Monday, February 29, 2016

Why are our roads so bad?

Why are our roads so bad? This is a question so many people ask in Malta. This does not only include drivers, cyclists and pedestrians who have to bear the brunt of potholes, shoddy works, bumps and poor infrastructure, but also first-time visitors who are usually surprised to see a Third World infrastructure in an EU member state.
This is a question I myself have been asking for years and which I have been trying to verify ever since I have been a local councillor since 2003.
Like many residents, I have witnessed the disproportionate influence of various contractors who overload their trucks with bricks and debris, thus causing damage to roads and pavements. I also witnessed some examples of bad road works, which were later on tested and found to be in violation of existing standards, thus forcing proper resurfacing. At times, newly resurfaced roads had to be opened up, sometimes due to lack of coordination from government authorities.
I have also witnessed some examples of good workmanship, especially when there is a professional working relationship between council administration, architects and contractors, and when there is proper supervision. Yet, as more time passed, I also witnessed the growing financial constraints of local councils despite having huge responsibilities such as those related to residential roads.
Hence whenever I see roads around Malta in a very bad state, I relate this to one or more of the reasons above. The lack of council funds to maintain degrading roads is however becoming increasingly the case.
Therefore, even when local councils do have professional contractors and architects and proper supervision, the lack of funds may be a limiting factor as regards quality of roads.
Local councils usually have enough funds for the resurfacing of around one or two roads a year
In real terms, and on average, local councils usually have enough funds for the resurfacing of around one or two roads a year, given that council funds must also be used for a myriad of other expenses. At the same time, local councils have no fiscal autonomy and are increasingly dependent on government discretionary schemes.
A normal sized residential road costs around €100,000, including tarmac and new pavements (which would cost, for example, between €15,000 and €20,000), but the cost may vary depending the current state of the road surface. The worse its condition, the higher the cost.
Longer residential roads cost more, with costs going up to between €200,000 and €300,000, and arterial roads obviously cost much more, though the latter can benefit from State and EU funding.
Financial constraints and urgent priorities in different roads sometimes influence local councils to choose to resurface parts of different roads instead of a whole road. Such ‘boxes’ are costly too, sometimes costing between €10,000 and €20,000 each. Besides, local councils also have to pay for smaller patching works, which, cumulatively, cost quite a lot, too.
Besides, there are also other factors which do not seem to help the situation. For example, when developers carryout construction works, they pay Mepa for road works close to the developed site. Most of these funds are transferred to Transport Malta – the authority ironically responsible for arterial roads. So much for decentralisation and local council empowerment.
Is Transport Malta using all such revenue for residential roads? Or is it using some of the money for arterial roads? Or is it using it for other purposes?
Judging by the terrible situation of various roads in localities characterised by ongoing construction, something does not seem to fall in place.
Or maybe Transport Malta is utilising all such funds for residential roads, but there are not enough funds to make up for damages to roads caused by the construction industry. Yet, given that Transport Malta and the Ministry of Transport are not exactly shining examples of good governance and transparency, it really needs to convince the public that the quality of roads is really give the priority it deserves.
Will Minister Joe Mizzi provide comprehensive information regarding what is being done with funds earmarked for residential roads?

Michael Briguglio interviewed by Raphael Vassallo

"Recipe for Implosion" 
It must be an interesting time to be a sociologist in Malta. Society has changed at an impressive rate over the past two decades. From the only country in the Western world to prohibit divorce, Malta is now ranked among the most liberal countries in Europe with regard to other civil liberties, particularly concerning gay rights.

At the same time, however, there has been an undeniable slide backwards in terms of governance, transparency and accountability… ultimately, the pillars on which any modern democracy is built.

In brief, there seems to be a glaring mismatch between society’s expectations, and what political parties are actually delivering. And according to our most recent polls, it seems to be affecting all three mainstream parties.

Labour’s previously unassailable majority is undeniably being eroded. The news is better for the PN, but it still struggles to reclaim the support it lost. Alternattiva Demokratika has meanwhile registered its lowest-ever level of popular support. 

I meet Michael Briguglio – a political activist and former AD chairman, but also a sociologist and keen observer of current affairs – at his University office. What does he make of the current political situation of Malta?

“As regards the governance issue, back in 2010 I had actually written an article about the inevitable problems Labour would face if elected. At the time, Muscat’s PL was projecting itself as a ‘moderate’ and ‘progressive’ movement. It sounded very inclusive, but it was also a recipe for implosion, in my opinion. When you promise everything to everyone, including many contradictory promises… it might win you an election, but that’s it. Once you win the election, the problems will start cropping up.”

Briguglio points towards the expectations raised, on the one hand, among environmentalists, and on the other, developers and building contractors.

“If you promise environmentalists more rational planning policies, and more stringent regulations… then you tell the developers – who are probably financing your party – that you’re going to do the opposite... the fall-out becomes inevitable.”

The same could be said for many other issues. “The main issue today is governance; surveys confirm that corruption has become a major concern, according to people’s perceptions. We have a government whose strategy was basically to obtain power, but not really to change things… only to ensure that those in power and those around them reap as many advantages as possible. I think there is a limit to how long such a power structure can remain in place…”

The disappointment he alludes to is clearly visible, but at the same time the opposition still lags behind significantly in the polls. Does he see this ‘inevitable’ implosion occurring by the next election?

“Let me put it this way: Labour seemed invincible some time ago… but I think that every oligarchy reaches a peak – and what we are dealing with here is an oligarchy, in my opinion – then faces a downfall. I would say that Labour has no guarantee of winning the next election. I’m seeing disappointment all around, even among Labourites…”

At the same time, Labour still enjoys an improbable nine-seat majority… is it possible that it has been blinded to this reality by its sheer hold on power? 

“Yes. I think it’s going to be Labour’s undoing. It has such a huge sense of superiority – even if you look at the body language of the prime minister, the dismissive tone he uses in interviews... I think power has really gone to this government’s head. You don’t need to go into any deep Freudian analysis, or anything like that. Things really are that simple…”

At the same time, however, the inevitable implosion of the Labour oligarchy only means the return of the Nationalist one instead. And the PN cannot claim the moral high ground on any of these issues (least of all, undeclared assets held in dodgy overseas jurisdictions by Cabinet ministers).

So wouldn’t a pendulum swing back to the Nationalists merely perpetuate the same cycle of corruption and bad governance? 

“Let me put forward different scenarios… I’m not saying I necessarily agree with them, but there are different ways of looking at this. Take the Nationalist Party. Yes, if Labour is outvoted, it would mean a Nationalist government, all other things being equal. Now, if the Nationalists are in power, they might do the same thing and get outvoted again… in which case, we’ll have the pendulum effect you describe. However… and I have absolutely no brief for the PN… Simon Busuttil did something which I think is rather positive, by putting forward a package of good governance proposals. You might say it’s a bunch of hogwash, or a load of spin… but my hunch is that the PN would introduce such policies to be as watertight as possible…”

But the same could be said for Labour’s ‘Taghna Lkoll’ motif. It’s easy to make those proposals in opposition. There is certainly no guarantee that Busuttil’s good governance promise will not go down the same road as Muscat’s ‘meritoccracy’ pledge…

“In that case, the two-party logic dictates that the pendulum will swing back to Labour again. But things are not necessarily restricted to a two-party logic. For example: local council elections cannot be compared to general elections, but people do vote for other parties at that level. I myself was elected to the Sliema local council four times; the same goes for [AD candidate] Ralph Cassar in Attard. The mechanisms are there to move out of the two-party system. Whether people want to do that or not is another question. What you or I may want is not the issue here. Many people want to retain the two-party system…”

This brings us to another dimension. Ultimately, politics is a question of demand and supply. If the popular will is precisely to maintain the two-party system… out of a national culture of pique, perhaps, or because of the perks associated with having ‘your’ party in power, etc. – where does that leave parties like AD, which are trying to break the mould?

“Let’s tackle the demand first; we can talk about supply – i.e., what the parties are offering – later. There are many different categories of voters. We talk of ‘switchers’ and ‘floaters’, for instance. These are social constructs; it’s a question of terminology… but ‘switchers’ are roughly those voters who switch between parties on the basis of which could offer them the best ‘deal’. A floating voter, on the other hand, will not have a preference, but might be swayed by one or more issues that are important to him or her. When it comes to this category, my hunch is that they tend to vote Labour or PN because they consider a Green vote to be a wasted vote. Why?” 

Answering his own question, Briguglio points towards the electoral system first. “It is undeniably tailor-made for two parties, but I strongly believe that a third party can be elected all the same. It is difficult, but not impossible. Another consideration is the specific context of any election. In 2003, for instance, there was the issue of EU accession. For many people, that was more important than having a third party…”

But that consideration is now dead and buried, and still AD has not elevated itself beyond its usual percentage. …

“There are other issues, however. In the last election, when I was leading AD, I knew many people who wanted to vote AD but instead voted Labour. One example would be the issue of gay rights. There were many voters who, on this issue, were probably closer to AD’s position than Labour’s; but they believed that Labour would deliver more because they would be in government…” 

Could it also be because the difference between the three parties has been eroded? We have already seen Labour and PN converge towards the centre on the economy, and also (up to a point) on civil liberties. Now, AD seems to be echoing some of the conservative views of the PN.., for instance, by opposing embryo-freezing. 

This in turn points towards an endemic dilemma in today’s situation. There is now a multiplicity of views and opinions that are simply not represented at all: neither in parliament, nor even in public discourse. My own opinions on things like female reproductive rights, for instance, are still considered anathema by all three parties… even though they would be considered mainstream and normal in most Western European countries. Elsewhere, very different views – for instance, of people who protested against the Muslim public prayer sessions in Msida – are not represented either. 

On both fronts, there seems to be a reluctance to actually represent such voter segments…

“When I was chairperson of AD, it was my strong belief – even if there were differences of opinion within the party – that AD had to search for political niches. Among the niches which existed then, and still exist today, there is definitely the environment… however, using the logic mentioned previously, some people might argue that it would make more sense to vote PN, on the basis that a party in government can achieve more...”

Does this indicate that AD may have been overtaken even on the environmental front?

“No, I don’t think so. AD should definitely remain a voice for the environment, because it is the only party that has a consistent record on this issue. But it cannot focus solely on the environment; it needs to occupy niche issues beyond that sector…”

The one area where AD has also been consistent is civil liberties.

“Certain civil liberties have since been taken up by Labour: for instance, gay rights. On this issue, I feel AD has mellowed out a little. Before the election it was more vociferous, and also spoke out on particular rights. Our manifesto, for instance, talked of full marriage equality. Marriage, not civil unions…”

Briguglio points towards other ‘neglected niches’: especially, the social aspect. “For example, precarious employment. Nobody is speaking about this anymore... not even, surprisingly, the GWU. We’re all talking about how the economy is growing, but… let me give you an example. Last week, there was an article about massage parlours, and how there was an increase in elderly men contracting STDs. But there was nothing about what I call ‘modern-day slavery’; the work conditions of sex workers, for instance. And there are other exploited categories, too. Child-carers, for example. It’s good that the government extended childcare services... but what about the wages paid to child-carers? They are very low, and their responsibilities are very great…”

This, Briguglio argues, marks the main difference between ‘Green’ and ‘Liberal’ parties in the rest of Europe. “Green Parties usually have an interest in the Green economy, which is very important; civil liberties; local issues; and also the social dimension.”

There are other issues, too: including some which AD is against. 

“AD is definitely against abortion, for instance. It’s the only Green Party in Europe to take that stand; even Green Muslim parties agree. But to be fair, that was a consistently democratic decision taken by AD. It wasn’t forced down the party’s throat. Any member is free to attend an AGM and try to change that position. As things have always stood, from 1989 up to today, the vast majority of AD members have always disagreed with that civil right…”

But the issue is not just about being ‘for’ or ‘against’ abortion. In Malta, we have a very archaic law which doesn’t make any exception of any kind whatsoever: not even in cases where the mother’s life might be in danger. In practice, we all know that under such circumstances abortions are indeed carried out… not even the Church objects, because of the ‘double effect’ principle… but there are no guarantees for the future.

We have already seen how the PN, under Lawrence Gonzi, moved decidedly towards the Evangelical Christian position by flirting with groups such as Gift of Life. What if a future government decides to prosecute women who miscarry (as has happened in certain US states); or press murder charges against doctors who perform life-saving, abortifacient surgery? Why does not even AD argue in favour of a more sensible, less draconian legislation? Has it been bullied into submission by extremists?

“I know Arnold Cassola very well, and have enormous respect for him. I mean that very sincerely. It is widely known that we didn’t always see eye to eye on everything; I was the more radical left-winger of the party, he was more on the conservative side. But he really did contribute a lot to AD, and I feel this needs to be acknowledged more. On this issue, I can safely say that his is not a cynical stance. Cassola’s position on abortion is not a case of political opportunism; he genuinely disagrees on principle…”

But the issue goes beyond personal views. Surely, a political party should be more than merely an extension of its leader’s private opinions…

“Agreed. I believe that, whatever one’s private opinion on such matters, there should always be a debate. If nothing else, discussion can serve to strengthen one’s position. And yes, there should be a debate on whether our laws are effective, or how they can be improved. I also firmly believe that one of AD’s roles is to be the party that puts forward certain issues to be debated… issues that the other parties won’t discuss…”

Not so much now, however. On euthanasia, for instance, Cassola even stated that he had ‘no intention to even discuss the issue’…

Briguglio shrugs. “Euthanasia is going to be discussed, whether or not AD takes part. Someone has submitted a letter to parliament, and I assume it will be placed on the agenda for discussion. It was also discussed on Xarabank; half the country will have seen that episode. Cassola is within his rights to state that he disagrees with euthanasia; where I disagreed with him was on ruling out the discussion altogether. I believe that AD needs to hold a more open debate… not just on this issue… even to the extent of inviting non-members to the discussion table. If not, there is a danger that society will be much further ahead than the party…”  

Quoting British sociologist Anthony Giddens, Briguglio points out how the British Labour Party experienced something similar in the 1980s. “Labour lost many elections in sequence, largely because it refused to discuss issues that were considered relevant by large parts of its own electorate. OK, then it moved to the ‘third way’; I won’t discuss the merits of that decision, however. What I am saying is that parties should be open to discussion, even just to have a barometer of where they stand in today’s society. I think that is very important…”

Meanwhile, there is another issue facing AD at the moment. At the last election, AD registered 1.8% of the national vote (with Briguglio at the helm). Our latest polls indicate that they currently stand at 0.8%... which is lower than their first ever electoral performance in 1989. The party has shrunk back to microscopic proportions. How does Briguglio account for this?

“It is a worrying statistic, undeniably. Even the European election results were disappointing. My honest and sincere appeal to AD, as someone who is within the party but not in the executive, is that it needs to hold some kind of forum or convention – call it what you will – where it can discuss even those issues it disagrees with. It is very, very important to have a sense of engagement with society. A hermit engages only with himself. One has to engage with society, even to reassess one’s own position. Your position may be strengthened in the process; or you may realise your positions were wrong… or no longer in synch with society. But that, to me, is what politics is all about. There is a constant need to see where one’s views fit in with those of the rest of the population; interaction has to take place, otherwise a political party may find itself overtaken by the rest of society.”

Sunday, February 28, 2016

#‎Panamagate‬ ‪#‎Malta‬ - Appeal by Civil Society activists regarding financial investments of Maltese MPs

We, the undersigned, call on Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to make a clear commitment to the principles he campaigned for before the last election – transparency and accountability – by unequivocally condemning the fact that a member of his cabinet and his chief of staff have chosen to make financial investments in countries blacklisted by the EU or under circumstances that preclude total disclosure of assets.
Given the very nature of these financial arrangements and these black-listed jurisdictions, it is simply absurd for the Prime Minister to state, ex-post and after these revelations were made in the media, that he sees nothing wrong as long as his Ministers declare the existence of these financial arrangements. With regard to Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi and OPM Chief of Staff Keith Scembri it is imperative that any vehicles involving financial investments in Panama – or other blacklisted offshore tax havens – must be immediately dismantled and any assets already held there, if any, must be repatriated. We call for Minister Mizzi and Chief of Staff Schembri to shoulder political responsibility for their actions and to resign immediately.
Furthermore, we call for a clear commitment to full transparency and disclosure from all Members of Parliament and party officials, in that they must come clean by declaring, by means of a sworn affidavit, all investments in all overseas jurisdictions.
Finally, we stand four-square behind the independent media in its endeavour to cast light on this scandal while deploring attempts by other sections of the press to play down the gravity of this scenario.


Michael Briguglio, David Friggieri, Ingram Bondin, James Debono, Raphael Vassallo, Monique Agius, Mario Vella, Jurgen Balzan, Andrei Vella Laurenti, Matthew Agius, James Spiteri, David Magro, Julian Zammit, Edmond Fenech, Nicholas Mamo, Salvu Mallia, Patrick Galea, Elton Borg, Paul Portelli, Martin Abela, Erica Schembri, Isabelle Camilleri, Reuben Zammit, Giljan Agius, Antoine Cassar, Shaun Grech, Ramon Mizzi, Clive Scerri, Alex Vella Gera, Cedric Vella, Charlot Cassar, Steve Bonello, Angele Deguara, Edward Mallia, Andre' Callus, Valerie Visanic, Martin Caruana, Gail Debono, Marie Lucia Briguglio, Martin Galea DeGiovanni, Michael Grech, Andre Schembri, Mark Sciberras, Daniel Muscat, Matthew Seychell, Oliver Degabriele, Jean Zammit, Jean Paul Galea, Alba Cauchi, Marc' Andrea Cassar, Pascal Aloisio, Maria Muscat, Joe Pace, Mary Grace Vella, Paul Galea, Karina Fiorini, Conrad Chircop, Annalisa Schembri, John Paul Cauchi, Colette Sciberras, Daniel Desira, Mark Anthony Sammut, Albert Gatt, Malcolm Vella, James Vella Clark, Jenny Agius, Alex Vella, Paul Radmilli, Martin Attard, Bertu Piscopo, Marco Cremona, Jon Mallia, Chris Mizzi

IF YOU ARE A CIVIL SOCIETY ACTIVIST AND WISH TO ADD YOUR NAME PLEASE SEND AN EMAIL TO with the subject heading 'SIGNATURE' and your name in text. The petition will be updated ever so often.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Oligarchy Tightens its Grip

A Politician comes from out of nowhere in 2013 and finds himself promoting Labour's flagship electoral issue - energy bills. He is subsequently progressively appointed Minister of two Ministries responsible for the sale of key state assets in energy and healthcare. Many deals are shrouded in secrecy and involve authoritarian regimes. In the meantime, his Government changes regulations covering Ministerial assets and investments, allowing them not to declare their wife's assets. 

It subsequently emerges that Minister's family financial assets exist in Panama - a dodgy, blacklisted banana republic which attracts dirty money. One of the country that blacklists Panama is Malta in its capacity as EU member state - the same Malta which has its own financial sector, which is in line with existing international regulations.

His Prime Minister - in an increasingly dismissive and arrogant tone - says that he has no problem with his Minister's behaviour. The Prime Minister is perfectly ok that instead of investing in Malta, the Minister chose to invest in a country that attracts dirty money. The Prime Minister refused to discuss the issue in Malta's highest political institution - parliament.

The Minister is subsequently crowned Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. 

In a normal democracy, we would have been discussing the resignation of such a Minister.

Given that 96% of Labour delegates chose to crown Konrad Mizzi as Deputy Leader in what transpired to be a non-contest with no debate, given that State television news, various self-appointed 'progressives' and 'leftists' have suddenly gone in self-denial Ostrich mode, the importance of the independent media, civil society, and political forces not caught up in dirty politics has never been so important.

#‎Oligarchy ‪#‎Malta‬ ‪#‎TaghhomBiss‬ ‪#‎EverythingFallsIntoPlace‬

See also:

Labour's Oligarchy:

Monday, February 22, 2016

(Junk) Kings of the Road

If we needed any reminding of the dangers of car pollution to people’s health, this has been provided by a recent scientific study that has hit the headlines in the global media.
The study forms part of the Global Burden of Disease project and its findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It concluded that more than 5.5 million premature deaths are linked to air pollution every year.
The study argues that air quality is the leading environmental risk for human disease, and that the reduction of air pollution is “an incredibly efficient way to improve the health of a population”.
China and India account for half of these deaths, and the burning of coal is a main cause of this.
However, particulate matter is not only emitted from coal-fired power stations, but also from factories and cars. This is increasing cancers, heart diseases, strokes and lung infections.
In an earlier study, the World Health Organisation had also made similar findings. And pollution increase is also related to other global challenges such as climate change.
In this regard, it is interesting to note that statistics issued by the EU last year show that Malta had the largest increase in greenhouse gas emissions across the EU since 1990 and that the main culprit was transport.
One may say that newer forms of transport emit less particulate matter than older forms of transport, but the fact is that car usage is consistently increasing in Malta and that many old cars remain polluting our roads. And surveys in Malta are showing relatively high concern on issues related to transport, environment and air quality.
To date, next to nothing is being done to remove heavy polluters from Malta’s roads. Not everyone may be aware that such polluters may be reported through an SMS system to 5061 1899, where one simply writes the number plate of the car in question. Yet, the overall impact of this scheme leaves much to be desired.
Malta is full of heavy polluters, yet, enforcement is sub-minimal
A year ago, in an article I wrote for this newspaper I discussed the fact that in a two-year period, only 38 cars were removed from Malta’s roads by the transport authorities due to excessive pollution. One can easily count such a number of cars in this situation after five minutes in Regional Road.
In my article I had asked why was it that only 681 notifications were sent to car owners when Transport Malta received 22,182 reports of heavy polluters? I also asked whether detailed statistics be provided and what were the criteria for submission of notifications? So far, no reply has been forthcoming.
This issue was also raised in Parliament last week by MP Ryan Callus who asked Minister for Transport Joe Mizzi for updated figures in this regard. It transpired than in 2015, 13,000 SMS reports on polluting vehicles were sent in by the public, yet only 262 were called in for checking and only 32 failed to pass the test.
To me, this is bad environmental governance. It is crystal clear that Malta is full of heavy polluters, yet, enforcement is sub-minimal.
Culprits include certain vehicles used for the transport of tourists and schoolchildren, certain delivery vans, many construction trucks which are fit for scrapping, and many private cars, including some newer ones which ‘mysteriously’ emit black pollution.
To be fair, in government’s Budget for 2016, incentives were introduced to encourage the scrapping of old cars and the purchase of electric or hybrid cars. Yet such incentives, positive as they are, will never be universally significant, and can have little impact when transport authorities keep tolerating heavy polluters.
It should also be noted that Malta has one of the oldest car fleets in Europe. What is Mizzi waiting for to suggest cut-off dates for the removal of old polluting junks and to have on-the-road spot checks for excessive emissions?
The issue is made worse when one considers that Malta is still awaiting a proper, reliable and efficient public transport service, though the current service providers are being rewarded with expanding subsidies and other forms of government support.
Fragmented governance, next-to-inexistent enforcement and tokenistic measures are a far cry from what is required to protect people’s health and the environment.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Labour’s oligarchy? Michael Briguglio

The Times of Malta, 15 February 2016

In 1911 Robert Michels published a highly influential book called Political Parties. Here, the sociologist came up with his famous “iron law of oligarchy”. Michels argued that political parties inevitably become oligarchic through the control of a small leadership clique.
These rulers become increasingly concerned with surviving in their leadership posts rather than being active for social and democratic change.
Another sociologist, Max Weber, had expressed his concern with the rule of government bureaucracies, whose leadership style results in people’s disenchantment of their social world.
Weber believed that despite its shortcomings, democracy was the best way to stop the monopolisation of power by professional politicians.
During the 20th century, other sociologists belonging to different schools of thought wrote about power elites made up of political and business oligarchs, of their social networks and connections, and of their ideological proximity and mutual interests. ‘Catch-all’ parties were seen as building their media machines and electoral empires through the financing of big business.
Authors in this genre argued that given that most power elites would want to secure their power, they seek to undermine their political adversaries – internal and external – in various ways.
Examples in this regard may include deceit through propaganda, co-opting critics by ‘kicking them upstairs’ in prestigious but relatively powerless roles, bribing those ready to be bribed, and other methods such as exclusion, expulsion and vilification of adversaries.
When power elites finally start losing their power – and history shows that no elite is eternal – they might resort to a variety of tactics. This might range from getting softer to appear closer to the ‘people’, to getting greedier and thus ‘making hay while the sun shines’. In countries with a lack of democratic tradition, independent media, autonomous civil society and institutional guarantees, some elites might also resort to violence and terror to secure their position.
Labour’s oligarchic rule will someday reach its peak and face an inevitable downfall
The power of elites has also fascinated authors in different genres, ranging from literature to popular music. Perhaps George Orwell’s Animal Farm, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, is the best example in this regard. “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”, never ceases to be true.
How is all this relevant to Malta in 2016? It is, according to independent MP Marlene Farrugia, who resigned from Labour a few months ago. She is now speaking about the rule of oligarchs in Muscat’s Labour government.
Others had made similar claims about the Nationalist government in previous years, but now that Labour has been in government for the past three years, I would like to focus on its ruling style in this article.
In my reading, many decisions taken by Muscat’s government are tailor-made to serve certain business interests in sectors ranging from energy to healthcare and from land development to transport. A ruling clique administers the process through political support of appointed gatekeepers in the public service.
Labour’s deputy leadership non-race fits squarely in the formula. Toni Abela was conveniently given a prestigious yet politically invisible role in the EU court of auditors, and Konrad Mizzi, who came from out of nowhere in the 2013 elections and who now calls the shots in so many deals carried out by the Labour government with big business interests, was sole contender for the post. Everything was stage-managed, smiles and all, and there was no inkling of open debate.
These processes enable the oiling of the state apparatus through short-termist and unsustainable methods such as the sale of citizenship and over-reliance on development of land. I imagine that in the run-up to the general election, Labour will increasingly resort to such cash and land deals to buy political support.
Yet Labour’s oligarchic rule will someday reach its peak and face an inevitable downfall. Its leadership will probably not give up without a fight, yet it will probably discover that people who are fickle enough to give support to a party not out of principle but out of convenience, will desert the party when the sun no longer shines.
I hope that the implosion of oligarchy does not lead to other oligarchies, but to increased democracy and dialogue, fuelled by increasingly reflexive voters, media and civil society, and by authentic political pluralism.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Sustainable policymaking

The bureaucratic and rigid nature of State structures at times serves as animpediment for changes required for more sustainable policymaking.
This may range from work practices that are not in synch with today’s needs to the lack of cross-governmental cooperation for sustainable change. For example, if the ministry responsible for sustainable development and climate change is obliged to promote environmental policies, how is this linked to the workings of ministries responsible for social policy, local councils, lands and tourism, to name a few?
A group of scholars of global influence known as the ‘new economists’ of the Green New Deal group believe that economy and environment are mutually related and can create green jobs in both public and private sectors.
Yet, very often, the dominant discourse put forward by State entities is that job creation and economic growth are twin gods which no one can question. But here one can argue that growth can and should be sustainable and that there are other indicators that should be taken into consideration. For example, should welfare policy only look at unemployment rates and welfare dependency or should it also look at other factors, ranging from free time to precariousness and from stress levels to access to open spaces?
With regard to the latter example, I was recently very pleased to note that the newly-opened playground at the lower level of Salini Park is accessible to the public, free of commercialisation and free of wasteful and costly turf. This is an example of a win-win situation in various aspects, free from the pressures of those who stand to gain should commercial factors have been given priority over everything else.
Governmental policymaking will have to face challenges even if populist politicians decide to ignore them
Sustainable policymaking would therefore extend the debate and propose policies related to self-actualisation, lifestyle and non-material considerations. A more holistic approach will go beyond the territorialism and conservative entrenchment of individual entities and will instead aim for an intersection of State and non-government entities – from local councils to NGOs - involved in areas such as education, health, environment, transport and community, among others.
Such an approach would also aim to unite theory with practice. For example, the University of Malta has an abundance of courses, research and structures related to sustainable policymaking, yet, when it comes to its own operations, the same University is a poor player.
Its lack of a green waste management policy is a striking example in this regard. Students learn about the benefits of recycling, reusing and reducing waste, however, the only bring-in sites which exist are at the periphery of the University. Still, thousands make use of the premises every day, resulting in plentiful waste ranging from plastic food containers to paper.
Hopefully, Malta’s transition to a circular economy will ensure that all sectors of society are responsible for their waste.
Sooner or later, governmental policymaking will have to face challenges even if populist politicians decide to ignore them for the time being. For example, environmental taxation is likely to be increasingly required to discourage unsustainable practices.
Besides, governments may opt for a mix of other policies. These may include mandatory behaviour change, incentives and/or education. Once again, the circular economy process, which is undergoing public consultation, can serve as an interesting example in this regard.
Another challenge has to do with quality of jobs. The Minister of Tourism recently stated that he will be looking into the quality of jobs in the erstwhile booming tourism sector. Indeed, this is an example where the benefits of economic growth are not being shared equitably.
Yet another challenge – a most pressing issue of our times - is trying to match up the identity of citizens with responsibilities and rights with the increasingly influential identity of consumer.
And, finally, given that many sustainability challenges have a global dimension, a global response is required to confront them. More, and not less, Europe can be one important step in this direction.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Obesity a social problem?

One of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century – C. Wright Mills – once wrote that a need becomes a social problem when it is a widely-shared experience in a community.
In turn, sociologists and other social scientists analyse social conditions which create the problem, social perceptions and judgements on the issue, and policy processes to create solutions. Some also ask who is defining the issue as a problem, for which purpose and for whose benefit.
An issue which is increasingly being defined as a social problem, both nationally and globally, is obesity. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently announced that there are at least 41 million children under five who are obese or overweight across the world, and that the numbers are increasing, especially in developing countries.
Previously, a WHO report had shown that Malta has the highest obesity and overweight rates in the European Union. According to the Today Public Policy Institute (TPPI), which has released a report authored by George Debono, Malta is “one of the fattest, laziest and most car-dependent nations on the planet”.
Basing its conclusions on scientific studies and lifestyle factors, TPPI explained that Malta is the least physically active country in the world, has the least physically active children in the EU, and has a 22 per cent obesity rate (our neighbour Italy has 10 per cent). Child obesity, one of the highest in the world is around 25 per cent when one also factors in pre-obese children.
Malta also fares poorly in statistics related to Type II diabetes, active mobility including bicycle use, alcohol use, and other examples.
Health authorities should work hand in hand with stakeholders to identify which types of policies are more suitable for particular areas
There are many reasons for Malta’s poor performance. This ranges from policies which give priority to cars over everything else, to Malta’s dietary habits, which in many instances differ from typical Mediterranean diets. The increased usage of information communication technologies is also encouraging many to do less physical activity.
Indicators such as those referred to above have impacts on people’s quality of life. This may include health consequences (both physical and psychological), educational attainment as well as social stigma.
Medical sociologists such as my colleague Gillian Martin at the University of Malta have emphasised that there are both medical and social factors related to being obese and fat respectively. This includes biomedical discourse and policies, as well as people’s everyday experiences, their interaction with others and how these are interpreted in relation to social practices, aspirations and beliefs. And the latter may also include negative experiences such as labelling and social exclusion.
In relation to all this, a social welfare perspective may welcome the recent statement of Health Parliamentary Secretary Chris Fearne, who said that tackling obesity will be one of Malta’s health priorities during its upcoming EU presidency. Fearne added that obesity should be acknowledged as a disease and appealed for more funding on the issue.
My appeal to the health authorities is to officially recognise that there are various factors, interests and interpretations related to obesity. This requires a multidisciplinary and multidimensional approach which includes different disciplines – and not only the medical, important as it is – and which also involves a wide range of stakeholders from civil society and government.
One policy aspect that should be taken into consideration among others has to do with the welfare perspectives adopted to tackle the issue.
For example, some perspectives emphasise altruism and equality, others emphasise self-interest and welfare incentives. Some believe that policymaking is best implemented through paternalistic and compulsory schemes, while others give more importance to education, trust and community building. In an increasingly individualised setting, some also believe that welfare should equip us to confront the opportunities and risks in our everyday lives through rights and responsibilities.
Health authorities should work hand in hand with stakeholders to identify which types of policies are more suitable for particular areas, ranging from transport to school diets.
The alternative to a proper policymaking approach would be millions of euro in public and private expenditure to combat ill-health, and, above all, people facing illness, social exclusion and other factors which impinge on their quality of life.