The Malta Independent 1 March 2021, Monday

Too many MPs for our drive-in Parliament

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 21 February 2021, 09:30 Last update: about 8 days ago

The headline is a combination of two statements made in the past few days by politicians on different sides of the political spectrum.

In one of his bi-weekly blogs on The Malta Independent, which he entitled “Too many MPs”, former Prime Minister and Labour Party leader Alfred Sant said that he is “unconvinced” that the “significant increase in the number of MPs” will be useful.

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MEP Sant was referring to the debate which will see more women elected to the Maltese Parliament to address the gender imbalance. Sant said he supports the idea of an increased presence of women, but the “House of Representatives already is overpopulated”.

In the same week, Nationalist MP Karol Aquilina, while addressing the House during the debate on the changes to the electoral districts, said there were a number of MPs who used Parliament as a “drive-in” to pocket the parliamentary honoraria.

These are phantom MPs, he said. They never ask a parliamentary question, never submit a motion. They come here and do nothing. Who is responsible for them, Aquilina asked.

The performance of MPs and the idea to increase the percentage of women in the House are, of course, separate issues. But they pertain to the same argument which has been going on for years, and one which the MPs themselves do not like to touch much as it involves their own livelihood.

Is our Parliament too large? And, knowing that it is so, why are the government and opposition planning to increase the number of MPs? Shouldn’t it, instead, become smaller? And should there be a system to put more women in the House even when the electorate chooses otherwise?

 

Largest parliament

Malta’s Parliament is made up of a minimum of 65 MPs. There are 13 electoral districts from which five MPs are elected, for a total of 65.

But this number could grow as there are constitutional provisions in place which allow additional MPs to the party in opposition. This happens when the number of MPs elected to the opposition benches does not reflect proportional representation. The difference in the number of MPs between the two sides of the House must conform with the difference in the number of votes each party receives on a national level. When this does not happen, a mechanism is employed to add a number of MPs to the Opposition to make the outcome of the election fairer. The number added must be two, four etc so as to keep an odd number of MPs (pun not intended).

For example, in this legislature, the number of opposition MPs grew by two, which set the total number of members sitting in the House at 67.

This is not the highest number we ever had. In the 2013-2017 legislature, the number of MPs was first increased to 69, with four additional seats given to the opposition for proportionality purposes. But this number was later increased further to 71, when the Constitutional Court had given the opposition another two seats after it ruled that mistakes had been committed in the counting process of the 2013 election. This was the largest number of MPs ever in the House; and this situation lasted for a few months in between the judgment, which was given in November 2016, and the following election, held in June 2017.

Taking the minimum number of MPs which Malta can have – 65 – means that there is one MP per 7,700 citizens (population 500,000). It is, by far, the largest per capita Parliament in the European Union.

Luxembourg, in second place in this particular list, has an MP per 10,000 people. At the other end of the scale, Germany has one MP for every 116,000 citizens. The average in Europe is one MP per 47,000 citizens.

 

More MPs

What Parliament is now discussing – and a conclusion is expected in the coming days – is to increase the number of women MPs in the House. The idea is to reduce gender imbalance in the institution, which mechanism will kick off if either gender does not obtain 40 per cent of the seats.

Although the bill being discussed does not make reference to a particular gender – it speaks of an under-represented gender – it is clear that the idea is to have more women as MPs.

Of the current 67 MPs, only seven are women, which is 10 per cent of the total. In this classification, Malta is second worse in the EU, behind Hungary. Only 15 per cent of the candidates for the 2017 general election in Malta were women.

The two sides of the House are now debating a proposal to increase the number of women MPs by a maximum of 12. This would mean that, next time round, and if the result of the next election is similar to the one in 2017, there would be at least 77 MPs elected – the 65 elected in the 13 districts plus the extra 12.

There could also be additional MPs if the number of opposition MPs would need to be increased to reflect proportional representation. After the next election, it is likely that we will end up with the largest number of MPs ever. The record of 71 is set to be broken.

 

Women

Both the government and the opposition are in agreement on the proposal to add more women MPs in Parliament. Whether they really believe that this should be the case, or whether it is just because they do not want to be seen as being against the participation of more women is debatable.

The general feeling is that Malta needs more women to participate in our political life. Whether it should be done via this kind of discrimination is, however, also debatable.

The selected candidates to make it to Parliament from the under-represented gender (women) will be those who come closest to being elected.

In actual fact, this means that there will be women candidates who will make it to Parliament only because they are women – and this, in itself, is discriminatory. There will be male candidates who will get more votes but will not get the chance of being elected – simply because they are men. Women who will be receiving fewer preferences than them will get their parliamentary seat – simply because they are women.

So it is not a matter of capability. It will be a matter of gender.

If one were to really think about it, the gender adjustment is degrading to women. It’s going to be like – (most) women will not make it via the normal channels, so let’s add some more seats to give them a chance. What the current crop of MPs is about to endorse is the idea that (most) women will never make it on their own steam, so let’s give them an advantage.

Many women, particularly those who have made a career for themselves via their own efforts and abilities, would tend to disagree with the idea that women should be given this special treatment by being granted extra seats.

We could have a situation in which a male candidate who gets eliminated in the counting process with, say, 3,200 votes will not make it to Parliament but a woman who nets 500 votes, maybe less, will get a seat. Would you describe that as fair?

 

Discrimination

Having a system in place to make adjustments to add the number of women in the House is discriminatory. All women need is encouragement to participate in politics.

When given the chance, many women have been successful. We’ve had two women who made it as President of the Republic, a woman European Commissioner and several women ministers and parliamentary secretaries. Many other women have been successful in their own field – not only politics – not because they were women, but because of their capabilities.

Women have also been big achievers in Malta’s European Parliament elections. It happened only once, in the first election in 2004, that no women were elected. In the three subsequent elections, there was at least one woman who made it to Brussels. We even had a situation when four of the six MEPs elected in 2014 were women, so really and truly the electorate can see the value of women politicians without the need to have a mechanism in place to put them there.

No discrimination was necessary to elect valid women MEPs. What happened in the MEP elections should be a strong indicator that when women candidates are seen to be better than men, the Maltese electorate does not shy away from electing them.

 

Number of MPs

Most MPs will argue that such a high number of MPs is required because the volume of work that needs to be carried out is still the same as that of their European counterparts. They add that Malta has a growing list of parliamentary committees that deal with specific subjects, while presence in international fora is also a necessity. The fact that Maltese MPs are not on a full-time basis also limits their time. That MPs (with the exception of ministers and parliamentary secretaries) do not have staff employed with them also means that they have to do most of the work themselves; so dividing this work among more MPs makes it more manageable. They also argue that they are the least paid in the EU.

This may all be true, but it does not answer the question on the sheer size of Malta’s Parliament in terms of the number of MPs.

Which takes us back to Sant’s argument that there are too many already, and to Aquilina’s point that some of them are just phantom MPs.

But, instead of reducing the number, we are heading towards a much bigger Parliament, which will now be more “overpopulated” (Sant’s words) than ever and with more “MPs who do nothing” (Aquilina’s words).

Irrespective of whether they are men or women.

The MPs currently debating the expansion of our Parliament will, of course, not listen.

 

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