MaltaToday, 09 April 2008 | ‘Premature to take a stand on pairing’ – Charles Mangion


NEWS | Wednesday, 09 April 2008

‘Premature to take a stand on pairing’ – Charles Mangion

James Debono

With just a one-seat, wafer-thin majority in parliament, the Nationalist government will be needing the Opposition’s goodwill to pass legislation whenever its members are abroad on government business.
Yet so far the government has not approached the opposition to discuss the possibility of an agreement on pairing in the House of Representatives, acting Labour leader Charles Mangion told MaltaToday.
Mangion also said it was “premature” to take a stand on this issue before the bye-elections, the nominations for which opened this week.
“I presume that the government side will contact us after the bye-elections. We will then see what they are asking. I will discuss any proposal with the parliamentary group.”
Pairing is a procedure through which members on the government side are “paired” with members from the opposition benches, so that any time they need to be absent from the House, the corresponding member from the other side does not cast his or her vote in the House.
A paring agreement between the two sides of the house existed in the past two legislatures, despite the fact that the PN enjoyed a five-seat majority.
In itself, it is an exercise of goodwill – nothing prevents the Opposition from using its extra vote if it so needs it.
The prolongation of the Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando saga could also have an important bearing on the government’s parliamentary fortunes. If the MP does not resign of his own free will, the party will still have to depend on Pullicino Orlando’s attendance in parliament – suggesting that the MP might not be brushed aside by the PN yet.
So far three Labour parliamentarians have pronounced themselves on this issue. In an interview with MaltaToday, firebrand Labour MP Anglu Farrugia excluded any pairing agreements with the PN if he is elected Labour leader.
“If I become leader, the Nationalist Party will have a major problem. I will make their life difficult… Personally I would never give in to a pairing agreement with the Nationalists. Back in 1996 the Nationalists made our life hell – that what we should do now.”
Farrugia is still undecided whether to contest for the post of leader or deputy leader for parliamentary affairs.
But other MLP spokespersons were less intransigent and more open to discussion. Deputy leader and leadership contendent Michael Falzon declared that he was open to discussions, which he would certainly not start by being inflexible.
But he was also quick to point out that the Nationalist Party was enjoying a one-seat majority “because, quite plainly, it did not deserve better”.
Writing in l-Orizzont, former Labour MP Joe Cuschieri said the opposition should “give” pairing only in exchange for full consultation on the choice of Speaker and President.
Surely the government’s fragile one-seat majority gives the opposition leverage over the government. The opposition could use this leverage to ensure greater consultation on crucial issues and to push through fundamental reforms like legislation on party financing.
Despite needing the opposition’s goodwill in parliament, the government completely disregarded it when Malta re-applied to join Partnership for Peace membership, a proposal which was not even included in the PN election manifesto.
This could induce the opposition to take a more hardline stand on the issue of pairing. The question facing Labour is, how far should it go in dictating conditions for a pairing agreement?
Former Labour MP Joe Micallef Stafrace has already hedged his bets on choosing a new President of the Republic: “Are we going to have as president somebody who has militated for years, recently even controversially, within the Nationalist Party? Or somebody who inspires trust from both sides?,” he told l-Orizzont on Monday.
Intransigence on this issue could send shivers down the moderate electorate which expects the opposition to guarantee stability. It could even give the Labour electorate a false hope: that the government is just about to fall, and distracting it from the necessary soul searching the party needs.

Pairing in the past decade

Pairing agreements have been the norm for the past decade when the government had comfortable five-seat majorities.
Yet this was not the case in the turbulent 1996-1998 Labour administration when an existing pairing agreement was suspended by the Nationalist opposition.
On that occasion the MLP’s 7,633 vote majority was translated into a sheer one-seat majority in parliament which included the rebellious Dom Mintoff. “The situation was different from the present one. Unlike today, the one-seat majority did reflect the electoral result,” Labour whip Joe Mizzi told MaltaToday.
Joe Mizzi recalls that although a formal pairing agreement existed, the PN was very inconsistent in respecting this agreement. “It was a hard time serving as a whip at that time,” Mizzi.
Mario Galea, who was only appointed whip after the 1998 election recalls that the Nationalist Party had suspended the pairing agreement after a controversial ruling by speaker Miriam Spiteri Debono. “The speaker ruled that Eddie Fenech Adami had to be present in parliament to allow a discussion on a motion on EU membership proposed by the Opposition. Fenech Adami had to attend despite a medical condition and against medical advice,” recalls Galea.
Ultimately it was Dom Mintoff’s nay vote for a yacht marina in Cottonera – and not the absence of a durable pairing agreement – that led to the government’s fall in 1998.
Despite winning by a 12,000-vote margin and five extra seats, the PN still needed a pairing agreement with the opposition when re-elected in 1999. Between 1998 and 2008 the Labour opposition honoured pairing agreements with the Nationalist Party in return for assuming the post of deputy speaker.
“The pairing agreement was withdrawn once when Alfred Sant proposed a vote of no confidence. But on that occasion we were warned from before,” Galea recalls.

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‘Premature to take a stand on pairing’ – Charles Mangion

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