Referenda in Malta

1870, 1956, 1964, 1973, 2003, 2011


 
Introduction

Only six referenda have ever been held in Malta; one of them was a purely local one in Gozo.

Professor John C. Lane of Buffalo University, New York, says, of referenda in Malta and Gozo, that "it is remarkable that no referendum (except the 1870 referendum) received the approval of a majority of all the registered voters, because often substantial numbers of voters did not cast a vote". Lane is an expert on electoral processes and voting systems and has compiled a most informative website on Maltese elections and referenda. He was in Malta in 1996 to see at first hand how our proportional representation system worked.

It is important to note that in any case he is on the side of those who subscribe to the calculation of referendum results on the basis of 'valid votes', that is the votes cast by actual voters. After all, this has always been the position recognised by the Maltese legal system and was not changed when the Referenda Act was discussed by Parliament and amended in October, 2002.

Referring to the way referendum figures are reproduced by various authors, Lane has to register that 'the referenda results involve a problem in respect to the total number of voters'. In particular he refers to Edith Dobie (Malta's Road to Independence, 1967), Joseph Pirotta (Fortress Colony: The Final Act, Vol. II, 1991) and Edgar Mizzi (Malta in the Making, 1995) as reporting 'the figure of all registered voters which would include, for instance, voters who were deceased between the time the electoral register was compiled and the polling day'.

On the other hand, he says, Remig Sacco (L-Elezzjonijiet Generali, 1986), Michael Schiavone (L-Elezzjonijiet f'Malta, 1992) and Henry Frendo (The Origins of Maltese Statehood, 1999) go for "the number of voters who were issued their voting documents". These are the 'eligible voters', and it is on these that Lane bases his computation of the official referenda results, although he gives all the available figures for invalid votes and for votes not withdrawn from the Electoral Office.

Obviously, the problem lies with the calls for boycotts made in the case of three nationwide referenda.

The first referendum to be held in Malta was that of 1870 when the question put to the electorate was: 'Are ecclesiastics to be eligible to the Council of Government?'. At the time only a small section of the population (one could call them the landed gentry) had the right to vote.

In 1956 Maltese and Gozitans were called to cast their vote in a referendum on the Labour government's 'Integration with Britain' proposal.  Voting was held on February 11 and 12, 1956. It is pertinent to note that voters were allowed to be accompanied into the polling booth by a 'trusted friend' who could help them cast their vote. From a legal point of view the Yes vote carried the day, but the total of those voting against, those abstaining or invalidating their vote, the deceased, and the 'non-voters' exceeded the yes vote by almost 10 per cent.

In the Constitution referendum of 1964 the electorate was called to answer the question: "Do you approve of the constitution proposed by the Government of Malta, endorsed by the Legislative Assembly, and published in the Malta Gazette?"

The Nationalist government was obviously for a Yes vote, while the Labour Party told its members to vote No. The Christian Workers Party and the Progressive Constitutional Party asked the electorate to abstain from voting while the Democratic Nationalist Party opted for invalidation of the vote or a blank vote.

Voting took place on May 2, 3 and 4, 1964.  Once again, the Yes vote carried the day. But once again one has to go to historians Frendo and Pirotta to understand why the British government, influenced by decisions at a time when military logistics were going through great changes and Malta's strategic position was gradually diminishing, opted to honour the official Yes result.

Under a Labour government, a referendum was held in Gozo in 1973 on the abolition of the Gozo Civic Council; only voters registered in Gozo could cast their vote.

The question, a loaded one if ever there was one, ran as follows: "Do you want Gozo to remain different from Malta, that is, not only having its own representatives in Parliament, chosen from Gozo, but also representatives in the Gozo Civic Council which, amongst other powers, has that of imposing special taxes on the Gozitans to be spent according to the wishes of the people of Gozo?"

The majority of the few who voted were in favour, but the Gozo Civic Council instructed the Gozitans to boycott the referendum precisely because of the loaded nature of the question.

Voting took place on November 11, 1973.  Mr Mintoff abolished the council, as seems to have been his intention all along.

The European Union  referendum was held on March 8, 2003 answering the question: "Do you agree that Malta becomes a member of the European Union in the enlargement that will take place on May 1, 2004?".  A narrow majority voted in favour of joining but the opposition Labour Party rejected the results. Supporters of the Nationalist party celebrated the result of the referendum but the Labour leader Alfred Sant did not concede defeat and said the issue would be settled at the upcoming general election.  He argued that only 48% of registered voters had voted yes and that therefore a majority had opposed membership by voting no, abstaining or spoiling their ballot. The day after the referendum the Prime Minister called the election for the 12 April as expected, though it was not required until January 2004.

The main issue in the 2003 election was EU membership and the Nationalist party's victory enabled Malta to join on the 1 May 2004.

A private member's bill was tabled in the House of Representatives by Jeffrey Pullicino-Orlando, a Nationalist Member of Parliament. The text of the bill, which had been changed twice, did not provide for the holding of a referendum. This was eventually provided for through a separate Parliamentary resolution under the Referenda Act authorising a facultative, non-binding referendum to be held.

The Catholic Church in Malta encouraged a "no" vote through a pastoral letter issued on the Sunday before the referendum day. Complaints were made that religious pressure was being brought to bear upon voters.

The divorce referendum was held in Malta on 28 May 2011 to consult the electorate on the introduction of divorce, and resulted in a majority of the voters approving legalisation of divorce. At that time, Malta was one of only three countries in the world, along with the Philippines and the Vatican City, in which divorce was not permitted. As a consequence of the referendum outcome, a law allowing divorce under certain conditions was enacted in the same year.  Parliament approved the law on 25 July. The law came into effect on 1 October 2011.

 

 

 

1870 Ecclesiastics Referendum

 

The first referendum to be held in Malta was that of 1870 when the question put to the electorate was: 'Are ecclesiastics to be eligible to the Council of Government?'. At the time only a small section of the population (one could call them the landed gentry) had the right to vote.

The result of the 1,473 votes cast was: "Yes" votes: 1409; "No" votes: 58; "Invalid" votes: 6.

 

The Question:

"Are ecclesiastics to be eligible to the Council of Government?"

 

The Result:

The Referendum of 1870

Choice

Votes

Percentage

In Favour

1,409

96.05%

Against

58

3.95%

Invalid or blank votes

6

0.24%

Total votes

  1,473

 

Elegible Voters

  2,464

Did not vote

  991   -  40.22%

Voter turnout

59.78%

 

Aftermath

 

As a result the ecclesiastics were granted the right to be members of the Council of Government.  In 1898 this right was withdrawn by the British Colonial Government acting after the Bishop of Malta, Mgr Pietro Pace, ordered that no ecclesiastic could sit on the council without his permission. Under the 1921 Constitution ecclesiastics could contest the elections but this provision was rescinded in the 1939 elections.

 

 

 

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1956 Integration Referendum

11-12 February, 1956

 

In 1956 Maltese and Gozitans were called to cast their vote in a referendum on the Labour government's 'Integration with Britain' proposal.

Voting was held on February 11 and 12, 1956.  It is pertinent to note that voters were allowed to be accompanied into the polling booth by a 'trusted friend' who could help them cast their vote.

From a legal point of view the Yes vote carried the day, but the total of those voting against, those abstaining or invalidating their vote, the deceased, and the 'non-voters' exceeded the yes vote by almost 10 per cent.

A good look at history, especially as recorded by Henry Frendo and Joseph Pirotta, would show that the British government's decision not to abide by the decision taken by the 'valid voters' had little to do with the actual result. In simple terms, the British cabinet, influenced mostly by the Admiralty, had had second thoughts.

The underlying principle of the proposals for closer association with Great Britain was ‘complete equality of status between the two peoples’.

The Opposition Party boycotted the referendum. Out of a total electorate of 152,823, the number of people who cast their vote was 90,343 or 59.1 per cent "Yes" votes were 67,607 and "No" votes 20,177; the number of invalid votes amounted to 2,559.

 

The Question

 

"Do you approve of the proposals as set out in the Malta Government Gazette of the 10th January, 1956?"

 

PROPOSALS SUBMITTED TO THE VOTERS AT THE REFERENDUM HELD ON 11 AND 12 FEBRUARY 1956

 

The underlying principle of the Malta Labour Government's proposals for closer association with Great Britain on which negotiations will be conducted with Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, is a complete equality of status between the two peoples. The proposals embody the following basic features:

 

I. - CONSTITUTIONAL

 

1. Malta would have representation with full voting powers in the Parliament at Westminster, elected in the same way as Members in the United Kingdom.

 

2. The Parliament at Westminster would have exclusive authority in matters of defence and foreign affairs, and at an appropriate future date, direct taxation.

 

3. The powers of the Maltese Parliament would be extended and would embrace all matters other than those mentioned in paragraph 2 above. The Maltese Parliament would be responsible for legislation in all internal matters including, in particular, those affecting the position of the Church in these Islands, education, marriage and family life, always acknowledging the principle of religious toleration as embodied in the Declaration of Rights of 1802 and in recent Constitutions. This would mean that the new constitutional relationship would leave intact the power of the people of Malta to protect their own religion and their own Ecclesiastical establishment. Her Majesty's Government would confirm the assurances they have already given in regard to religious matters,

 

4. The present dyarchical system of Government in Malta would be abolished and there would be a representative of Her Majesty's Government in Malta to carry out the policy of that Government in regard to defence and foreign affairs, and to consult and collaborate with the Maltese Government in matters of joint concern.

 

II - ECONOMIC

 

Under the new constitutional relationship between the two peoples, agreements covering a number of years for financial and other assistance would be sought with Her Majesty's Government to support a development plan the objective of which would be equivalence of standards with Great Britain:-

 

(a) by the gradual raising of the standard of living of the people of these Island and in particular of their social services;

 

(b) by maintaining employment, the increase of opportunities outside Service establishments and the gradual raising of wages;

 

(c) by raising direct taxation as the national income and the taxable capacity of the people increase.

 

III - CONSULTATIVE

 

Machinery for close consultation and collaboration between the two Governments would be established on the following lines:

 

(a) A Defence Council in Malta, of which the Maltese Prime Minister would be a member. The Council would be used to inform the Maltese Government of developments in defence and foreign affairs and for the discussion of these matters in so far as they affect Malta;

 

(b) A committee in Malta, composed of representatives of the Maltese Government and Her Majesty's Government, for the consideration of economic and financial matters of common concern;

 

(c) A Joint Standing Ministerial Committee in London, to consider at the highest level any issue of particular importance or difficulty affecting Malta. This Committee would meet regularly to provide a means of consultation and an exchange of information between the two Governments.

 

The Result:

The Referendum of 1956

Choice

Votes

%  Registered Voters

Votes Cast

%

Valid Votes

In Favour

67,607

44.25

74.83

77.02

Against

20,177

13.21

22.21

22.98

Registered Voters

152,783

100

 

 

Not Voting*

62, 440

40.87

 

 

Votes Cast

90,343

59.13

100

 

Invalid Votes

2,559

1.67

2.83

 

Valid Votes

87,784

57.46

97.17

 

* of these 3,287 did not collect voting document

 

Aftermath

 

77.02%  of voters were in favour of the proposal, but owing to a boycott by the Nationalist Party, only 59.1% of the electorate voted, thereby rendering the result inconclusive. There were also concerns expressed by British MPs that the representation of Malta at Westminster would set a precedent for other colonies, and influence the outcome of general elections.

In addition, the decreasing strategic importance of Malta to the Royal Navy meant that the British government was increasingly reluctant to maintain the naval dockyards. Following a decision by the Admiralty to dismiss 40 workers at the dockyard, Dom Mintoff declared that "representatives of the Maltese people in Parliament declare that they are no longer bound by agreements and obligations toward the British government..." (the 1958 Caravaggio incident).  In response, the Colonial Secretary sent a cable to Mintoff, stating that he had "recklessly hazarded" the whole integration plan.

Dom Mintoff resigned as Prime Minister, and Giorgio Borg Olivier declined forming an alternative government. This led to the Islands being placed under direct colonial administration from London, with the MLP abandoning support for integration and now advocating independence. In 1959, an Interim Constitution provided for an Executive Council under British rule.

While France had implemented a similar policy in its colonies, some of which became overseas departments, the status offered to Malta from Britain constituted a unique exception. Malta was the only British colony where integration with the UK was seriously considered, and subsequent British governments have ruled out integration for remaining overseas territories, such as Gibraltar.

In 1961, the Blood Commission provided for a new constitution allowing for a measure of self-government and recognizing the "State" of Malta. Giorgio Borg Olivier became Prime Minister the following year, when the Stolper report was delivered.
 


           

 

 

 

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1964 Constitution Referendum

2 - 4 May, 1964

 

In the Constitution referendum of 1964 the electorate was called to answer the question: "Do you approve of the constitution proposed by the Government of Malta, endorsed by the Legislative Assembly, and published in the Malta Gazette?"

The Nationalist Government was obviously for a Yes vote, while the Labour Party told its members to vote No. The Christian Workers Party and the Progressive Constitutional Party asked the electorate to abstain from voting while the Democratic Nationalist Party opted for invalidation of the vote or a blank vote.

Voting took place on May 2, 3 and 4, 1964. Once again, the Yes vote carried the day. But once again one has to go to historians Frendo and Pirotta to understand why the British government, influenced by decisions at a time when military logistics were going through great changes and Malta's strategic position was gradually diminishing, opted to honour the official Yes result.

 

Out of the 156,886 people entitled to vote, 129,649 cast their votes or 83.4 per cent. The number of "Yes" votes was 65,714 and the number of "No" votes was 54,919 while 9,016 votes were declared invalid.

 

The Question:

 

"Do you approve of the constitution proposed by the Government of Malta, endorsed by the Legislative Assembly, and published in the Malta Gazette?"

 

The Result:

The Referendum of 1964

Choice

Votes

%  Registered Voters

Votes Cast

%

Valid Votes

In Favour

65,714

40.38

50.69

54.47

Against

54,919

33.75

42.36

45.53

Registered Voters

162,743

100

 

 

Non Voting*

33,094

20.34

 

 

Votes Cast

129,649

79.66

100

 

Invalid Votes

9,016

5.54

6.95

 

Valid Votes

120,633

74.12

93.05

100

* of these 5,899 did not collect their voting document

 

Aftermath

 

It was effectively a referendum on independence, as the new constitution made the country an independent nation on 21 September 1964.

 

 

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1973 Gozo Referendum

11 November, 1973

(note that only voters in Gozo could cast votes)

 

Under a Labour government, a referendum was held in Gozo in 1973 on the abolition of the Gozo Civic Council; only voters registered in Gozo could cast their vote.

The question, a loaded one if ever there was one, ran as follows: "Do you want Gozo to remain different from Malta, that is, not only having its own representatives in Parliament, chosen from Gozo, but also representatives in the Gozo Civic Council which, amongst other powers, has that of imposing special taxes on the Gozitans to be spent according to the wishes of the people of Gozo?"

The majority of the few who voted were in favour, but the Gozo Civic Council instructed the Gozitans to boycott the referendum precisely because of the loaded nature of the question.

Voting took place on November 11, 1973.  Out of 15, 621 people entitled to vote, 195 cast their votes or 1.25%. The number of "Yes" votes was 137 and the number of "No" votes 41, while 17 votes were declared invalid

 

The Question:

 

"Do you want Gozo to remain different from Malta, that is, not only having its own representatives in Parliament, chosen from Gozo, but also representatives in the Gozo Civic Council which, amongst other powers, has that of imposing special taxes on the Gozitans to be spent according to the wishes of the people of Gozo?"

 

The Result:

The Referendum of 1973

Choice

Votes

%  Registered Voters

Valid Votes

In Favour

137

0.88

76.97

Against

41

0.26

23.03

Registered Voters

15,621

100

 

Non Voting

15,426

98.75

 

Votes Cast

195

1.25

 

Invalid Votes

17

0.11

 

Valid Votes

178

1.13

100

 

Aftermath

 

Mr Dom Mintoff,  the Prime Minister, abolished the council, as seems to have been his intention all along.

 

 

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2003 European Union Referendum

8 March, 2003

 

A referendum on joining the European Union was held in Malta on 8 March 2003.  A narrow majority voted in favour of joining but the opposition Labour Party rejected the results. The victory of the Nationalist Party in the 2003 general election confirmed the result of the referendum and Malta joined the EU on 1 May 2004.

The Maltese referendum saw the highest turnout, and the lowest support for joining, of any of the nine countries that held referendums on joining the EU in 2003.

 

The European Union  referendum was held on March 8, 2003 answering the question: "Do you agree that Malta becomes a member of the European Union in the enlargement that will take place on May 1, 2004?"

 

Out of 297,881 registered voters, 270,650 votes were cast or 90.86%. 3,911 votes were invalid, with 143,094 in favour and 123,628 against.
 

The Question:

 

"Do you agree that Malta becomes a member of the European Union in the enlargement that will take place on 1 May 2004?"

 

The Result:

The Referendum of 2003

Choice

Votes

%  Registered Voters

Votes Cast

%

Valid Votes

In Favour

143,094

48.04

52.87

53.65

Against

123,628

41.50

45.68

46.35

Registered Voters

297,881

100

 

 

Non Voting

27,231

9.14

 

 

Votes Cast

270,650

90.86

100

 

Invalid Votes

3,911

1.31

1.45

 

Valid Votes

266,722

89.54

98.55

100

 

Aftermath


Supporters of the Nationalist party celebrated the result of the referendum but the Labour leader Alfred Sant did not concede defeat and said the issue would be settled at the upcoming general election.  He argued that only 48% of registered voters had voted yes and that therefore a majority had opposed membership by voting no, abstaining or spoiling their ballot. The day after the referendum the Prime Minister called the election for the 12 April as expected, though it was not required until January 2004.

The main issue in the 2003 election was EU membership and the Nationalist party's victory enabled Malta to join on the 1 May 2004.

 

2003 Referendum Results
 

 

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2011 Divorce Referendum

28 May 2011

 

A private member's bill was tabled in the House of Representatives by Jeffrey Pullicino-Orlando, a Nationalist Member of Parliament. The text of the bill, which had been changed twice, did not provide for the holding of a referendum. This was eventually provided for through a separate Parliamentary resolution under the Referenda Act authorising a facultative, non-binding referendum to be held.

The Catholic Church in Malta encouraged a "no" vote through a pastoral letter issued on the Sunday before the referendum day. Complaints were made that religious pressure was being brought to bear upon voters.

 

The divorce referendum was held in Malta on 28 May 2011 to consult the electorate on the introduction of divorce, and resulted in a majority of the voters approving legalisation of divorce. At that time, Malta was one of only three countries in the world, along with the Philippines and the Vatican City, in which divorce was not permitted. As a consequence of the referendum outcome, a law allowing divorce under certain conditions was enacted in the same year.

 

 

Question



Ballot papers had both English and Maltese questions printed on them.

The English version of the question put to voters was as follows:


Do you agree with the introduction of the option of divorce in the case of a married couple who has been separated or has been living apart for at least four (4) years, and where there is no reasonable hope for reconciliation between the spouses, whilst adequate maintenance is guaranteed and the children are protected?


The Maltese version was:


Taqbel mal-introduzzjoni tal-għażla tad-divorzju f'każ ta' koppja miżżewġa li tkun ilha separata jew tkun ilha ma tgħix flimkien għal mill-anqas erba' (4) snin, u meta ma jkun hemm l-ebda tama raġjonevoli ta' rikonċiljazzjoni bejn il-miżżewġin, filwaqt li jkun garantit manteniment adegwat u jkunu mħarsa t-tfal?


The question, which resembled the proposal approved by Irish voters in the Irish divorce referendum of 1995, was somewhat controversial. It was claimed that it did not reflect the content of the private member's bill
 

The Result:

The Referendum of 2011

Choice

Votes

Percentage

In Favour

122,547

52.67%

Against

107,971

46.4%

Invalid or blank votes

2,173

0.93%

Total votes

232,691

100.00%

Voter turnout

72%

Although for the referendum the whole country was considered as a single constituency, taking into account electoral districts, only three out of thirteen voted "no" to the referendum question

 

Aftermath

 

Discussion on the divorce bill started in earnest soon after the result was announced. In the second and third readings a number of MPs still voted against the bill. Parliament approved the law on 25 July. The law came into effect on 1 October 2011.

 

2011 Referendum Results

 

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