Monday, December 28, 2015

The social justice index

Why should we care about social justice? There are a number of reasons for this. Social cohesion, equality, social stability, well-being and the quality of life are all related to the concept.
According to the ‘Social justice in the EU – index report 2015’, social justice has a positive effect on economic growth.
The report has just been published by Bertlesmann Stiftung, the European think tank whose scholarly reports enjoy a high reputation in the policy-making field. The report compares the profiles of the 28 member states of the European Union through a social-scientific methodology.
The highest ranked countries, in order, are Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. The last positions are taken up by Italy, Bulgaria, Romania and, at rock bottom, Greece.
One main finding of the 2015 report is that the low point of social injustice within the EU appears to have been reached, although there is no evidence of a comprehensive turnaround.
Other main findings are that poverty and social exclusion remain of major concern, that there is an enormous social gap between Northern and Southern Europe and that children and young people have been disproportionately affected.
According to the report, Malta ranks 16th out of 28 countries. Its score, 5.43, is slightly below the EU average of 5.63 and is similar to the overall score of Poland and Slovakia. In 2014, Malta’s score was 5.50.
On a relatively positive note, Malta ranks higher than all other southern EU member states.
On the other hand, problems that have been characterising Maltese policymaking remain conspicuous by their presence.
A look at Malta’s six dimensions of the EU index reveal that, among the 28 countries, Malta ranks ninth in labour market access, 11th in health, 14th in poverty prevention, 21st in social cohesion and non-discrimination, 25th in intergenerational justice and 27th in equitable education.
Malta ranks among Europe’s top 10 when it comes to labour market access.
Unemployment, jobless youth and long-term idleness have dropped since 2010. Malta’s unemployment rate stands at 5.9 per cent, which is roughly the same as in 2008, and youth unemployment stands at 11.8 per cent, which, again, is similar to that in 2008. In both cases, Malta ranks third best in Europe.
The low point of social injustice in the EU seems to have been reached
On the other hand, however, the report highlights lack of equity as regards employment opportunities.
Notwithstanding improvements made, such as increased access to childcare, women “face the most exclusionary labour market in the EU”.
Besides, lower-skilled people and older workers face problems with regard to labour market access. Malta’s employment rate places it 16th in Europe but remains terribly low among older workers, where Malta ranks 25th.
Malta’s education system is seen as still facing the tremendous challenge of “the second highest rate of youth dropping out of education and training”. Again, some policy improvements have been made but there still is a strong link between youth unemployment and a lack of basic skills.
The report also highlights the challenge of “intergenerational justice related to environmental sustainability”. The report refers to Malta’s second lowest rate of renewable energy in Europe, which “remains alarmingly far below the 17.9 per cent EU average”.
Efforts being made to protect biodiversity and water supply are seen as taking years to bear fruit.
A closer look at some figures reveals that Malta’s percentage of persons at risk of poverty or social exclusion has grown from 19.7 per cent in 2008 to 24 per cent in 2015. The figure goes up to 32 per cent when focusing on people aged 17 and under, an increase of eight percentage points from 2008. As regards those aged 65 and over, Malta’s percentage stands at 20.8, a drop of two percentage points from 2008.
On a worrying note, people in Malta experiencing severe material deprivation have increased from 4.4 per cent in 2008 to 10.2 per cent in 2015 and the percentage goes up to 13.8 when focusing on those aged up to 17 years. There has also been an increase in people in severe material deprivation aged 65 and over, from 3.1 per cent in 2008 to 8.1 per cent in 2015.
As the new year is approaching, I hope such reports are given the importance they deserve by politicians and policymakers. Informed policymaking is a better guarantee for sustainability and fairness.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Rainbow Movement for Malta?

The Times 21 December 2015
When the Nationalist Party published its proposals for good governance, Labour resorted to defensive tactics in an attempt to tarnish the credibility of Simon Busuttil.
These tactics backfired badly as they opened up a Pandora’s box of examples of bad governance on the government’s side. The subsequent report of the Auditor General confirmed the government’s mismanagement of public finance.
On the other hand, Alternattiva Demokratika asked whether the PN leader will withdraw the party’s agreement with the owners of illegal boathouses at Armier. Would the PN put words into action? 
The usual style of mainstream politics would have been to ignore AD or to fudge some vague reply. This is what the Labour government is doing when it speaks about legality yet attempts to hold on to the votes of boathouse owners, who now need formal electricity supply on illegal development.
Busuttil, however, acted in line with his party’s governance proposals. He made it clear he was not bound by previous agreements and that, from the last election, the PN has no deal with the boathouse owners.
To me, this statement represents a positive tectonic shift in the way of doing things. If the PN consistently applies the good governance logic which it proposed in these past days then it will be offering a very clear alternative to Labour’s terrible governance.
A terribly disappointing example of the latter was Labour’s approval of the cheap sale of outside development zone land of ecological value in the public domain to Jordanian investor Sadeen. The government did its utmost to rush the process and clearly put the cart before the horse when it approved the selling of land though there was no university accreditation.
The construction magnate has applied for an institution of higher education, and not for a university, though he has been advertising the so-called ‘American University of Malta’ in official events, such as CHOGM, with the government’s blessing.
The time has come to see whether a new rainbow movement, committed to basic values, can or should be born
So, basically, the Labour government and the 33 MPs who supported its proposal decided to sabotage the parliamentary environmental committee, which was discussing alternatives to Żonqor, decided to ignore advice from Mepa on viable alternatives, decided to ignore the government’s SPED policy, which emphasises that ODZ should only be used as a last resort, and decided to give land to a non-‘university’ which, so far, will include sea-view guestrooms, entertainment facilities, a clinic, restaurants, project-related outlets and berthing rights. 
Added to other examples of bad governance in lands issues, environmental enforcement, pollution control, partisan appointments, lax standards, non-accessible public documents and disregard of non-government State institutions, it is clear that, after two and half years in government, Labour has lost all moral authority in terms of good governance.
The talk of the town in many social spheres is whether Labour will win the next general election with such a cynical style, which basically puts a price on everything in an attempt to buy support and generate revenue to feed the inner circles, or what are now know as the ‘Tagħna Lkollers’. 

I insist that pre-electoral goodies, including those financed by the discriminatory cash-for-citizenship schemes, do not guarantee electoral success and can actually make reflexive voters even less distrustful of a government which resorts to electoral spending sprees.
Against this crass populism, which is commodifying Malta into a national supermarket, our country deserves an alternative against such terrible governance. It is clear that Joseph Muscat’s leadership style cannot fit in this equation as he promised better but delivered even worse than what many – including myself – could even imagine.
I believe that the time has come to see whether a new rainbow movement can or should be born, comprising parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition parties, groups and activists who are committed to basic values such as good governance, sustainable development and fair social policy.
Such protagonists should be ready to put petty partisan squabbles and antipathies aside and, instead, dialogue and act towards the common good, namely towards a modern, transparent and democratic government.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

'Government's Gift to Sadeen approved through terrible governance' - Front Harsien ODZ

(Meme by Ze Heckler)

33 Labour Members of Parliament have approved the sale of ODZ land of ecological value in the public domain to Jordanian construction company Sadeen. 

The parliamentary session to approve the sale was surreal and raised even more doubts about the development, which is characterised by terrible governance.

Government did its utmost to have a rushed process.  Government has put the cart before the horse by selling land to Sadeen before his project has been approved both in terms of planning and in terms of educational accreditation. To make matters worse, it now transpired that Sadeen has not even applied for University status and that his development will also include seaview guestrooms, entertainment facilities, clinic, restaurants, project-related outlets and berthing rights. 

Government has ignored the environment parliamentary committee, which was discussing alternatives to Zonqor as proposed by MEPA. Government ignored its own SPED policy which refers to ODZ as last resort. Government has ignored civil society through its bulldozing style.

Front Harsien ODZ cannot consider the 33 MPs who voted for this shameful approval as credible in terms of environmental protection. 

Front ensures the public that it will keep up its activism to defend Malta from ODZ development. We thank the MPs, political parties, NGOs, the media and members of the public who have stood up to be counted against the sale of Zonqor.
Front Harsien ODZ - Press Release 16/12/15

The Governance Deficit

The Times 14 December 2015 
One of the most disappointing aspects of the current Labour government is its deficit in good governance. From Café Premier to Australia Hall, from Triq iż-Żekka to Żonqor and from the public transport invisible contract to the publicly-funded bank guarantees on private energy investment, hardly a day passes without new examples of bad governance. This also includes lack of enforcement in so many areas that impact people’s quality of life.
The recent tiger incident at Montekristo was the cherry on the cake. The site is a monument of illegality and failed State enforcement, and there seems to be no will by government and Mepa to take action against it.
To make matters worse, the site has been used for activities paid by the taxpayer. Yet, citizens have a precious tool which they can use in the absence of state action – boycotting the venue.
Given the current situation, it is no surprise that the Nationalist Party has issued proposals for good governance. The gist of such proposals was actually proposed by others before the PN, and these include the Green Party, and paradoxically, Labour itself in the 2013 electoral campaign.
PN’s proposals include having two-thirds parliamentary majority for important appointments; having proper professional duties by members of Parliament; publishing of all government agreements and contracts; distinguishing between State and party in public events; enhancing the democratic process through the right for propositive referenda; and the enhancing of equity and sustainability through social and environmental impact assessments.
In a democracy characterised by dialogue and fruitful exchange of ideas, each of the PN’s proposals would be constructively debated within Parliament and civil society. Goodwill from both parliamentary sides would lead to consensus and introduction of such legislation and procedures.
In reality, what happened so far in party politics was quite the opposite. Whether by coincidence or not, the issue surrounding fuel consumption by Simon Busuttil’s driver was thrown in the public sphere just after the PN’s governance proposals were published.
Busuttil did the right thing by immediately suspending his driver, though the latter was then reinstated by the Speaker of the House in what seemed to be a damage-control exercise in the politics of backfiring tactics. As things stand, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat appears to be increasingly weak and on the defensive: a victim of his own populist success.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat appears to be increasingly weak and on the defensive: a victim of his own populist success
Indeed, Labour seems to be more interested in cynical political spin rather than outdoing the PN by taking up the latter’s proposals or improving them.
The PL basically has rounds of ammunition which it is using whenever it is criticised, and thus frequently reminds the public of examples of bad governance under the previous PN administration.
The truth of the matter, however, is that the PN already paid dearly for its errors, through the electoral defeat in 2013. The Labour Party, on the other hand, was elected to give us better governance, and not to nag as if it is still in opposition mode.
Labour’s strategy might earn the applause from diehard voters and from those who are directly benefitting from Labour’s decisions. But I sense much disillusionment from many others, including some who believed that Muscat would bring about a new style of politics.
I would imagine that in the run-up to the next general election, Labour is planning to provide goodies through revenue generated from the discriminatory cash-for-citizenship scheme.
But here one can take note that EU funding did not prevent the Nationalists from losing the 2013 election and from winning the 2008 one only by a whisker. Indeed, the power of incumbency has its limits, particularly when the electorate is increasingly reflexive.
General elections are decided not by immovable diehards, but by more reflexive groups and individuals, including floaters and new voters. And these include many voters who give value to meritocracy, transparency, equity and accountability. Given current trends, good governance is likely to be a key electoral issue in 2018.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Live from Malta Parliament: A Christmas Present to Sadeen

Today the Parliament of Malta (streamed live here  from 6pm onwards) will be discussing the sale of ODZ public land at Zonqor, Marsascala, to Jordanian business group Sadeen,

Despite being opposed by Front Harsien ODZ, environmental NGOs, Alternattiva Demokratika The Green Party, the Nationalist Party, internal opposition within Labour, and most of Maltese civil society, and despite being characterised by the biggest ever environmental protest in Malta, the Labour Government will proceed with its plans in a bulldozer-like fashion. The only concession given by Government is to reduce the footprint of development on legally-protected ODZ land. Still, the Government is giving away Malta's public domain to big business interests.

In a process lacking transparency and proper consultation, Government has failed to publish the heads of agreement with Sadeen group, has sabotaged the environment parliamentary committee which is discussing alternatives to development at Zonqor, and has ignored advice from the Environment and Planning Authority which has suggested sustainable alternatives to Zonqor.

Today, history is being written: The Malta Government's exclusive Christmas present to Sadeen.


Zonqor: Government bulldozes ahead

Front Harsien ODZ expressed its opposition to Government's manoeuvres for sale of public land to Jordanian Sadeen Group.

"The Labour Government is selling Malta's public domain through a very rushed process with no transparency. Government has failed to publish its heads of agreement with Sadeen group, has bypassed the parliamentary environment committee and is ignoring advice from MEPA on sustainable alternatives to Zonqor"

"Government is ignoring Front Harsien ODZ, all opposition parties, internal opposition within Labour, all environmental NGOs, civil society and Malta's biggest ever environmental protest. The only concession given by Government, to reduce the footprint of ODZ development, is not enough, as a huge area of ODZ public land will still be given to the Jordanian big business group. Government also violated its own SPED policy as it did not consider all alternatives before deciding to sell Zonqor". 

"The Zonqor issue is a clear example of bad governance. Front Harsien ODZ will remain vigilant and active in opposing the proposed development, which still has to pass through planning process". 

"Members of Parliament who vote in favour of the sale of Zonqor will not be considered as credible when, before the next elections, they will attempt to show their environmental credentials" 

Monday, December 07, 2015

Will COP21 reach agreement?

Times of Malta 7/12/15

Now that the Paris climate summit is in full swing, the million-dollar question is whether a global agreement will be reached. Will all United Nations member states commit themselves to a binding agreement which can help safeguard present and future generations from the projected negative impacts of climate change?

The COP21 summit is in itself a complex web of ideologies, interests, organisational set-ups and civil society interaction. When a similar summit was held in Copenhagen six years ago, it transpired that lack of political will and poor organisation ultimately resulted in non-binding rhetoric, to the disappointment of many who had high hopes.

As was the case in Copenhagen, different ideologies are characterising COP21. They are not dogmatic monoliths, but rather entangled in a plurality of discourses within the climate policy sphere. In this context, some believe that technology can provide the most practical solutions, while others believe in markets.

Others emphasise that sustainability should reconcile economic, social and environmental factors through win-win policies. Some believe in stronger state regulation, others prioritise political ecology.

COP21 is also characterised by a plurality of interests. Some big business interests, particularly of fossil fuel producers, do their utmost to minimise the climate change problem. Others, like climate scientists, do the opposite, based on their research and projections.

National interests play a key role, too. For example, it is unclear what role Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela will ultimately play during COP21, in view of the fossil-fuel energy they produce and their current geo-political interests.

The US and China, the two largest polluters, which, paradoxically, are committing themselves to tackle climate change for example through increased usage of renewable energy, are probably giving concessions and commitments to each other to maintain some form of global truce.

Various countries also combine their national interests with their affiliations.

For example, Malta is bound by EU policy – which in itself is a condensation of different interests and ideologies at different levels – yet it is also a small island and a member of the Commonwealth.

During Malta’s CHOGM meeting, the 53 members reached their own common stance on climate change policy. A vital factor which is often overlooked in policy analysis is the organisational aspect. It is said that France invested much in organisation, hopefully to avoid a second Copenhagen. Bringing together delegates from almost 200 countries is a massive task, especially when each country has its own ideologies, interests and affiliations.

Delegations meet formally, informally, bilaterally, multilaterally, in a network of meetings. Some meetings are transparent and open to the press. Others are held behind closed doors, discussing sensitive issues such as climate financing, security and emissions targets through give-and-take negotiations. As one can imagine, negotiators are not on a level playing field, yet coalitions can play an important role.

The organisational aspect of COP21 will undoubtedly also be influenced by social interaction aspects which include charisma, emotion and goodwill. For example, the bland Obama of the Copenhagen summit seems to be replaced by a resolved and determined Obama in Paris. I only shudder to think what will happen if a Republican climate denier is elected US president next time around.

The charisma of Pope Francis and other religious and political leaders also plays an important role in the dramatisation of climate politics. Some countries like Sweden (through its red-green government) are presenting themselves as inspiring world leaders in the shift to clean energy.

Global civil society and the media play a vital sensitising role in COP21. The former was not discouraged by France’s security measures regarding public demonstrations. Social movements instead opted for a wave of protest in all corners of the world. Various media outlets, from mainstream press to alternative social media groups are giving voice to civil society whilst telling politicians that all the world is watching them.

Will the complexity of COP21 enhance dialogue for a global agreement? The opportunity is there, and a binding agreement will hopefully rise like a rainbow amid global risk.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Marlene Farrugia's moment

Times of Malta 30 November 2015
Marlene Farrugia’s resignation is indicative of Labour’s potential implosion. The Labour Party succeeded in winning the 2013 general election by reconciling different interests, factions and ideas.
This was articulated through the ‘movement’ symbology, which also comprised many non-Labourite newcomers such as Marlene Farrugia.
Governing over such a broad spectrum is proving to be easier said than done. The final two years of the current legislature will show whether Labour’s cracks will lead to electoral implosion, or whether Joseph Muscat’s leadership can remain effective in the reconciliation of different interests, factions and ideas.
In the meantime, Malta is witnessing Farrugia’s moment. She is proving to be a bold, effective and charismatic parliamentarian, and her resignation from Labour can make history.
Farrugia already showed her mettle when she chaired the parliamentary environment committee. Never in my 20-plus years of activism have I witnessed such an inclusive chairperson in a State structure. Now that she resigned from the committee, she seems to be willing to take her approach a step further.
Indeed, she presented amendments on behalf of Alternattiva Demokratika to the parliamentary debate on the Planning Act. I assume that nothing will stop her from repeating this gesture and opening up further to civil society.
In this case, Farrugia can re-invent herself as a non-partisan citizens’ voice. In a context where disillusionment and scepticism are on the increase, such political activism has become quite present in different countries. Parliamentary and non-parliamentary citizens’ movements from different sides of the political spectrum have been grabbing the headlines in Spain, Germany, Greece, and Italy, among others.
Malta too has a recent example of this, when Front Ħarsien ODZ – a citizens’ movement - organised the biggest ever environmental protest, which Farrugia attended.
Farrugia may thus decide to keep acting as an independent parliamentarian and eventually also move towards extra-parliamentary activism.
Should Farrugia decide to give priority to her re-election in Parliament next time around, her safest bet would be to contest with the Nationalist Party. This will be a huge scoop for the PN and can potentially lead to further non-civil reactions to Farrugia as recently witnessed in Parliament. Besides, Farrugia’s ideological orientation seems to be close to that of the current PN leadership.
Or maybe Farrugia’s parliamentary endorsement of Alternattiva Demokratika’s proposals is a sign of things yet to come in this direction. Even here, this could be a big scoop for the Green Party, yet with less electoral chances of success.
When Wenzu Mintoff resigned from Labour and became AD’s chairperson whilst being in Parliament between 1989 and 1992, he was not re-elected in Parliament. Though Malta’s political culture was not as pluralistic as it is now, Labour at that time was in the doldrums.
Besides, Farrugia and the Greens have their ideological differences. Yet, Green politics has proven to be flexible in different countries – with respective electoral successes and mishaps – and the Farrugia moment can prove the spark for a Green re-opening. Even more so when she is a pragmatic politician, and not a dogmatic fossil.
In such a context, perhaps a broad rainbow-coalition can be formulated, possibly providing the strongest challenge so far to Malta’s two-party system.
Yet, this will also face the opportunities and risks of reconciling different interests, factions and ideas.
Ultimately, whether Farrugia’s moment will help bring about substantive political change is related to a wide range of factors, and these go beyond the possible strategic options I referred to above.
Such factors include the availability of political opportunities, the optimal usage of resources, the fact that her husband happens to be Labour’s Whip, as well as everyday occurrences that take place in politics, similar to non-programmatic features of an improvised jazz session.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Hope and not terror

The Times, 23 November 2015

If Albert Camus’s claim that he learned about morality and obligation through football is anything to go by, then last Tuesday the world witnessed a splendid example along these lines.

The football match between England and France was characterised by a strong sense of solidarity, symbolised by the singing of the French national anthem and the French flag all over the place.

The 90,000-strong attendance at Wembley stadium gave a shining example of the power of sport to unite people.

Such solidarity was also shown at other international football matches played in the past days, though there were also two bomb scares and some other unfortunate incidents.

The important thing, however, was that Europe stood up to be counted against the terrorist attacks in Paris. Europe showed that despite the psychology of terror propagated by ISIS, life must go on. In short, hope was given precedence over terror.

This sense of hope should ensure that international events such as the Climate Summit and the European Football Championship, and also daily events such as the celebration of everyday life in town squares, should take place.

Indeed, Europe should show resilience, just as it did in other terrible instances throughout its history, when war, intolerance, oppression and totalitarianism blemished the continent.

Europe should not give itself up to the politics of fear and negativism, but should make sure that its values of tolerance, equality, freedom, respect of rule of law are defended and celebrated.

Europe should also support all those who are resisting terrorism outside of Europe’s borders. Beirut and Ankara are only two recent examples of terrorist attacks on common people or on those whose civil society activism supports peace and democracy.

The extremity of ISIS’s methods should remind us of the dangers of all-or-nothing ideologies, as they are essentially anti-democratic and tyrannical.

To the contrary, the democratic structure of the European Union – with all its defects and shortcomings – respects different opinions and cultures, and assumes that no one has a monopoly over knowledge and ideas.

In such a context, European politics are based on adversaries within a democratic game and not enemies in a war. Adversaries play by the rules and respect difference. Conversely, enemies disregard the democratic rules of the game and instead resort to methods such as violence and intolerance.

Statements made by certain Far Right and xenophobic groups within Europe play in the hands of those who want to destroy the basic characteristics of European democracy

ISIS and other terrorist groups are enemies of Europe as they threaten the basic foundations of European democracy. At the same time, the EU and its member states should not embrace internal politics which point towards anti-democratic methods.

It is terrorism that should be treated with an iron fist, but not at the expense of democratic freedoms and inclusive policies.

In this regard, certain statements made by certain Far Right and xenophobic groups within Europe play in the hands of those who want to destroy the basic characteristics of European democracy.

Why should Europe pick upon refugees and cultural minorities, many of whom are actually fleeing from the terror of ISIS and others?

I think the government did the right thing in stating that it will respond to calls for assistance from France, in line with the Constitution. If Malta expects solidarity from other countries should Malta be a victim of terrorist attacks, then it is only fair that Malta plays its part in line with Europe’s mutual-defence clause.

In a society characterised by risks and unknowns, it would be naïve to expect that terrorism will disappear at one go, or through a couple of airstrikes. The potential terrorist is everywhere.

Some are terrorists out of ideological conviction; others are radicalised due to their social networks or social experiences. Hence, a plurality of tactics is required in anti-terrorist strategy, ranging from soft to hard methods, from immediate responses to longer-term processes.

But I think that it will be even more naïve and dangerous not to recognise that you cannot negotiate with terrorism. In such a context one should appreciate the difficult yet vital decisions taken by political leaders to enhance security while defending the values and freedoms of democracy: a democracy based on pluralism, diversity, different opinions and mutual respect.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Banning the Burqa?

Times of Malta. 16 November 2015

Maltese members of parliament were recently discussing whether the burqa should be banned from use in public.

This is not a straightforward issue. It transgresses left and right, liberal and conservative, secular and religious opinions. Many feminists want to ban the burqa and but others don’t. Such divisions exist even internally within political parties and civil society organisations.

There are various arguments characterising the burqa debate, which, in turn, are not necessarily exclusive of each other. In this article I wish to focus on three.

The first argument concerns equality. Here, it is argued that equality should be given precedence over diversity, as sometimes multiculturalism can have its limits, for example when a cultural practice forces women to wear the burqa and to be considered as second-class citizens.

The argument goes that if multiculturalism leads to a moral relativism, then this can lead to a dangerous context of ‘anything goes’, at the expense of equality. ‘Right’ or ‘wrong’ would simply be personal opinions, and no one would have the right to condemn or stop a practice which belongs to a particular culture.

A shortcoming of this approach is that even if one agrees that the burqa is a sign of gender inequality, why not attack this rather than its symbols?

To date I have not seen campaigns in parliament against, for example, the marketisation of the body, which renders human beings as objects, for example on mainstream television programmes.

Another argument deals with security. Here, one can refer to France’s 2010 ban of the public display of religious symbols, including the burqa, and to the European Court of Human Rights’ support of the country’s banning of people covering their face in public.

France had argued that when one’s face is covered in society, this violates a “minimum requirement of life in society”, and the court’s judgement added that “a veil concealing the face” goes against other people’s rights to “live in a space of socialisation”.

The problem with this argument is that it is very arbitrary. Does revealing your face necessarily make you more sociable? If terrorism is seen as a main concern in terms of security, does wearing a veil make you a terrorist? As far as I know, terrorist Timothy McVeigh, the American Oklahoma bomber, did not wear a burqa.

Finally, another argument gives priority to choice. Here, it is stated that in a pluralistic society, people are reflexive and have a right to choose their identity, as long as it does not infringe on the identities of other persons.

Henceforth, the argument adds, women who choose to abide by their religious beliefs by wearing the burqa should be free to do so, just as other women and men get along their daily lives by wearing what they deem fit to wear. Proponents of the choice argument usually add that burqa opponents are concealing their own fear of living with difference, which is a key characteristic of liberal democracy.

Besides, by giving power to the burqa bashers, society can drift towards unnecessary impositions by the state on people’s individuality.

Yet, even this argument has its problems. What if the liberal democracy championed by the supporters of the burqa does not extend to the circumstances of everyday life? Is the burqa really a personal choice or is it an imposition by an ultra-conservative patriarchy within one’s family?

Maybe a pragmatic way forward for the burqa debate would be to see what wearers have to say about this but this option has similar challenges to the ‘choice’ argument.

Given the complexities involved, maybe the burqa issue requires a practical working agreement rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Perhaps it would be wiser to give more importance to civil society deliberation than having a short-termist parliamentary debate that aims to resolve the issue after a few sessions. People and groups from different sides can and should discuss the issue in a spirit of respect. Internally, each group may have its own different voices, yet this diversity can actually encourage broader communication.

In this sense, the burqa debate can lead to a genuine multiculturalism of respect, where cultures learn from each other, rather than a multiculturalism of intolerant identities that do not interact.

My deepest condolences to the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut. In such dark moments, hope should still guide us. #NousSommesUnis

Monday, November 09, 2015

Żonqor may still be spared

The Times of Malta, 9 November 2015

During last Monday’s Parliamentary Environment Committee meeting, the development proposal for the American University of Malta was once again on the agenda.

I had the opportunity to be present for the meeting, though I chose not to participate in the debate. Its outcome could be given both positive and negative interpretations, depending on one’s position on the issue, and on one’s sense of optimism or lack of it.

One very positive aspect of the meeting was Marlene Farrugia’s chairmanship. She gave ample speaking opportunity to all those who wished to participate, irrespective of whether they were members of Parliament or civil society representatives.

Farrugia made sure that the meeting was held in a spirit of dialogue and respect, and she emphasised some statements to help drive certain points home.

A main protagonist of the meeting was Mepa’s chief executive officer Johann Buttigieg. Buttigieg is a civil servant whose loyalties to his political masters are clear. At the same time he is diplomatic and does not rubbish those who question him.

He dutifully reported that so far, his office has only carried out a desktop study for the site selection exercise, adding that according to the Agriculture Department, Żonqor is characterised by abandoned fields and dumping, and not by agriculture.

The latter statement was immediately shot down by civil society representatives who know the area well or who possess expertise in agriculture. Besides, it was pointed out that Żonqor farmers are being ignored by the government.

Buttigieg also revealed that a full environment impact assessment will be carried out on the university proposal, and that this will consider all possible sites, and not just Żonqor.

Should this important statement give rise to optimism among those active in the defence of Żonqor from development?

Persons in the EIA business know that the norm in EIA studies is to highlight one site at the expense of the rest. Buton the other hand, everything is possible in politics.

In this regard, the site selection exercise carried out by Buttigieg’s office highlights some alternatives to Żonqor, one of which, in Tarxien, was given prominence in the parliamentary meeting.

The land in question does not have environmental or infrastructural challenges which characterise other possible sites (including Żonqor), and it has Mepa’s seal of approval in terms of adequacy.

Indeed, during the meeting, the Mepa CEO said that it is up to government to select Tarxien for the American University of Malta, given that it is suitable.

Given the above, the obvious question is, what is Prime Mister Joseph Muscat waiting for to liberate Żonqor from development?

The ball is clearly in the Prime Minister’s court. This is even more so when both Mepa’s CEO as well as Mario Cutajar, the principal permanent secretary, said that they do not know what the government’s heads of agreement with Sadeen contains.

Cutajar, whose comments during the meeting were curt and carefully worded, also said that the Office of the Prime Minister is considering all feedback regarding the university proposal.

Environment Minister Leo Brincat added spice to the drift of the discussion, stating that he will oppose ODZ development if it is not the last resort.

In the meantime, civil society, opposition political parties and the independent press are all pressing the Prime Minister to publish the heads of agreement with Sadeen, so as to confirm if the government has a commitment to develop at Żonqor.

If government fails to publish the agreement, it would be very difficult to convince critics otherwise.
But what if something else is in the offing? What if the agreement does refer to Żonqor but Muscat is now changing his mind?

Maybe he did not predict that this issue would have mobilised Malta’s largest environmental protest ever, and is now considering the political implications of acting like a bulldozer.

Indeed, it is voters, and not Sadeen,or other developers, who elect political parties. So Muscat can pull a Muscat on the AUM issue, by changing his position due to popular pressure. It would be a win-win situation and Żonqor would be spared from development.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Will the wardens system improve?

Times of Malta, 2 November 2015
Some months ago, Local Councils Parliamentary Secretary Stefan Buontempo said that the warden system had become a ‘ticket-issuing machine’ which required change.
In his words, government’s reform in the sector “will transform wardens from Gestapo officers hiding behind trees ready to suck the money out of citizens’ pockets into friends of our community”. Consequently the new system would be credible, sustainable and would take on a more civil and educational role.
Through the new system, a government agency will regulate the sector and will procure warden services from private operators at a fixed price.
Will this reform produce a better enforcement system?
I for one am not convinced that a centralised agency under the control of central government is the best way forward. True, such an agency may benefit from economies of scale, but on the other hand it may add another layer of bureaucracy to a system which is already characterised by too much red tape and too little transparency and effective results.
Perhaps it would have been better to have a system which gives more power to local councils, which, after all, are more in touch with their localities’ immediate needs.
Questions have also been raised on the method of appointment of the head of the new government agency. It is a political one on the basis of trust, and not on merit through an open, public call for applications.
I do acknowledge that certain positions within the public sector require persons of trust. But I fail to see how the head of an enforcement agency should be handpicked by the respective minister (or prime minister).
Consequently, will the head be loyal to the political whims of his political masters? Will this result in uneven enforcement, for example when elections are approaching?
Notwithstanding the issues I mentioned above, I wish to refer to certain matters which I hope will be tackled by the new agency.
Such a centralised agency may benefit from economies of scale, but on the other hand it may add another layer of bureaucracy
First, I hope that wardens take action against heavy polluters. These include many old cars, certain delivery vans, certain minibuses and coaches, a good deal of construction trucks and other vehicles. They are not only producing pollution levels which should not be tolerated in any self-respecting society but, in the case of commercial vehicles, they are a source of unfair competition to others. For example, in the waste collection sector, some companies are using new trucks which produce minimal pollution, whilst others are using trucks which are only fit for scrapping.
Second, wardens should enforce on bus lanes. I recently learned that only 12 tickets were issued on the Sliema-Gzira one. Is this right, when cowboy drivers frequently swerve into the bus lane at high speed, to the danger of pedestrians and to the frustration of other drivers who follow regulations?
Third, wardens should take immediate action against construction trucks blocking roads without a local council permit, cars parked abusively on pavements, public spaces and other areas for a length of time. I do agree that at times drivers have no choice but to park temporarily in non-parking spaces in the case of deliveries, transportation of kids or elderly persons, and so forth, but this is a far cry from those who permanently park their cars in public areas such as disability ramps and beaches.
In this regard, it is imperative that wardens operate around the clock. As things stand, it is more likely to see wardens operating during office hours, but everyone knows that enforcement is required at all times of the day, including weekends, when local council offices are closed.
Finally, Malta’s enforcement system should make more use of green wardens. Currently, they are too costly for cash-stripped local councils, and hence their deployment is minimal. No wonder that dog pooh, rubbish bags and other unsightly waste feature prominently in various parts of the country.
I agree with Buontempo that wardens have an important educational role. This can help increase a sense of civic pride and respect. But I also wish to remind him that when front seatbelt legislation was introduced, it was the fining system which made it work. The same cannot be said for seatbelts at rear seats.