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Evarist Bartolo | Sunday, 25 January 2009

Rent reform: standing up for cohabiting and gay couples

Mary has been cohabiting with Joseph for nearly 40 years. She would have liked to marry him after her husband abandoned her and moved to Australia, where she has not been able to trace him. She has tried to marry Joseph but before she can do so, she has to provide proof that her husband has died. Otherwise she can be accused of bigamy.
Mary is now getting worried that she will end up homeless if Joseph dies before her, as the landowner has told her that he has rented the flat to Joseph and she has no right to stay there. She has been telling me to speak up for her in the rent reform legislation being discussed in parliament.
I had persons like Mary in mind when I spoke in parliament last Monday on the rent bill. The week before, Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg attacked the Labour Party for speaking in favour of the need to introduce measures in the new rent legislation to protect the rights of cohabiting couples and gay partners in long-term relationships.
Using a very offensive, cynical and derisory tone he poured scorn over the Labour Party’s demand. He asked whether the Labour Party was advocating a cohabitation register, and did it want to help a person who decided to cohabit after being widowed?
Why is Dr Borg so shocked? He was already a member of parliament more than 10 years ago when the Nationalist Party solemnly declared in its 1998 electoral manifesto (point 194) that it would enact a law to establish rights and obligations between a man and a woman who had formed a cohabiting relationship. More than 10 years have passed, and the Nationalist Party has not kept this promise. Had this promise been kept, there would be no need now to call for measures to protect the rights of cohabiting couples in the new rent legislation.
Dr Borg’s sarcastic and cynical tone on gay couples was in stark contrast to what the PN told gay people during last year’s electoral campaign. Representatives of the Malta Gay Rights Movement (MGRM) had met a delegation of the PN. During that meeting the PN had expressed itself in favour in principle of a newly proposed European Union (EU) directive against discrimination of gays and other minorities. In line with this proposed EU directive, the MGRM had submitted a list of proposals to all the political parties before the March elections, but the most important for them had been the regulation and legal protection of gay couples as enjoyed by married heterosexual couples, even when it comes to housing.
But now that the election has passed the PN government has changed its tone and its stand and is maintaining that the EU directive against discrimination is still premature, and that a long time of serious study and consideration is needed before incorporating such a directive in Maltese law. But at the pre-election meeting with the MGRM the government had said it was in favour of such a directive.
Malta needs legislation on civil partnerships of cohabitating or gay couples. Otherwise these persons are going to be deprived of the full equality of rights they are entitled to as citizens in our society.
Among those who supported Malta’s accession to the EU had been many who saw this as an opportunity to open up our society to civil liberties that we are still deprived of, and the elimination of discrimination and strong social prejudices against minorities like gays. Last March an EU report had said that Malta was one of seven countries in which protection from discrimination against homosexuals existed only in employment legislation.
The report, which urged that such protection be extended to other areas, specifically housing, had also said there existed no machinery in Malta for such protection. Government has still to take steps to set up such a structure.
It is no excuse to resist the EU directive against discrimination on the grounds that Malta is a traditional society, and that habits and mindsets have to change before we accept such civil rights legislation. When it came to introducing legislation to eliminate racism and discrimination against disabled persons, the PN government said that laws help to change culture and mentalities. The same argument applies now when it comes to cohabiting couples and gay partners in a long-term relationship.


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