In An Age Of Maltese Armchair Activism, Do Petitions Actually Work?
A quick look at past attempts seems to say no
In an age where armchair activism is the name of the game, an online petition can make anyone feel like they’ve done their bit. And Malta is definitely no exception.
With a flood of online petitions which rarely reach their goals and come at the expense of a company selling your personal information, laws allowing Maltese citizens to submit their own parliamentary petition means people can actually get legitimately "involved".
In recent weeks, we have even seen two parliamentary petitions start to gather seem with two major issues facing the Maltese public.
The first, calling for Manoel Island to be turned into a heritage park, has already garnered over 6,500 online signatures, but seems doomed to fail with contractual obligations and a lack of political will working against it.
Meanwhile, a second looking to stop the proposed tunnel-link between Malta and Gozo (2,700 signatures) is in opposition the government’s electoral commitment to build a fixed link between the two islands.
A little click can a long way in helping disenfranchised communities band together to make their voices heard, but the question remains, do they actually work?
Who can submit a petition? And how does it work?
Any Maltese citizen can submit one. Every petition, whether they receive one signature or 8,000, must be discussed by the Standing Committee on Petitions.
It is the committee who decides whether any further action will be taken, which would include the petition being referred to another committee or to the entire House.
The Standing Committee for Petitions is made up of five members: a Chairperson (Chris Agius), two government MPs (Robert Abela, Clifton Grima), and two opposition MPs (David Agius, Robert Cutajar).
But if you look at recent petitions, the pattern looks a tad worrying.
1. Amendments To Ensure Protection of Embryos - Failed
The debate surrounding reproductive issues often creates a furore in Malta. The amendments to the Embryo Protection Act were no different with concerns over embryo freezing, surrogacy, and their implications reaching a fever pitch.
A petition which called on the House to expressly protect human embryos in the law managed to receive over 8,000 online signatures. This number was reduced to 7,700 by the Speaker after it was found that multiple entries were being allowed on the system.
However, it was the thousands who gathered outside of parliament to protest the proposed law that seemed to have the most significant impact.
While the government did approve the controversial amendments in June, several key changes were made. Most notable was the partial lift of donor anonymity allowing children to find out who their biological parents are, once they reach 18.
The government’s plans to introduce altruistic surrogacy were also put on hold, however, Health Minister Chris Fearne has said this will be presented at a later stage under a separate bill.
2. Stop Pensions Reform - Success, but only after Opposition withdrew consensus
PD MP Godfrey Farrugia submitted a petition after the government, presented amendments that would have seen MPs become entitled to a full pension for a one-term service.
The proposal proved to be unpopular with the public, who feel that more still needs to be done when it comes to the general population’s pensions.
The petition, which was launched on 11 March, managed to get just 251 signatures before the Opposition withdrew their previously agreed consensus.
The Opposition’s agreement was crucial as the amendments would have needed a two-thirds majority in parliament.
3. Fish Farms and Sea Slime - Failed
Given that sea slime has become a constant feature of the Maltese coastline, it's unsurprising that a petition was filed against the extension of existing tuna farms off the northeast coast of Malta.
Receiving 1,865 online signatures, the petition argued that “the authorities seem powerless or have no interest in remedying” the issues caused by excessive fish farming and illegalities.
The petition was turned down by the committee. However, the recent major allegations that two of Malta's major tuna-farm operators are involved with the Pan-European illegal tune trade, might force parliament to address the issue once again.
4. Should English And Maltese Both Be Official Languages In Court? - Awaiting
A petition calling for the English language to be placed on par with Maltese in public services, including the law courts, is awaiting to be debated by the committee.
Currently, the Constitution states that Maltese is the language of the courts, but that Parliament may make provisions for the use of English in certain cases.
It is expected to be discussed among the members at the next committee meeting.