The Times, Friday, 19th February 2010
In the past few days, Malta's major political parties and the Church had interesting things to say about the divorce issue. In the case of the former, the statements made by party leaders revealed strategies of populism on the one hand and confessionalism on the other. In the case of the Church, the statements indicate certain shortcomings in the analysis of social trends.
I will start by discussing the latter.
I have full appreciation of the Catholic Church's role as a legitimate and major voice in Malta's public sphere and I am not anti-clerical. In this regard, I believe the Church has every right to say it is against divorce and that its followers should abide by its teachings. But, here one must appreciate that in modern secular societies, where respect of civil rights take centre stage, being a Catholic is one identity among others. No one is obliged to divorce but the possibility of divorce should exist as a basic civil right.
In recent days, the argument linking divorce to abortion has once again been flaunted by Church exponents. I find this argument very weak. The reason is very simple. It is simply untrue that divorce legalisation will lead to the legalisation of abortion. Indeed, every nation in the world allows divorce, save for Malta, the Philippines and the Vatican. But the same cannot be said for abortion, where it is prohibited in quite a lot of countries around the world, including Ireland, Egypt, Monaco, the Maldives, Laos, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Iran and Afghanistan, to name just a few.
In simple terms, therefore, there is no casual link between the legalisation of divorce and the legalisation of abortion. Such legalisation is rather influenced by a variety of factors, including of an economic, cultural, ideological and political nature. In particular, the latter plays an important role. And it is here why I do not believe that, as things stand, divorce will be introduced in Malta.
To begin with, the Nationalist Party is being led by its confessional wing, which is refusing to read the signs of the times. Unfortunately, the Gonzi leadership is burying its head in the sand on such an important issue. I wonder whether the PN will ever allow a frank discussion on this subject, both within its ranks and in society in general, without using this issue for political manoeuvering. There is not much more to say on the PN in this regard.
Labour's stance on divorce, on the other hand, is as bewildering and contradictory as its self-proclaimed "progressive and moderate" identity.
My reading of the PL's stance on divorce is that, like practically most other issues, the party is attempting to construct a politics without adversaries, in a catch-all strategy for electoral convenience. Such politics is rife with contradictions and is unlikely to bring about much social change. In the case of divorce, Joseph Muscat lacks decisive leadership, possibly because the PL does not have a cohesive vision. Indeed, there are various Labour MPs and activists who have made it clear they are against the introduction of divorce. In other words, Dr Muscat can face an internal revolt if he commits his party in favour of the introduction of divorce.
With his "catch-all" strategy, Labour's leader is being portrayed as being pro-divorce while being "democratic" by "allowing" a free-vote in Parliament. Using the same logic, why doesn't Dr Muscat allow a free-vote for everything? The official excuse, at least as pronounced by Labour's Alfred Griscti on RTK last Saturday, would be that divorce has to do with one's conscience. So does this mean that all other issues have nothing to do with one's conscience?
If Labour really wants to be taken seriously on the divorce issue, it should clearly insert the right of divorce in its manifesto and promise to introduce this civil right immediately should it form the next government, with no ifs and buts. And, please, no more postponements in the form of "reports". There already exists a large body of literature and ample sociological evidence on Malta's family realities today.
It is crystal clear that Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party is the only party in favour of the legalisation of divorce in Malta. Not only because the Maltese state is already discriminating against Maltese couples who cannot seek divorce overseas (which is recognised by the Maltese state) but, even more so, because divorce is a basic civil right for people who wish to reconstitute family life in a regularised way.
Despite the absence of divorce, separation is on the rise in Malta for various reasons, including economic stress and other situational factors, but also due to the fact that people give more value to being happy in their relationships. Many separated persons would simply like to be given another chance to marry. From this perspective, divorce can be seen as being pro-family because it permits couples to regularise their relationships. The alternative is having thousands of couples living in a legal limbo without rights and obligations.
The legalisation of divorce in Malta requires political courage. The plain truth is that some marriages fail. Should a state ignore this reality? The time has come for a leap beyond the current politics of divorce, which is at best keeping the status quo and at worst excluding thousands of citizens from basic civil rights.
The author is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party.