The Malta Independent 15 November 2018, Thursday

Maltese Referenda past and present

Malta Independent Sunday, 29 May 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

In Steven Spielberg’s 2002 Minority Report film, a referendum is held on 22 April 2054 on whether people should be arrested and judged for a murder they will commit in the future as reported by people with pre-cognitive powers.

A referendum (plural referendums or referenda), ballot question, or plebiscite (from Latin plebiscita, originally a decree of the Concilium Plebis) is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal. This may result in the adoption of a new Constitution a constitutional amendment, a law, the recall of an elected official or simply a specific government policy. The referendum or plebiscite is a form of direct democracy ideally favouring the majority.

In Europe, where the popular referendum (commonly known as abrogative referendum) was first introduced (in Switzerland in St Gallen canton in 1831) it now exists in Albania, Denmark (since 1953), Italy (since 1970), Malta, Russia and Switzerland (since 1874).

The referendum of 28 May was not for people with such psychic talents but mere mortals who are seeking a better life not only for the spouse victim but also for their offspring. This referendum is the sixth in Malta’s history and is a consultative one not a propositive one. This is because Malta also has the Law on Abrogative Referendum as noted above which allows for a law to be abrogated (annulled, cancelled, and removed)

First referendum

The first referendum to be held in Malta was in 1870. The question asked was: “Are ecclesiastics to be eligible to the Council of Government?”

The answer was to have been simply “Yes” or “No”.

Voting took place on the 27, 28, 29 and 31 January and 1 February. Certificates delivered amounted to 2,464 and the total number of votes cast was 1,473 or 59.8 per cent.

The result of the 1,473 votes cast was: “Yes” votes: 1409; “No” votes: 58; “Invalid” votes: 6.

This referendum was the only one that did not receive the approval of a majority of all the registered voters, because a substantial numbers of voters did not cast a vote.

Integration Proposals Referendum 1956

Another referendum was held on 11 and 12 February. The electorate was asked:

“Do you approve of the proposals as set out in the Malta Government Gazette of the 10th January, 1956?”

The underlying principle of the proposals for closer association with Great Britain was ‘complete equality of status between the two peoples’.

The Opposition Party boycotted the referendum. Out of a total electorate of 152,823, the number of people who cast their vote was 90,343 or 59.1 per cent “Yes” votes were 67,607 and “No” votes 20,177; the number of invalid votes amounted to 2,559.

Independence Constitution Referendum 1964

The government held a referendum on the form of the Constitution for an Independent Malta. The voting took place on 2, 3 and 4 May and the voters were asked:

“Do you approve of the Constitution for Independence proposed by the Government of Malta, endorsed by the Legislative Assembly and published in the Malta Government Gazette of the 9th April, 1964?”

Out of the 156,886 people entitled to vote, 129,649 cast their votes or 83.4 per cent. The number of “Yes” votes was 65,714 and the number of “No” votes was 54,919 while 9.016 votes were declared invalid.

The Gozo Civic Council (Abolition) Referendum 1973

Only voters in Gozo could cast votes. This was held on 11 November and the voters were asked:

“Do you want Gozo to remain different from Malta, that is, not only having its own representatives in Parliament, chosen from Gozo, but also representatives in the Gozo Civic Council which, amongst other powers, has that of imposing special taxes on the Gozitans to be spent according to the wishes of the people of Gozo?”

Out of 15, 621 people entitled to vote, 195 cast their votes or 1.25 per cent. The number of “Yes” votes was 137 and the number of “No” votes 41, while 17 votes were declared invalid

The European Union Referendum 2003

This referendum was held on 8 March and the question put to the voters was:

“Do you agree that Malta becomes a member of the European Union in the enlargement that will take place on 1 May 2004?”

Out of 297,881 registered voters, 270,650 votes were cast or 90.86 per cent. 3,911 votes were invalid, with 143,094 in favour and 123,628 against.

The Divorce Referendum 2011

This was yesterday, 28 May, and the question was

“Do you agree with the introduction of the choice of divorce in the case of a married couple who has been separated or has been living apart for at least four (4) years, and where there is no reasonable hope for reconciliation between the spouses, whilst at the same time ensuring that adequate maintenance is guaranteed and the welfare of the children is safeguarded?”

As can be noted, this is the longest question ever asked in a Maltese referenda and the question does not refer to any Government Gazette proposals or White Paper. The question is a very long one with 75 words without any break or full stop and refers to one particular instance of a separation case.

The question is definitely very loaded, with sections of the public questioning the fairness of how the question was phrased as it could elicit a “Yes” vote due to its bias. Using this argument, many have argued that the referenda question could have been revised to be more balanced in eliciting a “Yes” or “No” answer. The question also arises. Can a referenda question effectively encapsulate the issue?

Indeed, the ultimate public consultation is a referendum, but has the work been done to ensure that the result is meaningful and will be respected. Some argue that in order not to have a frustrated voter limited to just one question or option, referenda should present more than one option to the public, ideally up to three or four which the public ranks. Referendum questions must be framed to produce a final list of options.

Referenda votes are notoriously subject to sway at the last moment, with appeals to public emotions. It should be possible for any referendum ballot to include a short list (no more than five questions) of multiple-choice factual questions with non-controversial answers that all advocacy groups agree on, ideally selected from a long list of questions.

Ballots on which less than four of the five (or three of four, or two of three) of the questions are correctly answered do not count at all, though they are reported as evidence of disinformation of the public.

Most of the objection to referenda disappears if only informed votes count in them. An advantage of this method is that advocacy groups educate the public on the facts because they know that ballots cast by those who don’t know the facts don’t count. This radically increases the knowledge of the public and its ability to come up with better solutions.

Malta’s first referendum

Malta’s first referendum was held in 1870 and asked whether ecclesiastics should be eligible to serve on the Council of Government

Result: 1,409 ‘Yes’; 58 ‘No’

Integration Proposals Referendum 1956

Result: 67,607 ‘Yes’; 20,177 ‘No’

Independence Constitution Referendum 1964

Result: 65,714 ‘Yes’; 54,919 ‘No’

The Gozo Civic Council (Abolition)

Referendum 1973

Out of 15,621 eligible voters, only 195 cast votes

Result: 137 ‘Yes’; 41 ‘No’

The European Union Referendum 2003

Result: 143,094 ‘Yes’; 123,628 ‘No’

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