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Free votes and unanimity

The contrast between Malta's two major parties is strikingly clear

In the last few weeks Adrian Delia, leader of the Nationalist Party, gave his group free votes on two bills presented in Parliament. The Prime Minister did not feel the need to do the same.

Regarding the vote on the second reading of the so-called Embryo Promotion Act, Joseph Muscat said that there was no need for a free vote because Government had an electoral mandate. What the Prime Minister said was manifestly not true. Anyone who reads the Labour Party’s electoral programme can easily see that there are no references to embryo freezing or to anonymous donation of gametes or to the hiring of wombs.

Deborah Schembri, who till the last election was part of Dr Muscat’s cabinet, said publicly that she would not have contested the election had there been a reference to these topics. But the Prime Minister insists on saying untruths.

Since it is manifestly not true that Government had a political mandate, then the reason why no free vote was given is not what the Prime Minister said. We can only guess or speculate. But when one is surrounded with men of straw it is easy to realise that they can be bullied around.

Dr Delia gave MPs a free vote on a domestic violence bill and the vote on embryo freezing. In the first case, the reason was not domestic violence. He and all the PN group condemned it. The reason was that government, as it is now customary, threw in a proviso that had nothing to do with the main objective of the law, trying to create discordance among the PN members of Parliament.
In this case government removed the protection that the law had always given to the unborn child.

Why did government do so? Once more, the reason officially given was manifestly not true. Such untruths give rise to suspicion; and justifiably so.

On the free vote most MPs said that they were in favour of the provisions against domestic violence but would vote against because government removed the protection of the unborn baby. Other MPs said that they were against the removal of the protection of the unborn baby, but since this protection was in other laws they voted in favour to make a comment against domestic violence. All PN MPs agreed that this protection should also be included in this law as soon as they could possibly amend it.

In that case the difference between the MPs of the PN was not about principles but tactics. One doubts whether a free vote was necessary when it was just a question of tactics.

There was a negative reaction from part of the grassroots, who think that free votes are not what they are meant to be: the freedom to vote one way or the other without any discipline from the whip. In fact there was no reaction from the whip. All those who voted with the government still hold the portfolios which they held before the vote. Neither was there any disciplinary step taken, truth be told, when Edwin Vassallo voted against the whip on same sex marriage. All these are signs of maturity.

The vote on Embryo Protection Act was a vote about a number of pro-life principles. Although a free vote was given, all the Nationalist members of Parliament voted against it as they all agreed on the same pro-life principles. It could be that during the Committee stage government would try to throw a sop to Cerberus, but no one should fall to cosmetic or minor changes when the basic principles remain objectionable. The contrast between the two groups is strikingly clear.

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