Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The run-up to Paris

The Times of Malta, 28 September 2015

The coming weeks can be crucial in the writing of one of the most important chapters of human history. Global consensus might be reached to have a universally legally-binding agreement on climate change.

Between November 30 and December 11, the United Nations will be hosting the climate change conference in Paris. There is an ever-growing global consensus that atmospheric temperature should not rise by more than 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels. Otherwise, there will be major environmental, social and economic repercussions to the detriment of generations of people.

What has not yet been achieved, however, is a consensus on how climate change should be tackled in terms of policymaking. The 2009 UN climate conference in Copenhagen was a major flop in this regard, though, a year later, in Cancún, 194 countries committed themselves to take action with respect to this target.

Last year, the United States and China reached an agreement to take the issue seriously, thus fuelling hope in the run-up to Paris. President Barack Obama promised that the US would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025. President Xi Jinping pledged that Chinese CO2 emissions would peak by around 2030 and, possibly, before and to increase the non-fossil fuel share of energy sources to about 20 per cent by the same year.

This agreement means that a main bone of contention in climate negotiations, namely the antagonism between rich and poor countries on whose responsibility it is to tackle climate change, may now be less divisive.

It also means that two countries which account for around one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions are moving forward in their politics of climate change. It remains to be seen, however, if they are for a legally-binding global agreement.

In the meantime, the European Union is aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030, when compared to 1990.

The EU is also aiming for at least 27 per cent of energy coming from renewable sources and a corresponding percentage of energy efficiency.

It aims to make its carbon-trading scheme more effective and to ensure that all member-states take actions to reach the EU’s global targets.

In relation to the targets that are being proclaimed by national governments and transnational blocs, global civil society is playing an important role in terms of sensitising the public and institutions on our present responsibilities towards humankind.

Pope Francis’s bold statement on climate change in his visit to the US a few days ago shows that the issue is truly peaking in terms of global consciousness. The Pope’s stance is even more impressive when one keeps in mind the recent publication of the Laudato Sì encyclical, which makes it clear that urgent action is needed.

Another impressive example from global civil society is the ‘divestment movement’, which is calling for divestment of investment from fossil fuel companies. Its supporters are wide-ranging, including cities, universities, media organisations, businesses, pension funds, religious communities, environmentalists, greens, progressives and celebrities. To-date, it has managed to divest $2.6 trillion of investments.

Where does Malta stand in all this?

Environment Minister Leo Brincat has made it clear that Malta supports the EU ‘s stand on climate change policies. In terms of implementation, Malta will shift dependency from oil to (cleaner) gas and usage of the interconnector. It remains to be seen if Malta will reach its EU 2020 targets, which, for example, aim for 10 per cent renewable energy.

Malta should do more as regards usage of renewable energy. Even though this will not have an impact in terms of global emissions, it can have an impact in terms of Malta’s energy sustainability and in terms of the global politics of climate change.

Being both a small-island and an EU member state, Malta can have a special role in voicing the concerns of small islands with respect to climate change impacts.

The disproportionate negative repercussions of climate change on small islands have been highlighted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In itself, this opens a window of opportunity for Malta for a challenge which should not be missed.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Governance Indicators

The Times of Malta, 21 September 2015

The United Nations’ sustainable development summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda will be held in New York between Friday and Sunday. Unlike the preceding Millennium Development Goals, these policies will demand changes to both poor and rich nations. Malta will be no exception.

In the run-up to the UN meeting, the reputable Bertelsmann Stiftung produced a set of sustainable governance indicators for 2015 of 41 EU and OECD countries. This includes rankings for policy performance, democracy and governance through pre-established scholarly criteria.

Overall, the 41-country report notes that many states have gradually overcome the economic and financial crises but that the social situation, particularly in southern Europe, is extremely worrying. Conversely, the Nordic countries, Switzerland and Germany are highlighted as having the best sustainable policy outcomes.

The report notes some other interesting performances. For example, Estonia is a high-flier in policy performance and democracy whereas New Zealand is praised for its long-term governance orientation and quality of democracy. On the other hand, Australia and the US rank quite low in terms of policy performance, though they rank quite high in terms of governance and democracy.

As far as democratic governance goes, Hungary and Turkey occupy the bottom two places due to deteriorating quality. Some other notable low rankers include Japan, South Korea and Spain.

When compared to the other 40 countries in the list, Malta does not fare very well, though its position improved marginally compared to 2014. It ranks 31st in terms of policy performance, 38th in terms of democracy and 31st in terms of governance.

Specifically, the policy performance index is led by Sweden, Norway and Denmark. This index refers to economic development, environmental protection and social policies. Mexico, Cyprus and Greece are in the bottom three positions.

Finland leads the democracy index, which covers countries’ democratic order and rule of law. Sweden and Norway come second and third.

Only Romania, Turkey and Hungary are in worse positions than Malta.

As regards the governance index, Sweden comes first, followed by Finland and Norway. Croatia, Romania and Cyprus occupy the last three positions.

This index assesses governments’ capacity to steer and implement policies as well as capacity for reform.

If one takes a closer look at Malta’s country-specific report, note is taken of the country’s status as a working democracy and of reforms that were implemented after the 2013 general election. These include the extension of rights for minorities and the Whistleblower Act.

However, the report states that many good governance issues remain. These include the Prime Minister’s “sole responsibility of appointing judges”, “allegations of political discrimination” and restricted access to government information.

The Malta report adds that “Malta is also the only European State with only two political parties represented in Parliament and there are no thresholdsto assist smaller parties in gaining parliamentary representation”. This results in an “overall perception that politics is a zero-sum game”.

The report also flags the “tendency by governments to prioritise political over economic considerations”, which “can have a negative economic impact”. At the same time, though, Malta has a resilient labour market and a low unemployment rate and the introduction of various social measures is praised in the report.

Yet, the “high risk of poverty among the unemployed and the elderly suggest that welfare benefits and pensions are not sufficient”.

Reference is also made to financial challenges in Malta’s healthcare and pensions systems, to “rampant” tax evasion, “dwindling water resources” and restricted strategic planning.

The report highlights the need to give more importance to alternative energy sources and to reduce dependence on the construction industry.

Clear integration policies, which “so far have been conspicuously absent”, are also mentioned, as is the need to have more public trust in the public service “by pursuing a path of merit and transparency”.

Any objective observer should commend the authors of Malta’s report, namely Godfrey Pirotta, Isabelle Calleja and Cesar Colino, who coordinated the work.

This is even more so when one notes that the strengths and weaknesses in Malta’s governance are consistently highlighted by other academics, by civil society organisations and by the independent press.

Some challenges have been persisting for years while others seem to be more pronounced than ever.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Improved Public Transport?

The Times of Malta, 14th September 2015

In the past days, Transport Minister Joe Mizzi announced that Malta’s new public transport system will have improved routes and more buses. He added that changes will be gradual and correspond to requests from the public.

In the meantime, it is very difficult to find users of public transport who would agree that the system has improved. This includes both commuters and workers.

To put things into context, prior to the 2013 general election, the then-Labour Opposition promised a new public transport road map. Labour was a main protagonist in the chorus of criticism towards all aspects of the previous public transport reform, which, in turn, was also plagued with problems, though costing much less than the system that replaced it.

Now that the Labour government is in its mid-term, the public has indeed witnessed gradual changes in public transport but there are little signs of improvement, if any at all.

Commuters are complaining on a wide range of problems, including lack of punctuality, more lax standards and the replacement of day tickets with two-hour ones that are more expensive.

Workers are protesting against bad conditions, especially in relation to their shifts. The General Workers’ Union is being quite vociferous on this matter. In itself, this is very significant, especially considering that the union is usually conspicuous by its lack of militancy whenever the Labour Party is in government.

Another matter I have recently noticed is the odd bus emitting black stinking fumes. This problem was supposed to have been consigned to the dustbin of history through the Arriva reform and, if anything, one could not criticise them on this. Today, is anyone checking on such matters? If yes, can the people have their at rest that such emissions represent unfortunate exceptions that are being tackled?

The contractual backdrop of public transport reform is not helping matters. To-date, the government’s agreement with the operators has not been published, so citizens cannot really know what one should expect from the system. For example, what are the contractual obligations of Autobuses de Leon? Which standards are obligatory and which are voluntary? Are there any standards at all?

Are the operators being fined for late trips, as was the case with Arriva? Also, are they being fined for matters that cause discomfort to users, such as occasional lack of air-conditioning?

Are workers’ conditions, rights and duties clearly earmarked in the contract?

Does the contract include workings that explain the doubling of the State subsidy? Does the increase in buses justify this increase? What else does the subsidy cover?

Where does the demarcation line between Transport Malta and Autobuses de Leon end? And where does the ministry fit in the equation?

As things stand, the public has to rely on press events by Minister Mizzi to be updated on what happens next.

This is a far cry from modern governance, where citizens would have full access to information in the respective policy field. And, unfortunately, this information deficit is not a one-off.

Let us not forget that the government has also failed to publish other public agreements in other sectors.

As we move closer to Budget 2016, the government can show that it intends to give priority to public transport reform through certain measures. For example, bus users in certain hours can be incentivised. Instead of proposing earlier school hours for children, how about rewarding students and others in rush hours by exempting them from paying?

Also, wouldn’t it make sense to make certain transport services more accessible? For example, the limited number of minibus licences sometimes results in cramming of voyages in the early hours before school. Maybe an extension of minibus licences will increase choice, access and comfort.

The government can also explain whether it intends to have a holistic plan on transport in general, dealing with matters such as traffic, pollution, enforcement, alternative forms of transport, modal shifts and new ideas, such as the consideration of an underground metro, which is increasingly becoming the norm in modern cities.

In the run up to the Budget, the government should also publish its agreement with Autobuses de Leon so that civil society can put forward constructive criticism from a position of knowledge. What better way to show citizens whether the agreement is truly advantageous for all stakeholders of public transport?

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The Debate about Jobs

Times of Malta, 8th September 2015

Malta’s official number of registered unemployed persons has gone down to under 5,000. The country’s unemployment rate, at a relatively low 5.1 per cent, is surpassed only by Germany, at 4.7 per cent, and Malta is a very good performer in youth unemployment rates. Comparatively, unemployment rates in southern European neighbours Greece and Spain hover around the 25 per cent mark.

On the other hand, Malta’s employment rate is relatively low, with about 66 per cent of people aged between 20 and 64 having a job. Malta is aiming to reach a 70 per cent target by 2020, thus moving closer to the European average.

The main political parties in Malta are interpreting these figures in different ways.

Labour is flaunting the relatively positive figures and highlighting the government’s respective policies, schemes and incentives.

The Nationalist Party, on the other hand, is emphasising the fact that the government has itself provided a considerable amount of new jobs and that many new openings in the private sector are being filled by non-Maltese nationals on low wages.

Employment and Education Minister Evarist Bartolo concurred with the fact that non-Maltese workers, especially EU citizens, do take up a substantial number of new jobs. He also rightly said that, at times, certain Maltese workers do not have the kind of skills demanded by the labour market.

However, it is also true that one finds many workers – both Maltese and foreign - in precarious and/or low-paying jobs. Some may argue that foreign workers are depressing wages due to increased competition from a larger labour force but I prefer to look at things differently.

First of all, foreign workers are contributing to Maltese society in various ways, ranging from immediate consumption of goods and services in Malta to increased productivity which, among other contributions, is important for the long-term sustainability of the island’s pension system.

Second, and from a social justice perspective, the exploitation of workers – both Maltese and foreign – is having negative effects on the quality of life of such persons and their families and it is high time that such an issue is tackled.

The Labour government has a mandate to tackle precarious employment and, prior to the 2013 general election, all political leaders and social partners had signed the Jobs+ social pact, as proposed by the UĦM, which emphasised active labour policy measures as well as dignified jobs.

Various active policy measures have been introduced but low wages and/or job insecurity keep featuring in various types of employment, at various skill levels, and, especially, where there is no unionisation. Jobs in this regard cover sectors such as waste collection, construction, care work, retail and hospitality.

Given that Budget 2016 is on our doorstep, the Labour government should consider measures that deal with precariousness and low wages, thus making work pay and complementing measures such as increased access to childcare and vocational training. I augur that, in the run-up to the Budget, Labour’s closest political ally, the General Workers’ Union, will be as vocal on these issues as it was before the 2013 general election.

The other main argument raised in the current jobs debate, namely public sector employment, is also multi-faceted. The increase of 5,500 people in the public sector (including the replacement of 3,000 retired civil servants) surely raises eyebrows, particularly given the pressure on public expenditure funded by taxpayers’ money.

This rather high figure also gives weight to criticisms of Labour’s politics of patronage based on partisan, rather than productive, employment.

But, on the other hand, one should also take account of the expansion of certain public services which are characterised by higher demand in sectors such as health, education and care work. These, however, should be measured also in terms of the working conditions, cost effectiveness and service delivery.

In turn, these are related to quality of life considerations. Consequently, is Malta’s public sector doing a good job in the sectors under its responsibility? Surely, Malta is a high flier in areas such as life expectancy and safety within the community. However, on the other hand, one cannot say the same in other areas, ranging from traffic management, cleanliness, air quality control and environmental protection, which, incidentally, create jobs and make for social well-being.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Żonqor Pandora’s Box

The Times, 31 August 2015

Malta’s largest ever environmental protest, against the development of a private university in Żonqor had a substantive impact. Subsequently, the government announced the reduction of the footprint of development on ODZ land and, instead, opted to shift a sizeable amount of the proposed development to Cospicua.

A pro-government narrative would say that this is what democracy is all about. In such a scenario, the government acts as the mediator of different interests and finds a reasonable compromise.

Making a critical narrative, however, one might say that the government used a cunning strategy by initially proposing something totally unacceptable to make the real proposal look acceptable in comparison. Hence, Joseph Muscat’s subsequent statement of a “double victory” for the South and his warm welcome by party loyalists in staged events.

From my point of view, the government’s strategy has opened a Pandora’s Box with a multitude of unpredicted consequences. In this regard, it does not seem that civil society is ready to accept the government’s insistence to build on ODZ land.

Indeed, the environmental movement, the independent press and opposition political parties are being relentless in their questions on the project, which, if anything, are increasing.

Such questions are very much based on what Muscat did not tell us during his recent public appearances.

For example, the Prime Minister said nothing about the legal status of ODZ land, which is protected by Mepa policies and which falls within an area designated as having ecological and scientific importance. Will the government change these policies? And if yes, how and when?

What about the proposed football ground? In a recent statement, Marsascala FC stated that, while disappointed that the pitch is no longer part of the private university plan, it is pleased that Muscat is promising a full-size football ground with ancillary facilities, which will be constructed in Marsascala concurrently with the university project. The obvious question to ask is: where is this football ground going to be developed?

The social impact assessment carried out for the university project confirmed that the latter will attract 4,000 students, the majority of whom are expected to be Muslim and, thus, requiring a mosque.

If this is the case, where will it be constructed? If this is not the case, as the government subsequently stated in a press release, does the agreement with the university developers confirm this?

Given that the government has, to date, failed to publish its agreement with the Sadeen Group, it stands to reason that questions on the construction project itself are multiplying. For example, does the agreement have a clause that the developers can eventually extend upwards? If the university business model does not work, can there be a change of use to a hotel, apartments or other businesses?

If the government is so sure about the “double victory”of the South, I see no reason why the agreement with Sadeen cannot be published immediately.

The fact that the government keeps playing hide and seek is only increasing discontent, suspicion and rumours. Given that the government PR machine is not replying to the multitude of questions being put forward, things can only get worse in this regard.

It is also ironic that while the government is boasting of giving a present to the South, elected local councillors in Marsacala are being kept in the dark about the government’s agreements with Sadeen. It is only the mayor who seems to enthusiastically support the government’s plans. Yet, has he read the agreement?

Finally, the government’s PR spectacle during the August holiday season has also led it to ignore the parliamentary process. In an Environment Parliamentary Committee meeting chaired by Marlene Farrugia, and which I attended, civil society organisations were promised by Mepa’s CEO that the possible alternative sites to Żonqor will be discussed in a future meeting. Is the government now consigning the meeting to the rubbish bin of spin? Or will civil society be entertained with a fait accompli power point presentation?

It is indeed unfortunate that Malta’s elected Prime Minister keeps giving the impression that he is Sadeen’s salesman while ignoring genuine concerns from civil society. In the process, he is only fuelling further disappointment in Malta’s south, north, west and east.

As the Labour government is in its mid-term, it is becoming clearer than ever that there is a big difference between writing an electoral programme and governing.