This article appears in today’s Independent on Sunday.
It’s a week in the sign of two – a pairing here, a pair of indecent boobs there and a question of double jeopardy. It’s sad to think that I have very little space to write about the little matter of comic double-entendre.
Pairing – It takes two to tango
Now there’s one that I’ve been meaning to mention. We have a government with a one-man majority in Parliament and that majority was brought about thanks to the electoral consensus between the two major parties. One columnist likes to repeat that those are the rules of the game and although they “suck” you have to be able to play by them. He’s right. The Gonzi government could be in for a tough ride if the pairing agreement leads to a paralysing of its duties. On the other hand, Labour in Progress has a strong hand and would do well to play its cards carefully.
The background to the pairing decision provides interesting reading. There is the question of precedent and how the Fenech Adami opposition had used pairing in the short period of Sant’s government. Then there is the issue of the first decision of the new legislature – when Gonzi’s government did not exactly show respect for parliamentary debate when it rushed Malta back into the Partnership for Peace. Top that up with the not so trivial matter that the one-seat advantage of the Nationalist government is being seen as belonging to JPO – and we all know that that issue is far from being an easy one to solve. So far so interesting.
The issue takes an even better twist when we talk about Labour having to accept the rules of the game on the lines of “the people voted you into opposition so please be good and do not cause excessive trouble that would imperil the government’s position”. You see the nationalist argument of “respect the people’s decision” tends to see one side of the coin – the decision as to who should govern. Relative majority or not, those are the rules of the land and Labour should avoid being a nuisance. Try selling the same argument to a nationalist supporter in 1981. Mintoff’s not too loved government (and I include myself in the company of the not so appreciative part of the population) sat in Parliament because the laws of the land at that point in time decreed that it should be so. It’s the rules baby… and we were still far from the comfort of the “it takes two to tango” option.
The other side of the coin is that Labour in Progress (New Labour still smacks of the Santian Era) also has a duty to the electorate. It has a duty of being an effective opposition and a diligent and responsible monitor of government activity. That does not mean that it is obliged to keep mum and expect its MPs to warm the benches for the next five years. Gavin Gulia wrote an interesting article on the responsible use of pairing by Labour (To Pair or Not to Pair, TMI 21.04.08) in which he stated: “It is highly likely that the government will have to disrupt its own parliamentary business in Malta to accommodate its European obligations even with a pairing agreement on. In this scenario it would be foolish for Labour not to use pairing as a tool. But in my view it has to be a tool for negotiation on matters of extra-parliamentary interest and not as a tool for destructiveness.” Interestingly, Dr Gulia pointed out that Labour cannot be perceived to be using pairing to topple the government but that it could be used to put pressure on issues like MEPA reform, public broadcasting, party finances and changes to electoral boundaries.
Whether you agree with Gavin or not as to the particular policies that can be influenced with this Pairing Wild Card in the hands of Labour, I am sure that many would agree that this is a positive step in political thinking. Two days ago PM Gonzi offered the Speaker of the House to the opposition in an unexpected move. When one unwrapped the gift package one found an interesting condition – that the Speaker would be chosen from among the Labour MPs – with the effect of increasing the PN majority in parliament to two. By Maltese political standards one step forward and two steps (seats) back. Eppur’ si muove.
We might not have heard the last word on pairing yet. Whatever we hear and whatever the final decision it is good to bear in mind that the pairing quandary is a direct result of the meddling with electoral laws that are there to ensure that two parties and only two parties are represented in parliament and all this for the sake of good governance. The irony of it all is that it is in the fine tweaking of the system that the faults begin to appear. Right now one of the dancers is not too happy with the rhythm of the tango – having relegated the concept of Coalitions to the realms of the ridiculously inconceivable they have belatedly discovered that the rules they forged still force them into a situation where it takes two to tango. Plus ça change.
The Law is an Indecent Tit (or two)
On the 28th March 2008 Malta’s Constitutional Court held that a topless woman is considered by Maltese society as being indecently dressed. I wonder where this will take us. We already have a government that imagines itself as the defender of the values of the Maltese nation on matters such as divorce without having the decency to ask the people what they really think of it all. Now, in 2008, when bare breasts have made it to innocuous ads advertising anything from shower gel to silicon gel (yep, that one was a bit far fetched) our supreme court still believes that the majority of the nation believes that toplessness is indecent.
The person in question did not choose to walk down Republic Street sans brassiere but was sunbathing in a spot which, to top it all, has a reputation of being popular with people of the nudist persuasion. Let us for a moment ignore the fact that the very Maltese society which considers toplessness indecent also possesses a collective “knowledge” about such places as Gnejna – a not so hidden secret that features on sites advertising nudist beaches. Let us not even go into the issue of nudism because the lady in question was not exactly in her baby suit when she was arrested. The question remains: Who in this day and age still considers toplessness indecent?
True, I have been living in a country where the topless stigma is close to non-existent. I still have difficulty coming to terms with finding a good spot around a lake whenever I find that I have wandered too far and ended up in the nudist section. There’s nothing sexual in this issue – trust me. Nudism in the north is just a pastime. Whole families take up the hobby with an uncanny enthusiasm. They just love to spend a day in the buff without not so much as a fig leaf on their privates… mummy, daddy, grandma, kids and all. Not the most attractive of sights but to each his own. But as I said, nudism is not the issue here. It’s topless sunbathing.
Wherever you choose to swim on the continent beaches are full of topless swimmers. It’s not considered osé. The question isn’t even posed. I have a hard time explaining to my girlfriend that it’s just not done in Malta because that’s the way the law is (and not because that’s the way the people see it). She threatened not to visit Malta anymore when I told her of the Court decision. Who can blame her? The uniform tan is one of the benefits most (I will not say all just to be on the safe side) women living in the dreary north look forward to when visiting on holiday.
I can already hear the “values” crowd shouting “it’s wrong and can be harmful”. There’s no way they will ever understand that the solution is not imposition but a good quality UV sunblock. If there were some truth in the harmful effect of the sun argument then Maltese men too would be bathing in t-shirts. Hell if I insist on missing my gym appointments I too might need a push-up bra before too long…. sometimes a topless man can be more painful to the eye than any other kind of indecent exposure.
I’m sorry but on this topic I have a feeling that we wander once again into the hypocritical attitude the nation has towards some “sensitive” issues. Our inability to distinguish between the imposition of values and lay government does not only blur the issue but labels us as something we are not. What will happen next summer? Will hundreds of tourists be arrested for baring their breasts? After the hunters we will make the UK tabloid headlines again: “No Breasts Please We’re Maltese”. It’s not about sucking up to other people’s morals and values (if you want to call topless sunbathing a value) but rather calling a spade a spade. How about identifying a number of beaches were topless sunbathing is allowed? It’s a solution in France and Spain. To everyone his/her choice and we could all live happily tanned ever after.
A short note on another court related issue. The court case where a teacher was found guilty of sending sexual messages to students made the headlines and then, in an added twist, Daphne Caruana Galizia went one step further on her blog and published the name of the offender. Daphne rightly claims that the court did not have to prohibit the publication of the name once the case was decided. She went ahead and published the name and got a round of applause from her blog readers. I must say that the few misgivings I have do not relate to what Daphne did but rather to the manner in which this is done.
Paedophilia is not a crime to be taken lightly. Abuse of the position of a teacher with contact with children is even less so. What we need is a mechanism – a register – where known criminals are listed. Such a register would be useful to educational institutions who could check names of applicants against said register and thus ensure that no such person is employed in their establishment. In the absence of such a register we could resort to an amateurish way of dealing with this issue – a grapevine approach – that could lead to witch hunts.
Don’t get me wrong. I deplore the crime and I believe we need a strong system to ensure that the criminal has no other opportunity of perpetrating it. The court prohibition on publication is misguided but in default of a proper register system it turns out to be a weak attempt to protect a criminal from public retribution. Witch hunts must be avoided. If we believe that our penal system must allow some form of rehabilitation a public name and shame for the sake of it (I am sure that was not Daphne’s intention by the way) could have unhappy results. Far be it from me to judge and condemn what happened but it should be taken as a clear sign that reforms are needed fast – for the sake of society and for the sake of our children.
It’s all about comedy. I was thrilled to pick up the little signs of Dottor Benigni in Malta on the net. Somehow, somewhere, someone got it into his mind to compare Benigni’s humour to that of British comedians. As I have already written elsewhere: “It’s less about ‘it’s not funny’ and more about ‘I didn’t get the joke'”. Humour too is about appreciating other cultures. If you are not ready for it yet then you need to get out a bit more –there’s a whole new world where you will find that life is definitely beautiful.