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Update 3: PM says he will vote No on divorce in parliament

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said this morning that he would vote against divorce in Parliament. His decision, he said, was  dictated by his conscience because when he was sworn in as prime minister, he had promised to perform his duties 'faithfully and conscientiously'.

He was speaking during the divorce debate in Parliament. 

Dr Gonzi said it was clear that a substantial majority would vote for the Bill on second reading, and more would vote in favour in the final, third reading vote.

This, he said, was not an easy decision for MPs. They were elected to represent the people. The people had decided in a referendum and that decision had to be respected. But MPs also had their independence of thought.

Some argued that once the referendum had been held, MPs had no choice but to vote unanimously in favour of this Bill. He did not agree with this simplistic argument, which rendered the parliamentary process a waste of time.

MPs, Dr Gonzi said must not abdicate their duty to legislate according to the oath of office they had taken. They also had to ensure that the law respected what the people were asked in the referendum question.

The referendum, he insisted, had not neutralised MPs. It had not removed their conscience.

The voice of the majority should not gag the vote of the minority.

Dr Gonzi said he hoped that liberalism would not reach the extreme where conscience was removed in decision-making which involved the future of Maltese families.

The Prime Minister said he had calmly reflected on the decision to be taken. He had looked up the oath of office he had taken as prime minister. He had promised to  'faithfully and conscientiously' perform his duties as prime minister in accordance with the Constitution and the laws of Malta and without fear or favour.

He would, therefore, continue to do his duty according to his conscience.

The Nationalist MPs were completely free to also decide according to their conscience, without fear or favour.

Dr Gonzi thanked the PN MPs for their contribution to the internal debate within the party. The debate had been furious at times, but no one ever threatened anyone on the basis of his or her decision, he said.

All MPs, he said, should feel at peace with themselves when they cast their vote, and he wished to thank them all in this moment of truth.

Dr Gonzi said he would vote No in this debate.

He explained that after Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando presented his private member’s bill on the introduction of divorce, he had immediately said that MPs had no popular mandate and therefore, the issue should be referred to the people.

He kept his word and a referendum was held. Once the people decided, he immediately declared that the outcome would be respected, and that the Bill would be moved in Parliament quickly. He kept his word.

He had also promised that MPs would have a free vote, and that was being done as well.

He had told MPs that they could vote as they wished without any fear of repercussions. The party had its principles,  one of which was that it remained open to different views as long as they did not go against cardinal values.

This promise was being kept too.

He had also promised, however, that the government side would ensure that the outcome of the referendum was reflected in a majority in Parliament.

Dr Gonzi said he would have had major difficulties if the vote in the House did not reflect the outcome of the referendum, but this would not happen.

Dr Gonzi said he had been consistently against divorce. Dr Muscat had said that as Prime Minister he should vote yes. By so doing, he was asking him to be a hypocrite with himself and with the people. Did Dr Muscat want a prime minister who betrayed himself and went around like a wind vane? The people expected him to be clear and honest.

Therefore, he was not prepared to even abstain, because by so doing he would be lacking in honesty with the people and himself.

He would shoulder his responsibilities by voting No, Dr Gonzi said. True, he was the prime minister and a party leader. He, therefore, had a duty to ensure that the Bill was approved through all stages in line with the outcome of the referendum. But in so doing he would not be a hypocrite with himself or the people.

BILL DOES NOT REFLECT REFERENDUM QUESTION

Dr Gonzi said that another reason which dictated his position was the fact that according to legal analysis, the Bill as it was so far did not reflect the referendum question as it did not provide the guarantees that had been promised.

The prime minister recalled that he, and several other MPs, had voted against the motion which proposed the referendum question. He had appealed to the Opposition at the time for a clear, specific  and reasonable question, but Joseph Muscat had rebuffed his calls. His proposal would have enabled MPs to tailor the divorce bill in a way which achieved  broad agreement.

Indeed, his original idea was for Parliament to first debate the Bill in Parliament, so that the people would know exactly what they would be voting for.

Unfortunately, his suggestions had not been taken up. MPs were now in a strait jacket. They had to ensure that the referendum question was respected in full.

Last March, he had asked how legislation would guarantee ‘adequate maintenance’ as the referendum question promised.  Alas, however, the referendum question remained unchanged, opening the door to major questions of interpretation. Those who had remained stubborn should now explain.

The referendum question also said that couples had to be separate or not living together for four years to be eligible for divorce. The Bill did not explain this either.

The question also said that children had to be safeguarded. The Bill, once more, did not say how.

As a lawyer, Dr Gonzi said, he could safely say that the Bill did not reflect the referendum question. There was no guarantee of adequate maintenance and nothing on how children would be protected. And he did not know how, legally, this problem could be solved, Dr Gonzi said he left this up to the legal experts.

Guaranteeing adequate maintenance was not possible, and it was about time everyone was honest about this.

He was against divorce, Dr Gonzi said. But had he been in favour, he would still have objected strongly against this Bill.

Some people had argued, Dr Gonzi said, that maintenance could be guaranteed if people instituted a court case. That was not good enough. The people were not being given what had been promised, only because Joseph Muscat and the Opposition were obstinate, Dr Gonzi said.

Concluding, he said he would work for the Bill to be the best possible in the interest of vulnerable members of society, notably the children.

However, he continued to believe in the indissolubility of marriage and family unity and would also work in that direction.

Once this Bill was enacted, the government would also move Bills on Cohabitation and IVF and he hoped the two sides of the House would also work together on those Bill in the interests of society.

LABOUR REACTION

Anglu Farrugia, deputy leader of the opposition, said that Dr Gonzi was in an untenable position. He had approved the holding of the referendum and should not now vote against the will of the people. This was probably the first time in the history of Malta that a prime minister was saying in parliament that he would go against the will of the majority.

Some MPs, including the prime minister’s  brother Michael, had said that voting against the will of the majority made one a dictator.

In contrast, the Leader of the Opposition was heeding the clear voice of the people.

Dr Farrugia said that the prime minister's decision to vote contrary to the will of the people undermined his credibility. The prime minister had abdicated his responsibilities and 'missed the bus'.

He had had no similar qualms about his conscience in many other issues, such as the power station extension, injustices committed against a number of workers and other controversial issues.

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