The Civil Unions Bill has been approved by Parliament in its third and final reading, with all government MPs present voting in favour of the bill while all opposition MPs abstained.
The bill grants same-sex couples with the opportunity to enter legally-recognised civil unions, an arrangement which is effectively equivalent to marriage in all but name. But while there was a political consensus on introducing civil unions, this was lacking on another, more controversial, provision of the law: allowing same-sex couples to jointly apply to adopt children.
It passed with 37 votes in favour – President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca’s old seat is vacant until tomorrow morning’s casual election, while Foreign Minister George Vella is abroad, although government whip Carmelo Abela stressed that the minister wanted to back the bill personally – and none against it, while all 30 opposition MPs abstained from voting.
The bill will become law as soon as it is signed by the President, who has repeatedly confirmed that she had no reservations about doing so in the face of speculation to the contrary.
Ultimately, the bill’s approval came as no surprise given the support of government MPs, but the voting intentions of Nationalist Party MPs were uncertain until the parliamentary group held a press conference shortly before the parliamentary sitting opened.
At the press conference, opposition leader Simon Busuttil said that while the opposition agreed with civil unions, it had reservations on allowing gay couples to adopt children and felt that more studies were necessary. While he acknowledged that there were divergent views within the parliamentary group, it was ultimately decided that opposition MPs should not be given a free vote so that they vote in unison.
Dr Busuttil also asked to explain the opposition’s decision ahead of the vote, starting by noting that MPs would also be voting on a private members’ motion by Claudette Buttigieg amending the Constitution to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation – in line with a proposal included in the PN’s 2013 electoral manifesto. He said that his party wanted to send a clear message that gay people deserved the highest level of protection.
The PN leader stressed that his party agreed with introducing civil unions – if anything, he said, it was regrettable that they were not introduced earlier – and insisted that the bill would have been unanimously approved if it solely concerned such unions.
But he insisted that his party had reservations about gay adoptions and that 80% of society shared them. He said that adoption should have been addressed separately through amendments to the adoption law.
Dr Busuttil said that the opposition’s reservations were not because it felt that gay people could not be good parents, but because government had not prepared society for this step, as evidenced by widespread opposition to it.
In his own, shorter, address, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said that the vote would separate the past from the future, and words from actions.
Dr Muscat said that he also hoped that civil unions were introduced earlier, but was prevented from doing so since his party was out of government for the past 25 years. He insisted that the bill had not been presented for political gain but because all government members wholly believed in it.
He insisted that while parliament often reached compromise on practical matters, this was not a case for compromise. If society was not ready for this step, he said, it was up to parliament to explain that it was a step towards a more equal nation.
Dr Buttigieg’s motion then came up for a vote, and since it amended the Constitution, it required the approval of two-thirds of the House of Representatives.
However, this proved not to be a problem: the motion, which was seconded by Civil Liberties Minister Helena Dalli in a show of unity, was approved by all 67 MPs present.