Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Some budgetary priorities for 2014

The upcoming budget will show us the direction that the Labour Government wants to take in the coming years. For example, we will see whether Labour wants a continuation of Nationalist budgets which offered economic stability, yet which increased social inequalities and gave scant importance to various environmental priorities, in a hybrid welfare model.

I think that Labour should propose a budget which gives priority to social and environmental policies whilst ensuring Malta's relative economic stability.

For example, as regards income tax, the reduction of tax for high-income earners is going to deprive Government of a source of revenue which is essential to finance public services. Even though both Labour and Nationalist Parties agree on this populist measure, I urge Labour read the writing on the wall and admit that this proposal is unsustainable in view of the state of public finances. The 35% maximum tax rate represented a historic compromise between employers and unions, was on the low-end of tax rates in Europe and could not really have been seen as a major disincentive for investment.

Sure, Labour can say that to make up for income tax losses, it will generate revenue from its cash-for-citizenship initiative. But the latter does not qualify the social justice test, as it opens doors for millionaires whilst slamming them to those escaping oppression.

On the other hand, an increase in the minimum wage would pass the social justice test. It is clear that around €700 per month is not enough to enjoy a decent quality of life. A reasonable minimum wage increase can improve matters for such low-income earners whilst generating economic growth given the multiplier effect of subsequent consumption. Besides, it can act as an incentive for persons to seek formal employment, given that this would be more attractive. Hence, productivity can increase too.

Similarly, it would also make sense to reform welfare in a way which not only guarantees decent benefits for the unemployed and those who do not form part of the labour force, but also rewards those who are seeking employment but are disincentivised from doing so given the subsequent loss of benefits. The latter can result in perverse situations where employment results in a lower standard of living. For this reason, benefits should be retained for low-income earners and be gradually reduced only once one enjoys employment stability and once one's income from employment is sufficient without respective benefits. Such policies should also be coupled by more family-friendly measures such as universally accessible childcare centres.

I hope that the pensions issue is prioritized in the upcoming budget. Retaining the status quo is not an option, as this will basically result in a bankrupt pensions system. I also am very wary of simply introducing incentives for third-pillar pensions. As UHM puts it, only one forth of workers can afford such voluntary private pensions. What will happen to the remaining three forths?

I think that the immediate way forward is for the State to ensure that pensions are sustainable, universal and egalitarian. In the current scenario, one has to see whether this can be obtained through compulsory payments for second-pillar pensions or through generation of other sustainable revenue flows, or through both. In the final instance, the plain truth is that sustainable universal pensions require more injection of state funds. This elephant in the room simply cannot be avoided any longer.

I also hope that clean renewable energy is given the importance it deserves. The current debates on gas, pipelines and all the rest seem to be alienating us from the fact that Malta is Europe's laggard on renewables, to the detrminent of climate change and strategic challenges in the field.

Schemes which encourage investment in photovoltaic cells and solar water heaters should be strengthened, but Government should also keep in view that many households cannot invest in such energy due to occupation of penthouses or adjacent building heights. Hence, Government could compensate by increasing investment in renewable energy on public property.

Government should also ensure that eco tax really serves its purpose by punishing practices which are harmful to the environment and health and rewarding green methods. Vacant properties and usage of water are two areas which immediately come to mind. Malta is the most built up country in Europe, yet 75,000 properties are vacant. Water is being drilled for through boreholes in a free-for-all situation which is increasing infiltration of sea water in the water table and increased dependency on costly reverse osmosis plants.

Time is also ripe for Government to take tough action against cars and trucks which, ideally, should not even be allowed on our roads given their polluting qualities. A cursory look at some buses which are temporarily replacing bendy-buses is a clear example of this.

This blog also appeared in Malta Today 30th October 2013:

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The LGBT historic leap forward

The proposed legislation on civil unions is a historic leap forward in Maltese society. Following the introduction of divorce some years ago, it was becoming clearer that the introduction of other civil rights would be on the political agenda for the years to come.

I am sure that activists in the LGBT movement, including MGRM and Green activists and some who since then joined the Labour Party, are proud of their contribution to the current debate. Likewise, on a personal note, I am proud that when I chaired the Green Party, I was both a co-founder of Malta's 'yes' movement in the divorce referendum campaign, and also to be the first party leader in Malta who spoke for the introduction of full equality on LGBT rights including marriage.

I congratulate the Labour government for having the courage to propose legislation which practically introduces same-sex marriage in all but name. Sure, the symbolic importance of marriage for same-sex couples who want to celebrate their companionship in the same way as others will not be there. But otherwise, full equality is being proposed.

I can imagine that within Labour, progressives such as Helena Dalli, Evarist Bartolo and Owen Bonnici have to negotiate with more conservative factions in the party, some of whom actually opposed divorce in the recent past.

Even in the more progressive Green Party, which is for same-sex marriage (and divorce, for the matter) - there were different opinions on LGBT issues such as marriage - at least that was the case when I chaired the party. Such diversity of opinions only strengthens the debate in a democratic context.

As regards the Nationalist Party. I welcome Simon Busuttil's declaration that the party will vote in favour of the bill, despite putting forward some amendments (which we still have to see). One has to remember that in the Nationalist Party, for every Mario Demarco there is an Edwin Vassallo, though the message sent by the latter's failure to be elected in parliament is not to be underestimated by the party.

The proposed 'Helena Dalli' legislation clearly recognizes the signs of the times, particularly that families can take various forms. Despite the socio-biological rhetoric of the so-called 'natural' family, the truth is that families have been taking different forms across time and space.

It is for this reason that contemporary sociologists such as Janet Finch refer to the term 'display' to understand what families do, in their diverse forms - rather than focusing on monolithic definitions which basically consider certain groups, such as same-sex couples, as not constituting families. The new sociological emphasis is on family practices and how people interpret and reflect on what family means to their particular situations.

In this regard, sociologists such as Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim and Anthony Giddens explore the way how people actively create their own understanding of intimacy and love and what they consider to be their ideal form of relationship. Here one can note that the call for same-sex marriage or civil unions indicates that, rather than families in crisis, we should speak of the success of belief in marriage and companionship across different identities.

One issue which will probably raise controversy in the civil unions parliamentary debate is the adoption question. I fully agree that prime emphasis should be given to the rights of the child, indeed, this issue is likely to dominate all debates on family life with respect to social policy, irrespective of the identity of parents. And it is precisely for this reason that policy-makers should not exclude same-sex couples or others such as singletons, for that matter, from applying for the facility to adopt. Once the emphasis is on the rights of the child, proper evaluation can be made as to whether applicants are fit to adopt the child in question. Prejudice on sexual identity should not cloud other considerations.

Here it is interesting to note that according to research by sociologist Tor Folgero, in LGBT families, same-sex parents both transgress as well as reproduce traditional patterns and values of family life. But one can argue that this is the case even in other families which exist in society, for example when traditional roles of male breadwinner and female housewife are deconstructed to give way to more overlapping roles. Indeed, we should celebrate those men who take increasingly caring roles, and those women who liberate themselves from oppressive patriarchal situations, in line with the concept of 'universal caregivers' - as dubbed by Nancy Fraser. In the final instance, love is the great signifier for children brought up in different family forms.

The historic leap forward in the LGBT debate should not make us forget other challenges ahead in family policy. For example class inequality, precariousness, gender inequalities and other minority issues remain key policy challenges of our times.

This blog appeared on Malta Today, 26th October 2013 - link:


Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002): Reinventing the Family. In Search of New Lifestyles. Oxford: Polity

Cheal, D. (2002): Sociology of Family Life Hampshire: Palgrave.

Folgero, T. (2008). Queer Nuclear Families? Reproducing and Transgressing Hetronormativity. Journal of Homosexuality 54 (1).

Fraser, N. (1997): Justice Interruptus. London: Routledge.

Giddens, A. (1991): Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Cambridge: Polity.

Steel, L., Kidd, W., Brown, A (2012): The Family. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

Finch, J. (2007): Displaying Families. Sociology 41(1)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Paper by Briguglio and Pace on PL in "The Palgrave Handbook of Social Democracy in the European Union"‏

Michael Briguglio’s and Roderick Pace's paper on Labour Party features in the “The Palgrave Handbook of Social Democracy in the European Union”.

“The Palgrave Handbook of Social Democracy”, edited by Edited by Jean-Michel de Waele, Fabien Escalona and Mathieu Vieira, includes a chapter on Malta co-authored by Roderick Pace (Director, Institute of European Studies) and Michael Briguglio (Department of Sociology) from the University of Malta.

More information on the book may be found at

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Julian Manduca - A Maltese hero for our times

In a feature by Jurgen Balzan, Malta Today newspaper asked me to write something in dedication of a Maltese personality who I consider to be a hero. This is what I wrote.

Julian Manduca (1958-2005)

Julian was one of the persons who I looked up to in my youth, back in the 1990s when I co-founded Moviment Graffitti with others including James Debono. I actually got to know him some years before, during a party at my parents' place, which usually were attented by bohemian intellectuals and artists. Before Julian joined Malta Today to become one of the prominent critical journalists in Malta, I remember him as a charismatic left-wing environmentalist, a liberal on civil rights, and a committed activist who formed part of the alternative cultural scene. Julian spoke on many issues, especially environmental ones, ahead of his time, and we worked together in campaigns such as the Front Kontra l-Hilton and the victorious Front Kontra l-Golf Kors. It is no understatement to consider Julian as a main influence on the 1980s and 1990s young generation in left-wing and environmental groups, beyond partisan dogma and careerism, and strongly believing that another world is possible