic rights in the 1980s and we need to make sure we’re not on the wrong side of history now.

There’s a particular expression used regularly – ‘vox populi, vox dei’ (The voice of the people is the voice of God). Even if it comes to matters of conscience you can never put your religious beliefs – as strongly as you might feel about them – before the will of the people.

You can’t represent the people and let your religious beliefs go against the will of the people.

Do you think the MPs assumed the Yes vote wouldn’t win?

It might have been the case, and if it was, they weren’t in touch with the popular feeling or were relying on the fear campaign. Let me be blunt: if the terror campaign wasn’t effective, the Yes vote would have won by a higher margin.

We had a focused campaign, but particular niches were targeted with a fear campaign and this led to a 30 per cent abstention.

Do you think the PN was partially responsible for the ‘fear’ campaign?

High ranking party officials participated in the No campaign.

Like who?

People like Claudio Grech, Lawrence Zammit, members of the administration like Frans Borg, people I respect, but who were an essential part of the campaign.

There were also hundreds of thousands of euros thrown into this campaign as opposed to the amazingly limited funds available to us.

Who was pumping in these funds?

The Church. Definitely.

Not the Nationalist Party?

I can’t... answer that question with absolute certainty. The administration was helping the No campaign out. We had high ranking administration members trying to deceive people, including the Children’s Commissioner, the Broadcasting Authority, the ridiculous decisions by the Electoral Commission...

I don’t want to come across as bitter in any way but, yes, there were no holds barred. The administration was doing its best to get the No vote out and to convince the Yes voters to change their minds.

Do you fear the same party you form part of is nowadays so conservative that it’s almost extremist?

There are a lot of liberal elements in the Nationalist Party but a lot of liberal-minded individuals have been sidelined in the past. For example, it was pretty obvious that Louis Galea, the person I believe built the PN in the 1970s, was sidelined. I can mention others.

Over the past years, there’s been an attempt to sideline people like him, which has left us with a Cabinet which is in the main, a very conservative one. And I do feel that several members of Cabinet, friends of mine, people I respect, are out of touch with reality.

Statements by certain high ranking members of Cabinet were unbelievable, amazing.

Like who?

People I respect are coming across as fundamentalists. It’s shocking. I’m not going to mention names, they are colleagues of mine, they’re doing their duties faithfully, but when it comes to matters of state and Church some individuals appear unable to distinguish between the two.

You won’t mention the names but I will. Austin Gatt, Beppe Fenech Adami, Tonio Fenech, Edwin Vassallo... spoke very openly against the introduction of divorce. Can you, as a so-called liberal MP, feel comfortable sitting on the same side of the House?

I’ve always known the Nationalist Party was a political alliance. But the fact of the matter is that, yes, there has been a move towards sidelining liberal-minded individuals, very valid politicians, which left us with a pretty conservative bunch at the top.

Do you rule out crossing the floor to Labour?

Definitely – 100 per cent.

You wouldn’t consider it.

Not in my wildest dreams.

Would you consider resigning your seat before the next election?

Definitely not. I’m proud to be a Nationalist. I’m proud of the party’s legacy in strengthening democratic institutions.

This is why I want the PN to be on the right side of history in this instance.

Some would say it’s too late and the PN is on the wrong side of history.

It’s not too late. All we have to do is respect people’s wishes – from top to bottom. It’s yes or no – and no is inconceivable.

Once we went for a referendum and once all of us voted for the amendment stipulating a May 28 referendum there’s no way out.

Even if you are personally against divorce, once the Prime Minister suggested the referendum there’s no way out. In a democracy, there’s no arguing with the electorate.

I hear these weird arguments of having to respect the minority – which is all well and good. But we have to consider the fact that the Labour Party is in the opposition benches because of a few hundred votes. Between the Yes and No votes in the divorce referendum we’re speaking of thousands of votes.

I can’t imagine how we can possibly equate last week’s result and in some way talk about trying to respect the will of the minority, when there was such a clear cut result.

Some MPs say they will vote according to their conscience...

... I’m sorry I don’t accept that. Conscience doesn’t come into it. Let’s be blunt: it’s about religious beliefs. You can never, as a legislator, put your religious beliefs before what should be the common good.

We should never have a legislator, as we did, speaking against condom machines in University because of their beliefs. That’s unacceptable.

Over the past years, we’ve had people trying to educate youngsters on sexual behaviour being castigated. Even the catechism of the Catholic Church states that if there are situations where society will benefit from divorce, a Catholic legislator is legitimate in legislating in favour.

When the MPs’ pay rise issue comes up for a vote in Parliament will you be voting according to party lines or your conscience?

I don’t know what the party lines are. The parliamentary group hasn’t met and I insisted we should meet with our whip a couple of days after the opposition presented its motion. There are a lot of issues that many of us want to iron out relating to how Cabinet handled the matter.

There are clearly some issues on which you’ve disagreed with your party...

...Yes, notably the power station.

So why did you vote in favour?

I voted according to the party line.

Why?

Because I’m a loyal, Nationalist MP. It was difficult to vote with my party, but I balanced things out and chose the lesser of two evils.

If we started off the power station saga again, our country would have suffered economically, because we wouldn’t be assured a stable power supply. I still have a lot of questions which remain unanswered.

Do you think those who aren’t going to vote in favour of divorce are disloyal?

I can’t see a democratically elected Member of Parliament going against the will of the people.

Do you think the PN is facing a crisis at the moment?

A crisis is perhaps a strong term. Perhaps we’re in a bit of a sticky situation. We could have avoided it.

I think the executive bowed to pressure from prominent conservative members. The situation can be resolved if we take the right decision.

After all this, will you be standing for the next election under the PN banner?

If I do stand for election, I will always stand under the PN banner. I’m proud to be part of this party, I was a councillor, a foot soldier, an MP. I’ve tried to remain as close as possible to my constituents.

I feel I’ve made an impact in my years as an MP, but it’s a decision I will take when the time comes. I will militate for the PN for the rest of my life.

When the history of this decade is written, do you think you’ll be mentioned for the right reasons?

I don’t look that far ahead. This was not a personal issue. This was simply something I felt I had to do. And believe me, it was the only way it could have been done.

Watch excerpts of the interview on www.timesofmalta.com.

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