Sunday, 15 May 2005

Consensus Lost and Found

The Malta Independent on Sunday 


What a breadth of fresh air it was last weekend when the Leader of the Opposition announced that Labour`s parliamentary group had agreed to vote for parliamentary approval of the treaty regarding the new EU constitution!

Whilst the final decision belongs to the Party`s general conference, and residual opposing views will remain within those factions that continue to oppose EU membership as a matter of principle, one ought to feel comfortable that the general conference will endorse the position of the parliamentary group with a significant majority.

At least now Labour can present itself to the electorate as a realistic alternative for government and will not continue to scare off the many who think that whilst the PN has overstayed its tenure of government, are unwilling to elect Labour if that means re-opening the EU issue.

Even on the principle of the matter,` the fact that the new Constitution makes specific provisions for exiting membership (something that is probably possible even in the current legal structure even though it is silent about it) is a crucial proof that the new EU constitution does not create conflicts with our own constitution and sovereignty. If a government ever gets democratically elected on a non-membership ticket, the exit route is now more clear and evident even though its actual implementation could present complications.

Now that Labour`s parliamentary group` has offered consensus on the issue, any calls for the matter to be decided by a referendum seem misplaced. Such referendum could have been appropriate in case of a substantial parliamentary division on the matter but is clearly inappropriate and a waste of time and resources once the elected representatives seems substantially of one mind on the matter.

It is a pity that just as soon as such elusive consensus was found on the EU constitution, a sharp division has developed within the Electoral Commission over the very relevant democratic issue of district boundary revisions for the general election.

In a strange twist of events the proposal modelled by the Chief Electoral Commissioner was supported by the four members nominated by the Opposition and was thumbed down by the four members nominated by Government who presented their own minority report.

It is democratically unhealthy to have the only person on the Electoral Commissioner who as a Chief is nominated by the government after consulting with the Opposition and who was originally appointed in that position by the agreement of both sides, so abrasively criticised by government for presenting a report which seems beyond its boundaries of pleasure.

Government was quick to endorse the minority report presented by its nominees on the Commission. These are broadly the same people who were responsible for drawing up the boundaries in the last three general elections which at least in two out of three cases produced a perverse result with a majority totally unrepresentative of the first count votes as is desired by the spirit of the Constitution. Hardly can the minority report authors claim to have any credentials for proposing boundaries which produce results that truly respect first preference votes.

In 1996 we had a Labour majority of nearly 8000 first preference votes returned with a deficit of three parliamentary seats. Only the supplementary provisions in the Constitution could offer Labour the facility of four supplementary seats to gain a slim one seat majority, very unrepresentative of the size of its majority, which proved fatally insufficient to execute the economic restructuring which was, and still is, necessary.

In 1998 we had a PN majority of nearly 13000 first preference votes returned with a five seat parliamentary majority. So the authors of the minority report feel comfortable with boundaries that translate Labour`s majority of 8000 votes into a three seat deficit and PN`s majority of 13000 votes into a five seat majority.` A spread of eight parliamentary seat with a mere difference of 5000 votes is a serious threat to the democratic substance of general elections.

The rapidity with which government criticised the majority report prepared by the Chief Electoral Commissioner and unreservedly endorsed the minority report suggested by its own nominees can only logically lead to one conclusion.` The minority report was in fact prepared at Pieta` with the benefit of raw data collected at the vote counting stage and is intended to perpetuate the perversity of election results in the hope that if Labour gets elected the next time round they will again re-experience the parliamentary fragility of 1998.

How may I ask, can government expect to get consensus from the Opposition on the such crucial matters as social pact, euro entry and other matters of national importance, if then on this ultimate test of real democracy government continues to play games with the margin of latitude allowed by the constitution regarding electoral district boundaries.

I am no electoral expert and submit myself to the advice of people who are more proficient in electoral numbers. But I read both the majority and the minority reports and I am quite certain in my mind that the majority report is much more faithful to the spirit of the constitution than the minority report.

Firstly the percentage deviation of votes in each district is much tighter in the majority report than in the minority report and on average it is less than 1% whilst the constitution allows a maximum margin of 5%.` On the contrary the minority report boundaries propose deviations which are quite near to the 5% threshold so that it is quite likely that should their proposals be adopted, such boundaries would need to be revised again quite soon if population shifts across towns and villages push the deviations beyond the constitutional limit.

Secondly the test on the integrity of the boundaries depends a lot on minimising the need to split single localities across two or more different electoral districts. In both cases the minority and majority reports propose that Ghajnsielem and Comino have to migrate to the 12th District.` No matter how undesirable this may be,` Gozo cannot remain as a single district within the present parameters of the constitution and both reports therefore propose the minimal possible fractionalisation of Gozo`s electorate.

However whereas the majority report proposes the reunification of Zabbar into one electoral district the minority reports proposes that a bigger slice of Zabbar migrates to a district different from the one that contains the main Zabbar population.` Also whereas the majority report preserves the integrity of St Vincent de Paul with Luqa that hosts it, the minority report proposes the migration of St Vincent De Paul with Qormi to the 7th district.`

What as pity that just when we found consensus where there was none, we have lost it where it should be quite easy and natural to achieve it.

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