The Malta Independent 20 April 2024, Saturday
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PL MP says wider discussion needed to review ‘flawed parliamentary system’

Semira Abbas Shalan Sunday, 7 May 2023, 09:00 Last update: about 13 months ago

Labour backbencher Naomi Cachia said that a wider discussion is needed to review the country’s ‘flawed parliamentary system’, especially to change the ‘disappointing’ way the highest institution of the country has held debates in the past.

In an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, Cachia said that there needs to be a wider debate on how the parliamentary system can be more effective, from the way debates are held, to having full time MPs, the gender mechanism, and the House’s efficacy.

Cachia, a lawyer and mediator by profession, as well as the current Head of the Maltese delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, has been active in the political scene since her teenage years, joining the Labour Youth Forum. She felt that the movement of the new Labour government in 2013 aligned with her visions for the country, and it still does.

“I started climbing the ranks of the Labour Youth Forum and was eventually elected as first female president. It was only natural for me to then continue my activism, and when the time was right, I took the plunge to contest the general elections,” she said.

Cachia was elected to parliament last year via the gender-corrective mechanism, put in place to have more women elected into parliament.

Several backbench MPs used their presence in parliament as an opportunity to raise issues, introducing the need for a new bill or a reform.

Asked what she would like to see implemented, Cachia said that something which interests her is using applying mediation in more areas of life, rather than only in the family court. A mediator is a person who attempts to solve disputes between persons, aiming to come to an agreement prior to litigation.

“We can use alternative dispute resolution in other areas such as civil law, employment, the public sector. The focus right now should also be to make sure that we have all the resources to make our judicial system as efficient as possible,” Cachia said, adding that processes such as mediation bring added value, not only in family court but also in other areas.

She said that there needs to be an investment in human resources in the country, especially in this field. Cachia said that there is a need to work holistically to ensure that mediators are effective as possible, with all parties believing in the process leading to its success.

Another issue Cachia wants to put forward is an online safety bill, which was proposed in the previous legislature, but which has not been presented in the current one as yet.

Cachia said that there is a vacuum in the country with regards to laws about online harm and bullying, adding that this also has to be balanced with the right to freedom of expression.

She said that after following the outcome of an online harm bill being put forward in the United Kingdom, she will speak about it in parliament in the coming months.

An issue which caught her attention was also a lack of literacy in the country, including financial literacy.

“It worries me that young people and families who come to me are not able to read and interpret a letter from a public entity. We need to help to make sure that they are independent and have the right tools to make decisions for themselves,” Cachia said.

Cachia was asked if she supports the idea of full time MPs in the Maltese parliament, an issue which she said is often raised in the parliamentary assembly in the Council of Europe each time there is a report on Malta.

“On paper, yes, I support it. However, we are a small island, and our resources are what they are, and  so having a full time parliament would mean that we may struggle to attract a more diverse pool of candidates,” she said.

Cachia said that while she is eager to have a full-time parliament, now that she is living it, she said she understood that it is not straightforward, but perhaps a bit of an idealistic scenario.

“I definitely think we should have a frank and honest discussion about this,” she said.

Cachia was asked if the gender mechanism has resulted in a parliament which is too large, with Malta now having the largest parliament in Europe, per capita.

“Parliament was already quite big prior to the gender mechanism, so I think the problem is this case would not be the gender quota, but rather our electoral system in general. This needs to lead to a wider discussion,” Cachia said.

She added that kickstarting a healthy discussion about where we want to take the institutions should be one of the considerations.

Cachia deemed the gender quota as a ‘necessary evil,’ as while on the one hand, she was always in favour of the idea, it has been a ‘double-edged sword’ for her and other women elected through the mechanism, due to the added level of scrutiny imposed on them.

“It angers me when a media outlet picks up something we go or say, and what is written is not reflective of what was said. People say that we are only there because of the gender quota, commenting ‘who are they to speak about this issue?’” she said.

Cachia added that this is a poor way of looking at it, as the women elected need to make the most of the opportunity and be of added value to the institution.

“The women elected via the gender quota have given great contribution to parliament, as are the other women, and I think we need to have our work speak for itself,” she said.

Asked if MPs should hold positions in government authorities, entities, or boards, Cachia said that this is also something which comes up in reports by the parliamentary assembly.

“I think the practice of having MPs on boards is no longer as prevalent as before. With regards to having positions in public entities, I believe that if an MP was serving a public entity prior to being elected, it makes sense for them to continue their employment. What shall they do?” she said.

Asked about possible conflicts of interests, Cachia said that it is up to the individual MP to make that assessment for themselves.

Cachia discussed the overarching difficulties she has faced, which was primarily scrutiny over being elected through the gender quota. She said that she has to keep herself in check, as it is not easy being scrutinised for something she had no control over.

“I would rather be judged on what I do and not do, rather than the way I have been elected. I do not see the same level of scrutiny for men who were elected via casual elections, some of whom got fewer first count votes than some of the women elected through gender quota,” Cachia said, adding that she does not see the logic.

Damning chats which led to the resignation of Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar have angered many nationally, especially comments on being greedy over money.

Asked if this incident has cast an unfavourable light to women in politics, Cachia said that women and MPs in general are very much aware of the level of scrutiny, and what is expected from them.

“I do not think this episode should influence the way we conduct ourselves. Cutajar is no longer part of the Labour parliamentary group. She took a decision she had to take in the circumstances. She has paid the price for what she has said and done, and for me that is case closed,” Cachia said.

Cachia continued that she focuses on bringing a level of empathy and authenticity to parliament.

The MP was asked about her position on abortion as a woman. The amendment to the abortion law had to go back to the drawing board to further change the wording of the bill, after many were those who protested against the proposed bill.

“All my adult life I have been extremely frustrated at the political class, at the lack of willingness to recognise that abortion is a reality. I was immensely relieved when I found out it was going to be on government’s agenda,” she said.

Cachia said however, that she was also very disappointed at how the debate turned out, especially since over the years, the country has never had the option of having a sensible, healthy and safe dialogue on the matter.

She said that she is concerned over women procuring abortion pills online, with the state effectively leaving them on their own in a moment where support is needed the most.

“We need to work harder to make sure the debate is a healthy, one based on facts and not misinformation and taboos. We still have a lot to be done. If you look at the debate we did have, it was frustrating, and you do expect better,” Cachia said.

“It worries me that we are still at the stage that in parliament, in the highest institution of our country, we cannot have a mature debate about this,” she continued.

Asked if government will effectively be introducing abortion to the country under the new wording, Cachia said that the intention has always been clear, that there is a ‘lacuna’ in our law, addressing the particular issue of safeguarding the woman’s life, health and the professionals who make the decision.

“Under any circumstance in our law, abortion is prohibited. We have had no effective tools to protect a woman whose life is in grave danger, or the professionals. The argument has been that our doctors have never let any mother die due to this. This is true. But why should we leave things up to chance?” she said, adding that there is a duty to legislate.

“I cannot accept us looking the other way when we know that there is potentially a lacuna in our law, and that we can address it. It is a very small but huge step for out country, given what we were, and what we were not debating a few years ago,” Cachia said.

Cachia added that many debates which occurred, such as the one on IVF and the morning after pill, experienced a “huge wave of misinformation and unfortunate propaganda.”

She said that in the coming months, the debate will continue.

“I have not seen the final wording of the new proposed clause, but I know that it went back to the drawing board to ensure that it is fool proof and will take us towards the direction of having proper safeguards for women and professionals,” she said.

Asked about her priorities in her time in parliament, Cachia said that she does not have an overarching strategy, adding that she is driven by a sense of purpose rather than ambition.

She said she takes her parliamentary work very seriously, attending almost every session from start to finish.

“I have a duty as a backbencher to not only know what the Opposition is saying, but also what my colleagues are contributing. I do not believe that I should just come and go as I please to parliament, and carry on with other duties during parliament,” Cachia said.

When told that some backbench or MPs in general do feel that they can come and go as they please, Cachia said that it is the parliamentary system which needs to be revised to become more effective.

Cachia said that she hopes to continue being a dependable member the parliamentary group, doing things as authentically and empathically as possible.

“I think parliament and politics in general has lacked a sense of empathy for a long time. Home visits make me realise there is value to what we do, and the connections we make on the ground,” Cachia said.

She continued that people look to government for a solution to their hardships, and it needs to respond both on a personal and a legislative level.

“I am trying to gather as much feedback from our working families as possible, to make sure that their needs are translated into what we’re doing in parliament,” Cachia said.

 

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