Progressive Malta, or a marriage of convenience?

Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola last week described the Prime Minister’s recent gay marriage proposal as a diversionary tactic. Philip Leone-Ganado takes a look at the issue

In the heated political climate surrounding the ongoing Panama Papers scandal, the issue of gay marriage, unrelated as it is, has increasingly been politicised and caught up in the fray.

The Civil Unions Act introduced in 2014 already guarantees gay couples legal recognition equivalent, in all ways, to marriage, but for the gay community, the formal designation of marriage remains a small but significant final step.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat first raised the issue in March, and though Opposition leader Simon Busuttil indicated broad agreement, the Prime Minister was accused of using gay marriage as a political tool to distract from the ongoing scandal.

Rather than the principle, it is the question of its suspect timing that has angered me and many people in the LGBTI community

The issue resurfaced this week when Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola, asked during a TV interview whether she agreed with marriage replacing civil unions, responded: “Right now I do not agree, no.”

“Rather than the principle, it is the question of its suspect timing that has angered me and many people in the LGBTI community,” Dr Metsola told the Sunday Times of Malta yesterday.

“At the moment, Joseph Muscat is blatantly bringing up this issue and others as a smokescreen to divert attention away from his total inability to handle the fact that his closest allies have been exposed in the worst scandal to hit a government in Malta’s history.

“He will do anything, including exploiting this issue, to shift the focus away from the scandal which is embroiling his office – and we should not allow him to get away with it.”

Dr Metsola would not clarify outright whether she would support a change in legislation to officially allow for gay marriage, but stressed that she had always “stood up to fight discrimination and promote equality between people” in her personal and professional life.

“I have constantly held that in any family it is love that matters the most,” she said. “Therefore my position on marriage equality is identical to that of PN leader Simon Busuttil, in that civil union already gives couples the same rights and duties as civil marriage and changing the terminology is a technicality in legal terms.”

But Cyrus Engerer, the PM’s special envoy to the EU and an active campaigner on LGBTIQ issues, said that rather than a political tool, the Prime Minister’s statements in favour of marriage equality were simply the culmination of the legislative advances of the last few years.

“The Labour Party has always been consistent in its support for civil liberties whereas, as of yet, we still don’t know where the Nationalist Party stands,” he said, citing the PN’s abstention on civil unions two years ago.

“It is simply not the case that everything will grind to a halt because this one issue is put on the table,” he said on the question of whether the timing of the issue was aimed at distracting from the Panama scandal.

“Other political issues will remain and will continue to be discussed.”

Mr Engerer believes there is the political will to put words into action and push the issue onto the legislative agenda in the near future, and that “the timing is right”, expressing his hope that 2016 could be a landmark year in the way recent years have seen the introduction of civil unions and the pioneering Gender Identity Act.

“I take comfort in the fact that the PM is convinced,” he said. “There is also conviction in the party, which has always had an innate view in favour of equality.”

Meanwhile, although both sides have been quick to invoke the gay community’s perceived anger at their opponents’ statements, gay rights organisations have largely stayed out of the political debate.

I have constantly held that in any family it is love that matters the most

Gabi Calleja, president of the Malta Gay Rights Movement (MGRM), told this newspaper that as both political leaders had expressed opinions in support of marriage equality, any initiative to grant equal access and recognition to same-sex couples would be welcome.

She did, however, indicate that portraying gay marriage as a major hot-topic issue – the suggestion behind claims that it could be used to distract from the ongoing scandals – might be overstating the point.

“The latest Eurobarometer survey [2015] indicates that a majority of the population are in favour of marriage equality,” Ms Calleja said. “While public opinion should not be a factor in the recognition and respect of human rights it does undermine the argument that controversy would naturally ensue should marriage equality be introduced.”

When asked whether the gay community would be willing to accept the political gamesmanship if the end result was greater equality in the long run, Ms Calleja instead highlighted the “more collaborative relationship between government and civil society” in recent years.

“This has resulted in Malta taking on a leadership role where LGBTIQ legislation and policy is concerned,” she said.