I’m not going to dive into the merits of the draft law being debated in Parliament to give political parties extra parliamentary seats to ensure there are more women in Parliament. It’s not that I don’t have an opinion. I have an opinion on most things, to begin with. And I especially have opinions on how people get to become representatives of the people with or without the effort of getting the people’s vote.
I’m not going to debate the merits of the affirmative action law to guarantee parliamentary seats for women because the last thing this country needs is another man explaining to women how they can get elected and what it is they need or do not need, to overcome the gender imbalance in Maltese public life.
Women can decide for themselves what it is they need to pull down the barriers imposed by men in order to enter parliament. The real issue here, and this is a matter I’m getting into, is that women are being denied that opportunity.
Political parties appear to have crafted this ‘solution’ they are adopting into law in some smoke-filled room, over a coffee or something stronger between Joseph Muscat and Adrian Delia. A working group of women politicians then proceeded to ratify what their male bosses had already decided for them.
And now, people (like Graffitti did yesterday) are having to react to a piece of legislation that is already through most stages in Parliament and we can all assume will be the law of the land before we can sneeze “equality”.
There is no evidence that any actual specialists in gender issues were involved in the design of this law. No specific research from gender studies and political studies academics at the university has been conducted and published. Clearly, since Moviment Graffitti only made their statement yesterday, no one bothered to consult them before the bill was published in the Gazette. Certainly, no white paper was published, no public call for views and opinions was made, no invitation for discussions was opened with civil society, women’s organisations or non-parliamentary parties.
The point is that even if it is women who are piloting this law through parliament and women who represented the two main parties in its design, the women who participated did not need affirmative action to gain political influence. They already had it. They are women who made it in a man’s world.
The real barriers that we need to deal with are the ones that prevent the women who should be in politics now but aren’t because they’re prevented from entering public life by the barriers that still hold women down. If no one asked these excluded women what they thought, how will we know that the measures we’re introducing will actually do anything to address the gender discrimination and imbalance that we have in our country’s politics?
Is there any evidence that this measure being introduced will do anything to change voters’ behaviour? If yes, where is it?
This way of making decisions about the people’s vote and its value is just undemocratic and unfair on people of any gender. Political parties sit down and decide the value of your vote – the only tool you have as a participant in a democracy – diluting it as the mood takes them without asking you first what you think.
Remember that this law will add to Parliament seats allocating them to people who have not obtained them as a result of votes from the citizens Parliamentarians are supposed to represent. The net effect of that is that the value of a Parliamentary vote given to an MP elected by the people – women and men – is going to be diluted so that it is shared with an MP who wasn’t elected by the people – women or men.
This is not hard to understand. Right now your MP’s vote is worth 1 out of 65. If another 20 MPs are added, your MP’s vote will be worth 1 out of 85.
But political parties do not see it that way. As far as they are concerned there are only two votes in Parliament, the opposition’s and the government’s and the latter is worth more than the former every time, without fail, without exception.
When they think like that, it shows that they really think of Parliament as a school debating club where people talk and talk and talk but where voting is an act of ceremony. Decisions are taken elsewhere.
Consider Michael Falzon’s remarks yesterday in Parliament reacting to Repubblika’s proposal to guarantee parliamentary seats to any party that obtains 5% of the national vote. He said he didn’t mind taking on the idea. As long as – listen to this – as long as, the party with the largest number of votes has their Parliamentary seats boosted so that they can govern on their own.
This, Michael Falzon said, was important to guarantee governability, which is a nice way of saying guaranteeing one party the right to govern for 5 years no matter what the people’s representatives, and the voters who chose them, think about it.
Let’s break this down.
What does the 5% threshold do and why does Repubblika think we need it?
Since Malta is split into 13 electoral districts and each district elects 5 MPs, every MP must acquire a fifth of the votes within that single district. What has happened in every election since before most of us were born is that no single candidate running for Parliament on anything but the tickets of the two large parties has ever managed to pass that threshold.
The 5% threshold says that if candidates for any party altogether on a national basis acquire 5% of the national vote, their party will be guaranteed a proportionate number of parliamentary seats, even if every one of those candidates fails to pass the much steeper district quota of votes needed for election.
Now let’s be clear, this doesn’t make it easy for new political parties to get into Parliament. Not at all. Because the 5% threshold cuts both ways. It also means that if candidates for a political party get less than 5% of the national vote put together they would be prevented from entering Parliament.
In modern times, since Malta’s Independence, there’s never been a third party that secured 5% of the vote. That may be because with the current system people worry about ‘wasting’ their vote voting for a third-party candidate. If so, the introduction of the national quota could create the opportunity of new parties to persuade voters to change behaviour. But maybe no one has managed to do that since The Crystals were number one because Maltese voters are so in love with their PN and their PL that they wouldn’t consider a fling with someone new, whatever the options available to them.
Now let’s go back to what Michael Falzon was saying yesterday. He was saying that if a third party does get into Parliament after exceeding the 5% national minimum, he would want another rule to give the one party with the largest number of votes of the three or more elected to Parliament to get extra bonus seats to be able to command a majority in Parliament on its own.
This is nothing short of a kick in the teeth of the popular will. Let’s imagine four parties make it to Parliament. (Please don’t make it sound like I’m asking you to imagine the first contact with aliens that speak fluent Aramaic. Parliamentary democracies normally have multiple parliamentary parties. We’re rather an exception in our exclusive partisan bigamy here).
Let’s then imagine four parties make it to Parliament and they obtain the following voting ratios: Party Red 26%, Party Blue 25%, Party Purple 25% and Party Yellow 24%. (Again please don’t suddenly think this is an impossible scenario, given that we have two parties that have won and lost elections with less than 1% of the national vote separating them).
Michael Falzon is proposing that the Red Party’s seats in Parliament are boosted to enjoy 51% of the voting power, diluting the effectiveness of the 74% of the national votes that went to other parties by cutting their effectiveness by half.
This is insane. That Michael Falzon, himself an MP, has the audacity to stand up in Parliament and suggest this with any seriousness demonstrates the contempt for democratic will that comes so naturally to people who are already enjoying political power.
The 5% threshold is in and of itself all the safeguard for governability that can be reasonably expected. It ensures that you don’t get parties who command say, 2% of the national vote and just 1 Parliamentary seat, decide alone the fate of the government. 5% is a tough threshold but once people decide to allocate it to a political party we can’t discard the views of the people who voted for that party in favour of a larger minority.
The comparison that is being made to the adjustments after the 1981 debacle is not only irrelevant, it manages to prove the opposite point.
The perversity of the 1981 result was that a parliamentary majority was given to the party that obtained fewer votes than the party that was dispatched to the opposition benches. There, the popular will was defied. Repubblika is proposing that popular will is strictly and proportionately respected allocating seats in Parliament as a reflection of the seats obtained by parties on a national basis after crossing the 5% threshold.
1981 was indeed perverse. Some people compare it with the situation in America where a presidential candidate wins a majority of votes in the electoral college in spite of gaining fewer votes than the losing opponent. That happened when Donald Trump beat Hilary Clinton though Clinton had more votes cast in her name by voters. But again that’s an irrelevant comparison. The electoral college exists because it is intended to balance out the interests of smaller states over bigger ones in a federal system. One can argue for dropping the rule but it’s there for a reason.
The 1981 result in Malta perverted the intention of our electoral system and was the result of gerrymandering through the manipulation of electoral districts, not as some freak inconsistency between the design of the electoral system and the intention of people when voting.
That is why that problem needed fixing. Instead of finding a way of ensuring that electoral boundaries are fair and they accurately reflect people’s voting intentions, they went for the simpler solution of making the boundaries irrelevant in determining who gets to win a majority when only two parties are elected to Parliament. Of two, the larger rules.
That logic cannot be applied now to have the opposite effect of suppressing people’s voting intentions.
It was chilling listening to Michael Falzon yesterday. Instead of calling Repubblika in for a meeting with him and his parliamentary party to have an open and frank discussion about Parliamentary reforms, he took the floor at the House and spoke to no one in particular about how he can make people believe he is taking up an idea presented by civil society but fixing it to protect us from the spectre of political instability.
It’s like what they did when they changed the way the police chief is hired or the way judges are chosen. They diffuse pressure by paying lip service to calls for reform but hollowing out the changes to ensure the changes change nothing.
Do you want more parties in Parliament? Sure, they say. Bring on as many as you like. As long as we don’t actually have to sit down and work with coalition partners and start having to answer to the demands of a parliament that can have a will of its own.
Did you know the Chinese Communist Party is not the only party allowed in the Chinese National People’s Congress, their Parliament? Oh no. There are 8 opposition parties and 10 independent MPs, all outside the Communist Party. But then they have what they call adjustments to ensure governability that reduces the Congress to a talk shop while the decisions are taken elsewhere. Michael Falzon would be very comfortable there. And they don’t even have gender quotas.