Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nearly two years of Labour

The Times, Monday 23 February 2015

In the 2013 general election, Labour swept to victory for various reasons. In my reading, this had little to do with Malta’s economic situation.I believe that Labour’s immense victory had more to do with its successful articulation of the ‘common enemy’, namely the Nationalist government.

To do this, Labour carefully made promises to specific groups on various issues. These ranged from environmental and civil rights issues, erstwhile championed by the Green Party and NGOs, to specific promises to rent-seeking groups ready to switch political support as long as their specific demands were met.

It also had to do with Labour’s successful articulation of Lawrence Gonzi’s Nationalist government as being arrogant, non-meritocratic, out of touch with the aspirations of many people and so forth.

An important turning point towards Labour’s victory was the divorce referendum. The Nationalist Party seemed detached from the individualisation and reflexivity of family life. Gonzi also seemed unable to manage defections and prima-donna antics of certain backbenchers and seemed powerless next to the arrogance of certain ministers.

To make matters worse, the Gonzi government extended its life to its absolute limit when it was clear that it lost legitimacy.

On the other hand, the Gonzi government had a good number of merits. Apart from the adoption of the euro and the successful steering of the Maltese economy away from the global economic crisis and the southern European storm, there were also other successes. These included Malta’s international profile in the Libya crisis and the beautification of Valletta.

Joseph Muscat’s Labour government is now firmly in place and seems to enjoy considerable support.

The new Labour government introduced much-needed reforms such as increasing universal access to childcare services, specific educational targets, various LGBT rights and moving away from oil dependence.

It has managed to maintain the relative economic stability it inherited from the PN government, including low unemployment rates, though economic performance does not necessarily mean victory at the polls, as the 1996 and 2013 elections proved.

Labour has also partly fulfilled certain electoral pledges, such as reducing utility bills, though, I suspect, this comes at certain costs, presumably including Malta’s relatively high petrol and diesel prices.

Indeed, Labour’s governing strategy does have its negatives. For example, economic growth seems to focus very much on unbridled construction, mega projects, energy dependence on new oligarchs and the selling of citizenship for cash, apart from more legitimate areas such as tourism.

What happens when we have sold all we had to sell?

On meritocracy, it seems that Labour has run out of committees. New roles were invented to ensure that loyal soldiers are paid their electoral dividends.

Though I see nothing wrong with having strategic policymakers having ideological proximity with the party in government, when appointments are not deemed meritocratic they come at a cost. They cause disappointment among more qualified and deserving contenders, they give a sense of disenchantment among voters who give value to meritocracy and they cause resentment among excluded loyalists who are likewise expecting electoral dividends.

The meritocratic mess has been made worse when certain Labour members of Parliament have been given two, three and sometimes more roles while making big money in the process. In the meantime, precarious employment and low wages are widespread.

On the energy issue, it seems that lack of transparency is the order of the day. Legitimate questions on Enemalta, energy provision, petrol, diesel, utility bills, Enemed, you name it, are being asked but answers and documentation is lacking.

It seems that energy oligarchs and cartels are running the show while regulatory authorities are conspicuous by their absence.

As regards the environment, Labour is doing the unthinkable, namely having a worse performance than preceding governments in areas such as land development. The construction lobby is clearly in command, with policies seemingly tailor-made to suit its needs.

Malta seems destined to further uglification, urban sprawl, endless construction, shading, increased traffic and so forth. Landscape and space have been rendered to mere commodities for maximum exploitation, with scant consideration to open spaces, residents’ rights and quality of life.

Malta is already reaching a situation where new development is taking place in front of other new development.

Valletta is not spared from such policies. Our capital city has been subject to progressive beautification in recent years, with Renzo Piano’s project being a masterpiece which created so much space.

Now it seems that cultural vandalism will take place right at the doorstep of Piano’s project. From a monument in celebration of the capital’s beauty, we will have a monti monument that represents an apparent mishmash of electoral deals.

When criticised, the Labour government is using the previous Nationalist administration as a crutch. The fallback answer to any question: traffic, environmental damage, energy, finance, the weather is “PN did worse, PN left the mess”.

In the 2013 electoral campaign I saw no billboards stating “Vote PL, we will blame PN for every problem”.

The Maltese electorate did not elect Labour to remind us of its predecessors.

Significant sections of the electorate may be reaping the fruits of their electoral investment. But others are not and this includes reflexive civil society organisations and many voters who do not vote on the basis of what they can obtain from the State apparatus. Such voters possess a niche potential to shift the balance of power.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lessons from Ulrich Beck

Times of Malta, 16 February 2015

This year has robbed the world of one of the most influential sociologists of our times – Ulrich Beck. Famous for his risk society thesis, Beck inspired a generation of sociologists, policymakers and politicians by means of concepts such as risk, unintended consequences, reflexivity and sub-politics.

It was after the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl power station in Ukraine in the then Soviet Union that Beck was initially inspired to conceptualise risk society. The German sociologist used this example to explain how, hand in hand with modernisation, contemporary societies constantly manufacture new risks and anxieties, thus bringing into question what was previously deemed as unquestionable truth put forward by unaccountable technocrats.

Hence, nuclear energy was deemed as a beacon of progress but it also started to be considered as an example of human-made risk, with unintended consequences and repercussions across national borders and generations.

On similar lines, the oil industry powered energy across the planet but contributed to the mother of risks of our times – climate change – apart from increasing pollution at unsustainable levels. Indeed, as Beck once famously said, “smog is democratic”.

The welfare state was constructed to move people out of poverty but, at times, became a source of risk in itself, for example through fiscal unsustainability. The pensions challenge is a case in point.

Economic globalisation delivered prosperity but, at the same time, contributed to economic crisis, precariousness and unevenness.

In this global risk scenario, we are also confronting new global risks – such as terrorism – which only add to the anxieties of our times.

Despite the gloomy outlook in Beck’s writings, he was far from a doomsday prophet. Indeed, he believed that the other side of the same coin of risk society was reflexivity.

Modern societies become increasingly individualised, where people are freer than ever to construct their own biographies – for example, in family life – without being necessarily bound by the demands of traditional or authoritarian institutions.

Of course, freedom also represents a leap in the dark and we have no choice but to make choices, something which existentialist philosophers have been reminding us for some time. Besides, freedom is always situated within specific social contexts and individualisation can also reflect a lack of solidarity and common action.

Yet, as stated above, individualisation and reflexivity can help equip individuals and organisations to confront and manage the risks that characterise modern societies.

In this regard, Beck refers to sub-politics, where new political forms confront established institutions and authoritarian technocrats. This is an unintended consequence of decision-making, which lacks transparency and democratic foundations.

Sub-politics can be seen when consumers are increasingly reflexive on the products and voice their concerns, for example on genetically-modified foods through NGOs. Environmental NGOs and greens raise consciousness on a variety of issues, from climate change to development of land, and question the dogmas of big business and their political allies.

In a European context, the electoral victory of Syriza in Greece is, in a way, an unintended consequence of the top-down austerity of the ‘German Europe’ led by ‘Merkiavelli’.

In Greece, the official narrative of the EU powers was that the country needs to recover itself into economic discipline.

In the meantime, it was becoming clear that the conditions for bailing out Greece were going to increase risks in terms of poverty, inequality, unemployment and social disruption.

Greek citizens did not simply accept such conditions as passive dupes but were and are reflexive actors in the political process. In this scenario, Syriza successfully articulated a narrative of hope and won the elections.

It now has to be seen what will come out of the negotiations between the new Greek government and EU powers. Seen from a Beckian perspective, it is important that such an agreement manages risk through democratic foundations. Indeed, Beck, was a firm believer of the European project.

His lessons can also be seen as of relevance to the Maltese context. For example, when the previous Nationalist administration stubbornly refused to acknowledge the individualisation and reflexivity of family life, it simply acted in a way which increased risks for so many persons in situations such as separation and same-sex relationships.

This only inspired increased reflexivity by civil society, which, for example, was translated in successful campaigns on divorce and LGBT rights.

In a more recent context, the environmentalist initiative on the hunting referendum can very much be framed within reflexivity and sub-politics.

Environmentalists and greens took the initiative to raise the required amount of signatures for an abrogative referendum, notwithstanding the major parties’ tacit support for the hunting lobby.

On another note, Labour’s lack of dialogue on various issues does not remove potential risks which they represent. If anything, this unintentionally inspires reflexivity within civil society. For example, on energy, even though there is no such thing as a risk-free policy, many are raising legitimate questions as to whether Malta is making a leap in the dark that will result in excessive dependency on energy oligarchs from Azerbaijan to China.

Beck compared the protagonists of sub-politics to courageous Davids who struggle against the Goliaths of our times. There are so many other issues that can inspire such reflexivity and which can enhance everyday democracy and management of risk.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Transport Quandaries

The Times, February 9, 2015

Transport Minister Joe Mizzi recently announced that a grand total of 38 cars failed the emissions test in Malta over a 22-month period. Yes, 38 cars. In addition, another 155 cars faced licence restrictions. This occurred after Transport Malta received 22,182 SMS emission reports and sent 681 notifications, including second notifications, for cars to be submitted for emission testing.

These figures reflect the sad state of Maltese administration when it comes to environmental matters. Many questions come to mind in this regard.

For example, why is it that only 681 notifications were sent when Transport Malta received 22,182 reports? Can detailed statistics be provided? What were the criteria for submission of notifications?

In sectors such as construction, delivery and tourism, but even in the case of many private cars, there are vehicles that would never be allowed on the road in a society that gives serious consideration to the environment. I wonder how such vehicles pass VRT tests.

The argument that such cars are required for our economy is short-sighted, to say the least. To begin with, many societies which have strict emissions policies also happen to be high economic performers. Besides, the emissions by junk vehicles which are polluting our roads have high environmental, health, social and economic costs.

The car emission issue is, in my view, one of Malta’s most pressing environmental concerns. Judging by the government’s performance and PR, it seems that the best it can do to tackle emissions – apart from removing 38 cars from the road - is to come up with a scheme to incentivise the few owners of certain luxury cars to drive on weekends. I wonder whether anyone is taking this proposal seriously.

There are other transport issues which also deserve serious attention.

As we all know, Malta has exceptionally low standards when it comes to roads. It seems that strict monitoring and certification takes place only when EU funds are involved or when certain local councils voluntarily choose to fulfill their responsibilities towards residents. Unfortunately, though, local councils’ restrictive budgets do not permit a thorough upgrading of road infrastructure.

Roads also tend to be monopolised by cars at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists. In various urban areas, people are literally unable to walk, play or ride bicycles due to excessive pollution, lack of space, excessive traffic, lack of holistic planning, poor infrastructure and so forth.

To make matters worse, many roads in localities are characterised by restrictive pavements that often give priority to garages, signage which hinders accessibility and shoddy workmanship. Very often, a walk on the pavement becomes a major hurdle for persons with disability, parents with children, elderly persons and others.

Basic proposals, such as having shared space between cars and bicycles through sharrows, are being ignored by Transport Malta, even when local authorities support them. Various new projects, such as the new coastroad, seem to be giving very little space to pedestrians. Or will it have a proper promenade and ample space for cyclists?

Notwithstanding the above, there are examples of good practice. A notable case is the pedestrianisation of Valletta, though one hopes that the monti issue will not eat up precious open space.

Another positive example concerns regulations on front seatbelts, where practically all Malta has been following the rules since the late 1990s. The same cannot be said with regard seatbelts at the back, where enforcement seems to be lacking.

The introduction of wardens, traffic lights and traffic-calming measures have also generally lead to more disciplined drivers, even though there are exceptions.

So why can’t we have better practice when it comes to emissions and quality of roads?

A practical way forward would be to ensure that traffic wardens give more imporance to car emissions. They should use their authority when clear cases of heavy pollution are seen on the roads. When this is the case, they should order examination of such vehicles by Transport Malta.

Local councils should also be given more authority. Along the lines of subsidiarity, councils can adopt fiscal measures to encourage or discourage certain modes of transport and can also introduce schemes, for example with respect to parking, through which revenue can be generated for infrastructural purposes.

With regard to public transport, I eagerly await the government’s information campaign as well as the long overdue tabling of its agreement with the new operator.

At first glance, I welcome certain promised improvements, such as encouraging the use of cards rather than paying on the bus. At the same time, and from the sparse information available, it seems that the removal of day tickets and weekly tickets might have a negative price impact on certain users.

The transport issue is very much in synch with the consumer vs citizen debate.

As consumers, we require cars as a source of identity, as a source of personal freedom and as a practical tool that enables mobility.

As citizens, we have our environmental rights and responsibilities, which go beyond having a car and which relate to everyday democracy. Clean air, access to open space and practical mobility without necessarily resorting to a car are key indicators of a good quality of life.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Energy stability in the dark

The Times, Monday, February 2, 2015

Let us assume that the Labour government has an energy road map destined to succeed. Does this entitle the government to lack transparency in its decisions and deals? I certainly do not think so.

Instead of having clear information on energy policy, Maltese society is being provided selective information by the government. Indeed, a number of documents have been tabled and press conferences have been organised. But concrete information is lacking on various fronts.

In the meantime, Enemalta is part-privatised through minority Chinese State shareholding. We are being promised various developments in addition to lower utility bills.

For example, the government is stating that the already delayed Electrogas plant will be ready by June 2016 and that it will provide 50 per cent of Malta’s energy, through a fixed price for five years.

The so-called BWSC plant, benefitting from a cash injection of €320 million, will provide 30 per cent of energy and the interconnector from Europe will provide 20 per cent of energy. Malta can also export energy to the latter. We are also being told that a Chinese-Maltese company will construct renewable energy equipment which can be exported.

Finally, a national technical committee will assess and tweak the purchase of Malta’s energy. The positives here include Malta’s newly-required freedom from oil dependency, the closing of Marsa’s power station and the injection of funds to Enemalta, which was in a precarious financial situation.

On the other hand, there are various unknowns, which, to date, remain unanswered by the government. The lack of publication of all contracts and agreements that Malta has signed surely does not help things.

For example, is the injection of Chinese State funds unconditional or does it come at a cost? Will it result in a new dependency, thus compromising Malta’s strategic choices? It is true that other European countries, such as Italy and Denmark, are also conducting deals with China but the geo-political aspects of Malta’s deal is unclear.

What happens once the five-year guarantee of a fixed gas rate from Electrogas expires? What if the price of its gas shoots up?

And, in the meantime, do we risk paying an inflated price for energy, as is the case with petrol and diesel?

With regard to talk of Malta as an energy hub and an exporter of renewable energy equipment, can we have more concrete details? Is the latter related to Malta’s requirements to increase renewable energy internally? Is it or is it not in the interest of Malta’s gas providers to have increased renewable energy in Malta? Will Malta have excess energy capacity and is this related to the ‘hub’ discourse?

Given that there is no such thing as an energy plan free from risks, can the government explain why comprehensive impact assessments are at best shrouded in mystery and at worst inexistent?

As regards the lowering of utility bills, can consumers be provided with clear costings showing how this is being financed? Or are short-term electoral concerns more important than sustainability?

What is the situation of Enemalta workers? I ask the General Workers’ Union, which has regularly been vigilant to protect the rights of workers it represents, whether it can make a public statement in this regard.

In sum, if Malta is truly going to diversify its energy mix, then this is most welcome. At best, this would mean that Malta would be able to provide and purchase energy from the best available sources while having cleaner energy.

In this case, perhaps such liberty may be accompanied by the possibility to export excess energy through the interconnector. But what if it transpires that such energy produced in Malta is costly? Who will buy it?

Once again, despite the government’s promises for a more robust Enemalta, energy security and lower utility bills, the lack of transparency in all areas raises concern on the long-term ramifications of the energy plan.

The conspicuous silence of the energy regulator, the Malta Resources Authority, is worrying. The regulator should ensure that prices and competition are fair, that the consumer is not short-changed and that price decisions are transparent. Here, the inevitable question is: how independent is the regulator from the government?

One only hopes that Malta’s energy plans are not the result of a mish-mash of obligations that may reap short-term electoral results but which render Malta as a dependent colony of energy oligarchs.

It would be more productive for Labour to provide concrete information on the myriad of questions that are being asked by opposition parties, by civil society and the press rather than justifying its policies by comparing itself with the previous administration.

If, according to Labour, its Nationalist predecessors were characterised by a non-transparent governance, then the same Labour is even more obliged to ensure transparency.