Monday, January 25, 2016

Democratic patriotism

The self-declared Organisation of Maltese Patriots is promoting discriminatory discourse which could enflame dangerous action. The organisation has made its intentions clear: Malta has one religion, namely Roman Catholicism, and Muslims shouldn’t be praying in public. It is collecting signatures against what it dubs as “forced integration” and is making its views more visible in the public sphere.
In its most recent public event, spokesperson Alex Pisani said that apart from Roman Catholicism, other religions should not be allowed to hold public events. In his words, Muslims’ prayers should be confined to the mosque in Paola.
Needless to say, Pisani also expressed his opposition to more mosques in Malta, and warned that the Muslim population in Malta will explode, given that Muslim women “breed at a fast rate”. Inevitably, according to Pisani, the Maltese ‘race’ will be destroyed by such changes.
Other spokespersons for the organisation expressed their opposition to ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives’ who, according tothe ‘patriots’, defend practices that belong to the Middle Ages, and some expressed their opposition to cultural diversity inState schools.
In response to this, the Education Ministry defended cultural, religious and ethnic diversity in schools such as the one at St Paul’s Bay as examples of social inclusion. As a parent, I believe that such diversity is beneficial to children when it is carried out in the spirit of dialogue and mutual respect. I can also confirm that Catholicism is definitely not under ‘threat’ in State schools.
The issue of Muslim prayers in public seems to be stemming from the need for the Muslims – such as those represented by the Muslim Council Federation - to have a meeting place in conformity with regulations and legislation.
There are fundamentalists of all stripes and colours, but likewise the same can be said of democrats
If anything, I believe that it is better to have such practices being regulated by Malta’s legislation rather than going underground and being unaccountable.
To put things into perspective, there are around 6,000 Muslims in Malta, many of whom are foreign and Sunni. Numbers have increased in the past years, and this also includes Muslims with Maltese citizenship.
Before one leaps into conclusions about Joseph Muscat’s discriminatory sale of passports to rich, invisible persons, I am referring to common citizens, people who work for their living, who pay their taxes, and who have aspirations and worries like other human beings. Muslims, like Catholics, are not simply one-dimensional persons with no other identities. In an increasingly intercultural world, they are characterised by different – and at times conflicting – values, situations, loyalties and lifestyles. Some are conservative,others are more liberal, some are intolerant, others are perfectly happy to live in a pluralistic society.
Similarly, not all those who are concerned with Islam are racist. Some are concerned with certain practices which are prioritised by certain Muslim elements – especially when they verge on the dogmatic and intolerant. This includes beliefs that men are superior to women and that secular law has no place in society.
Christianity itself has undergone such conflicts and in most instances has adapted itself to modernisation, even thanks to progressive movements which struggled for equality, tolerance and freedom. Malta is no exception to such change.
As regards the Muslim issue, I believe that Maltese institutions and political parties should not brush aside issues which are being discussed fervently within civil society and the public sphere. Perhaps concepts such as agonism – promoted by Chantal Mouffe - and constitutional patriotism, promoted by Europeanist intellectuals such as Jurgen Habermas, should be given the importance they deserve.
Here the idea is that people, their communities and organisations, with all their diverse histories, nationalities and aspirations, should agree to the values and norms of a pluralistic democratic constitution which is based on premises such as tolerance and respect. In this context, fundamentalism has no place, as it does not respect such democratic rules.
There are fundamentalists of all stripes and colours, but likewise the same can be said of democrats.
Therefore, Muslim organisations which play by the rules of Maltese and European society, should have the same rights and responsibilities as other religious, political and cultural organisations.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Bowie and Lemmy

The passing away of Lemmy Kilmister and David Bowie dealt a terrible blow to the world’s rock scene. Yet, at the same time, these two events only showed how much these two icons were loved and respected around the world. So many people gave their own testimonies to Bowie and Lemmy. Public statements, artistic dedications, events in their honour, tweets, letters, and allsorts of tributes were made by politicians, art critics, fellow musicians, fans andthe millions of participants in the global social media.
Lemmy and Bowie were different yet similar in various aspects of their musical identities. One was a chameleon king, being in constant change. The other was the archetypal rocker, black imagery and all. Yet, both were authentic stars, true to their artistic form.
David Bowie, the great singer of hits like Let’s Dance, Heroes, Life on Mars, Changes and Under Pressure, was also an accomplished songwriter, actor and producer.
In a career which spanned decades, he constantly recreated himself, moving from one identity to another, becoming a postmodern icon in the process. He transversed boundaries and helped popularise concepts which today have become part of mainstream discourse on diversity, inclusion and freedom. Fluidity, pastiche and hybridity defined his hyper real, plural identities, which, in his own words, made him a collector of personalities.
Bowie’s innovations and transformations earned him respect from many, firmly establishing him in the royalty of rock.
The world has lost a father figure who opened so many possibilities to artists, outsiders, and all those who cannot be straitjacketed in one identity. 

As he was preparing for death, David Bowie released Blackstar on his 69th birthday, two days before he passed away. The spine-chilling video of Lazarus has quickly become part of the global collective imaginary.
Tony Visconti, Bowie’s producer and friend for many years, said that his death like his life was a work of art. Indeed, his artistic departure at once connected his most intimate and private existence to his public persona, through a reflective artistic production. Possibly, this will be of influence to so many people who reflect on their own challenges in life.
Lemmy Kilmister also died close to his birthday. On December 24 he celebrated his 70th one, when a host of rock starts organised a party in his honour, and he was there, frail and gaunt, having just arrived some days earlier from a tour with his band Motorhead. He died four days later. The fact that Lemmy had actually finished an intensive winter European tour with his band was a feat in itself, given his failing health.
The black-clad front man of Motorhead since its founding in 1975 was consistent in his music and symbolism, releasing albums and performing in tours all along the way. Hits like Ace of Spades, Overkill and Eat the Rich were released during the years to the delight of generations of rockers, punks and metal heads. In the process, he never sold out. Like Bowie, he too had a father figure status, especially by rebel rockers who refuse to be part of a sanitised, clinical and commodified music industry.
The worlds to which Bowie and Lemmy belonged were hedonistic, which, like freedom, are in themselves leaps in the dark due to their possible impact on one’s health. The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle which made them superheroes ultimately gave in and like all other common mortals, they passed away.
Yet both David Bowie and Lemmy Kilmeister left immortal legacies behind them. Such authentic artists will keep on shining in a music world which is becoming increasingly subject to designer music, soulless songwriting and production of copies of copies, amid plastic editing and rent-a-hit spectacles.
How many authentic global superstars will fall to earth in the years to come?

Monday, January 11, 2016

Auditing Local Governance

Image: Pyrrhus, whose greed ended his power

According to the National Audit Office, almost half of Malta’s local councils did not provide fiscal receipts to cover expenditure of almost €400,000 during 2014. To put things into perspective, about €39,500,000 were allocated to local councils for 2016.
The same yearly report shows that certain local councils lack updated financial records, exceed budgetary allocations under certain categories and have shortcomings in certain procurement practices.
The NAO also highlights the lack of audited financial statements of Malta’s nine regional committees.
As an independent State institution, the NAO enjoys universal respect and there is no reason to doubt its findings.
If anything, it is one of the few State institutions which, to date, have not been usurped by a government characterised by too many partisan appointments as well as a deficit in good governance.
Local Government Parliamentary Secretary Stefan Buontempo, who does not usually hit the headlines in terms of media coverage, was quick to react to the NAO’s report. He was reported by the press as stating that the situation is worrying, that he cannot accept the various shortcoming and that “from next year, we will bring the law to bear on councils’ operations”.
Buontempo also criticised executive secretaries of regional committees and local councils, adding that many were not doing their job well. Needless to say, the association of executive secretaries, Ansek, was not amused by Buontempo’s uncharacteristic drive.
Association secretary Paul Gatt acknowledged the worrying shortcomings highlighted by the NAO but added that its frequent appeals to have better governance fell on deaf ears. This includes lack of proper training for new executive secretaries, cases of mayors authorising expenditure without council approval and questionable guidance from the Department of Local Government.
Where do common citizens and residents stand in this situation?
I am sure many taxpayers would expect that their money is being spent properly and that all public expenditure should be covered by fiscal receipts. But, likewise, I am also sure that there are others who think that local councils are holy fountains with unlimited resources and which are accountable only to voters’ whims.
I suspect the tirade against executive secretaries is an excuse to take more power away from local councils
Those in the second category might not really care about the NAO’s recommendations. But the same cannot be said for people with a sense of civic pride and who expect good governance from the authorities.
Such individuals would expect proper enforcement on matters such as tables and chairs on public land, construction practices, usage of bus lanes, abusive parking, vendors abusively occupying public space and so forth.
The only problem here is that local councils have very little enforcementpowers and often rely on action by the police and wardens. And the latter have now been centralised into a government department, as far away as possible from local council control.
Those who expect good governance would also expect that all public funds are used in a proper manner and not just those of local councils. They would not justify local councils’ fiscal shortcomings of €400,000 in a year, but, likewise, they would not justify the millions of euros spent by the government on questionable activities, ranging from Cafe Premier to Australia Hall or the numerous partisan appointments in the public service. And, above all, they would always respect the NAO’s findings and not only when it suits them.
Indeed, given the government’s deficit in good governance, I suspect that Buontempo’s tirade against executive secretaries is an excuse to take more power away from local councils. The government is already weakening the real value of funds given to councils and making councils dependent on government schemes.
The government’s consultation with councils on various matters, from enforcement to planning, leaves much to be desired and some State entities hardly give importance to local council recommendations, requests and complaints.
By all means, make councils more responsible for their financial expenditure. But this should be matched with more rights for executive secretaries and more rights for councils themselves. This would mean subsidiarity and decentralisation, where local councils would have increasing fiscal autonomy.
In the prevailing circumstances, things are going in the opposite direction, with the government taking powers from local councils, centralising various aspects of policymaking and governing poorly in the process.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Tunnel Cocktail Party

(Painting: Leroy Neiman 'F.X. McRory's Whiskey Bar')

The Times of Malta, 4 January 2016
Politicians are frequently favourite targets for criticism of all things and trust in political parties is quite low. Indeed, the most recent Eurobarometer survey for Malta shows that 60 per cent of the Maltese people do not trust political parties.
Yet, I find it quite interesting that, paradoxically, discourse that deserves thorough analysis and critical debate is sometimes taken as gosepl truth. The recent resurrection of the tunnel proposal is a case in point.
During the Budget proceedings in Parliament, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Finance Minister Edward Scicluna announced that the government will withdraw the proposal for a bridge connecting Malta to Gozo and will instead opt for an underground tunnel, which, according to them, is more feasible.
The same proposal had been put forward by the previous Nationalist government and is supported by the Gozo Business Chamber and most Gozitans. On the other hand, opponents so far include environmentalists and greens and most tourism operators in Gozo.
Given that the project will impact both Gozo and Malta, it would be worthwhile to evaluate the positions of other voices in Maltese society.
Gozitan sponsors from both parliamentary sides have entered the debate, including Labour’s Franco Mercieca and Chris Said from the Nationalist Party. They were invited to speak during the launch of a front which aims to “to bring together those Maltese and Gozitans who believe that, in the best interest of the citizens, a tunnel is to be built between Malta and Gozo”. Interestingly, this civil society initiative is so far characterised by what seems to be a political truce between the two parliamentary parties.
Amid all the futuristic designs and pleas about Gozo’s isolation from the Maltese mainland, it would be worthwhile to evaluate what is not being said by the pro-tunnel movement.
First, how important is the ecological aspect in the feasibility studies which are being referred to? Carbon geologist Peter Gatt has made it clear that a lack of geological studies could have a significant impact on the safety and cost of the tunnel. He also noted that the seabed between Malta and Gozo is not straightforward.
Hopefully, scientific facts will not be seen as just another voice in a cocktail party of opinions
Second, what further studies are envisaged to be carried out? For example, who will foot the bill for the construction, operations and maintenance of the tunnel? What impacts will the tunnel have on existing landscape, on niche industries in Gozo, on the Gozo channel, on the possibility of new maritime operations between the islands? What will the social and environmental impacts of the project be?
Third, how will the governance process take place? Will Malta experience other examples of deficit governance, as is the case of the non-American non-university of the Jordanian Sadeen Group and of the public transport muddle? Will the government ignore proper consultation and scientific processes in the name of populism and PR?
Fourth, in a world of scarce resources, limited finance and policy priorities, are there better alternatives to this project? For example, should residents of Gozo and Malta keep enduring the very low quality of many roads? Should other options of connectivity, such as alternative maritime operations, be considered?
Fifth, why has the pro-tunnel front already taken a maximalist position for the project before all factors considered above have been discussed and evaluated? Doesn’t this sound more like ideological rigidity than informed policymaking?
There are ample arguments both in favour and against the development of the underground tunnel between Malta and Gozo, however, at this stage, that it is not the point. The point is to verify whether having a tunnel is really viable and sustainable and to put all the cards on the table so that civil society can properly evaluate what the project entails.
Hence, the tunnel debate should move on from fantastic PowerPoint presentations and political pomp to an open, transparent, informed and democratic dialogue. I hope that, in this context, scientific facts will not be seen as just another voice in a cocktail party of opinions.