Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"Labour will lose floaters"

Sliema local councillor and sociologist Michael Briguglio takes Jacob Borg through the potential pitfalls of opting for high-rise developments in Sliema without all the necessary studies being carried out.

The Prime Minister risks losing the support of Sliema’s floating votes and switchers if two mega high-rise planning applications are approved for the area, Sliema councillor and sociologist Michael Briguglio warned in an interview yesterday.
Sliema residents took to the streets last week to protest against proposals for a 40-storey hotel at Fort Cambridge in Tigné and the 38-storey Townsquare Tower in Qui-Si-Sana.
A court injunction has been filed by the eNGO Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar to halt a decisionby the planning authority on the Townsquare project, since claims were made that certain studies related to the development had been withheld or were incomplete.
Dr Briguglio is adamant that if the Planning Authority (PA) gives the go-ahead to these proposals, it will result in Prime Minister Joseph Muscat taking a hit at the polls.
“We are talking about politics here. Development and politics go hand in hand. I know that the Prime Minister is very savvy with popular opinion. I think he knows that if the PA approved the Townsquare and Fort Cambridge developments, he is going to have a big political problem with switchers and floaters.
“I am from Sliema. I am not a Nationalist. I am in the Green Party. I speak to many people in Sliema, and there is a lot of disappointment about how the government is basically not showing enough concern for the environment and for citizens’ basic rights,” Dr Briguglio said.
He flags the lack of proper studies for the Townsquare project as being a point of major concern.
He is critical of the PA for serving as a “rubber stamp” for such developments, rather than doing its job by ensuring that all the necessary studies have taken place.
“Sliema is already very congested. The two high-rise proposals would cause traffic havoc. It seems that the government or PA is justifying the projects simply by saying that Tigné has been designated a high-rise area. The starting point should be analysing whether Tigné or other areas in Malta have the necessary infrastructure to support such high-rise developments.”
How can you accept a planning application without any analysis on sewage and drainage?
“It is a sham that the PA accepts such development applications without the necessary impact assessments having taken place.
“How can you accept a planning application without any analysis on sewage and drainage, and without a social impact study? Does this mean residents do not matter anymore? This is a sham; it goes totally against the concept of holistic and sustainable planning.
“We have an authority that seems to work to facilitate things for developers and which does not question impact assessments. Such studies are not a rubber stamp facility. One should engage with these assessments.”
Without such studies, it was impossible for stakeholders such as the local council to engage with the developers and authorities, Dr Briguglio insisted.
Transport Malta, he added, was not even capable of running a bus lane, as it was often occupied by unauthorised vehicles.
Given this, he questioned whether the transport watchdog was capable of coming up with a holistic plan to ensure Sliema did not end up in “one big traffic jam”.
The Sliema local council is a registered objector to the Townsquare project. The council is adamant that Sliema’s present infrastructure cannot support more cars.
The project’s developers were supposed to present a green transport plan but this has yet to materialise.
“Apart from the environmental issue which is very important and is of utmost concern to me, there is also a question of governance. How can we have an authority which does not do its job?
“We are not asking the authority to do anything beyond its remit, we are basically asking the authority to do its job. If the authority is not capable of doing that, we have a serious governance problem.”
The development application for the Townsquare project was originally filed in 2005. Asked if the local council has engaged with the developer, Dr Briguglio said various meetings had been held over the years.
“Several months ago we asked the developer to hold a meeting with residents so that there can be dialogue on this issue. You cannot force the developers to do something they do not want to do.
“They would be able to explain their plans in the meeting and allow residents to raise their concerns. My gut feeling is that if an open meeting was not held and a social impact assessment was not carried out, the authority and developers know there are many angry and disappointed residents,” Dr Briguglio pointed out.
Transport Malta is not even capable of running a bus lane
He was non-committal when asked about the positive impact of such a project, saying an economic impact assessment should have been carried out in order to answer that question.
He made it clear that he was not against the concept of a free market, wherein entrepreneurs take risks and reap the rewards, but added this must be done in a structured and regulated manner.
“I am in favour of the free market but I am also in favour of government regulation. The government has a responsibility to ensure the market works in a fair and sustainable manner.
“High-rises all over the place without the necessary infrastructure and demand for them can lead to sustainability problems and market problems. Some real estate experts are worried that if Malta is flooded by high-rise projects this could lead to a crash in property prices.
“Just because someone wants to invest in something does not give them an automatic right to do so.
“In the case of high-rises, even though Townsquare is private property, that does not mean that the developer can do what they want. The Tigné policy and floor area policy serve as a facility for high-rises; it does not mean high-rises have to be there.”
Echoing a concern voiced by Finance Minister Edward Scicluna, Dr Briguglio said that by relying solely on mega developments, the country risked putting all its eggs in one basket.
He pointed at the lack of progress made at Manoel Island by developer Midi, which is currently searching for a partner in order to go ahead with the €500 million development.
Manoel Island is a “mess” at the moment and should serve as a warning to other developers.
Dr Briguglio drove home the point that the Sliema local council was not opposing developments just for the sake of it.
“When the local council comments on planning applications, we are not trying to block development, we are trying to ensure that it is as sustainable and Sliema-friendly as possible.”
Though it was already too late for Sliema in certain aspects, the government was still in time to see that proper sustainable planning was placed ahead of the individual interests of big business.

Monday, June 27, 2016

An Icelandic Summer

A few weeks ago Leicester City won the English premier football league against all odds. From an unfashionable club which had just avoided relegation in the preceding season, Leicester won the league with a relatively inexpensive football team.
Their star players during the season included goalie Kaspar Schmeichel – erstwhile known as the son of Danish legend Peter Schmeichel, England Forward James Vardy, who was busy scoring in non-League football some years ago, and Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez, who, according to legend had never heard of Leicester’s football team before being signed by them in 2014.
There was also a certain Claudio Ranieri, whose career as football manager was all but written off before joining Leicester at the beginning of the season. The rest is history. 
Leicester happens to have a population of 330,000 – the same as Iceland, the northernmost nation of Europe – 100,000 less than Malta, Europe’s southern-most country.
Iceland has become the hottest word in the current Euro 2016 tournament. Even if England eliminates them, they have already exceeded all expectations by qualifying for the tournament and reaching the knock-out stage.  They are the smallest nation ever to qualify for this tournament.
It seems that in the cases of Iceland and Leicester, population size and their blue shirts are not the only similarities. In a world of Ronaldos and Ibrahimovics, both teams are proud of squad unity ahead of primadonna football. Their best footballers are not individually more important than the team’s collective spirit.
Some of Iceland’s national team players form part of overseas clubs, such as Swansea, Udinese, Cesena, Kaiserslautern, Nantes, Goteborg and Basel. Prestigious? Yes, but surely not comparable to the ultra-rich league of Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United.
Iceland’s qualification for the European championship included two victories against the Netherlands and one victory each against the Turks and the Czechs.
The harsh climate only permits four months of outdoor football every year. This does not hinder Icelanders’ love of football
This achievement wasn’t a one-off. Back in 1994, Iceland was ranked 37th in the FIFA rankings – already a huge success in itself. They didn’t qualify by a whisker for Euro 2004 and 2014’s FIFA World Cup. In 2015 they reached 23rd in the FIFA world rankings.
The above successes should be seen in a context of a country with harsh climate that only permits four months of outdoor football every year. This does not hinder Icelanders’ love of football. They have indoor football pitches which can be used during the entire year, and they have a qualified football coach for every 411 persons.
It is clear that their passion for the sport is matched by scientific research, forward-looking policy and investment.
Iceland has been achieving success in other sports such as handball, and also in culture and the arts.
Bjork is an incredible example in music. In the past two decades she has consistently been providing lovely music, reinventing herself along the way.
Beyond football, Iceland also consistently tops global standings on various social factors. According to the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programmed, Iceland is ranked 16th in the world, with very high marks in various areas such as gender equality, despite falling four places compared to 2014.
Of course, one has to keep in mind that country recently suffered an economic crisis, but it is weathering the storm through Nordic resilience.
Comparatively, Malta ranks 37th in the Human Development Index, up nine places from 2014. Both countries are considered to have very high human development. One notable difference between the two is expected years of schooling. Malta’s is 14.4, Iceland’s 19.
Some other curious facts. All Icelandic governments have to date been coalition governments, with two or more political parties involved. No political party has ever won a majority of parliamentary seats.
In 1980, Iceland elected the world first directly elected female head of state, and in 2009 the nation had the first openly gay head of government.
More recently, Iceland’s Prime Minister, resigned following his involvement in Panama Papers and the massive protests that followed.  Malta’s very own Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi did not seem impressed. 
By the way, in 14 football encounters, Iceland beat Malta 10 times. They drew once. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Rainbows and the dark

Just as gay pride was being celebrated in many countries around the world, terrible news of the terrorist attack in Orlando hit the global news headlines. The horrific mass murder of 49 persons in the gay nightclub reminded us that the achievements of the LGBTIQ movement around the world remain uneven.
An increasing number of countries, ranging from Malta to Belgium, from Argentina to Canada and from South Africa to Sweden, have been introducing policy reforms which legalise equality in various areas, from employment to family life.
Others, such as Russia and Uganda, have restrictive and oppressive policies, while some – such as Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia - can even resort to the death penalty to punish LGBTIQ persons.
Besides, as the US example has shown, in countries with progressive legislation homophobia is still present even when policies state otherwise.
Therefore, the call for equality from the gay rights movement remains vital, though applied differently in different contexts.
In this regard, Malta provides a very interesting case study about the impacts of its own gay rights movement. Suffice to say that from a European laggard, Malta has now become a European (and world) leader on LGBTIQ rights in a matter of few years.
How did this happen?
From a socio-cultural perspective, globalisation, Malta’s EU accession and cultural modernisation have made LGBTIQ issues more visible and acceptable to an increasingly reflexive and discerning public.
At the same time, however, the call for equality was spearheaded by the Malta Gay Rights Movement, which was established in 1999 and which has now become a major player in Maltese social and family policy.
It was not the only player in the field. The Green Party, for example, supported MGRM and prior to the 2013 general elections proposed same-sex marriage.
MGRM also wanted same-sex marriage but campaigned for civil unions, knowing that this would more likely be accepted by major political parties. Hence they produced a more consensual and moderate discourse to have political impact.
Globalisation, Malta’s EU accession and cultural modernisation have made LGBTIQ issues more visible and acceptable
Still, without the Green call for same-sex marriage there would have been much less of an electoral ‘threat’ for big parties to take up the matter. Yet, Gonzi’s Nationalist Party did not follow suit, but Muscat’s Labour successfully occupied a vacuum and progressively updated its policies along the way, with politicians such as Evarist Bartolo consistently supporting MGRM.
In the meantime, as LGBTIQ organisations such as Drachma and Gender Liberation proliferated, others such as Moviment Graffitti supported the cause. The independent press and various liberal and progressive voices in academia also gave legitimacy to such claims.
It would be far-fetched to say that Labour won the 2013 general election because of LGBTIQ issues. But this was surely part of Labour’s ‘moderate and progressive’ package which aimed to reconcile different – and at times contradictory – interests.
Subsequently, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat appointed Helena Dalli – a progressive sociologist – as minister responsible for such matters, and in turn, experts such as Silvan Agius – a former Green candidate and policy officer of the International Lesbian and Gay Association – helped formulate Malta’s forward-looking legislation in the field.
The current situation is now characterised by a situation where political parties simply have no choice but to support LGBTIQ equality, unless they want to miss out on voters who prioritise such issues.
Simon Busuttil’s presence in the recent Gay Pride is very symbolic in this regard. Gay Pride has transformed itself from a curious fringe event to a mainstream celebration. The President of Malta is also increasing legitimacy to the whole issue.
Is this to say that in Malta there is no longer room to discuss LGBTIQ issues? I disagree. To begin with, not everyone agrees with all policies in the field. Besides, one may agree with the ideological thrust of policies but favours more social dialogue to ensure greater consensus and that rights are matched with responsibilities in all areas.
Besides, cultural and legal changes do not mean that homophobia has sud-denly disappeared.
The above also does not mean Malta is now a progressive utopia. When it comes to good governance, development of land, low wages and precarious employment, the Labour government has a strong relationship - this time with big business - at the expense of the common good.

Friday, June 17, 2016

One-Person Parties

My friend Marco Cremona, who is now active in the newly formed Democratic Party, posted this on Facebook today:

"The only political party that you may agree with on everything is the one you set up for yourself. But even then, you may find that you sometimes disagree (and good that you do)."

I fully agree. 

In this regard, I note that some activists and opinionists who are not involved in political parties like to tell political parties (big and small) what to do and also to criticize various aspects of decision and non-decision making. The social media is an ideal forum for this purpose. In itself, this is a healthy exercise.

I think that the basic premise of such critique should be to recognize that politics is not only based on beliefs, but also on loyalties, networks, character traits, persuasion, the art of compromise, tactics and the social science of strategy building.

Parties are made up of their members, and of the interaction between democratic processes and dominant forces/discourses.

Armchair nihilists and/or political absolutists do not enhance dialogic democracy and the construction of hegemonic formations. They simply refuse to play by the rules which recognize the other.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Edward Scicluna's Warning

“Economic booms contain the seeds of their own destruction... None of Malta’s economic sectors should be allowed to overheat and reach overcapacity... Malta’s healthy growth needs to be managed to stop it developing into an unsustainable boom.”
These words were pronounced by Edward Scicluna, Malta’s Finance Minister, during a recent Finance Malta conference as reported by the Times of Malta.
Scicluna, an economist, warned against the “supermarket” mentality in the construction industry, whereby developers try to compete with large-scale projects irrespective of the demand.
Coming from the Minister of Finance, this statement has certain weight. It can be interpreted that within Labour’s Cabinet there are those who do not simply subscribe to an oligarchy which seems to be more interested in defending its short-term interests over the common good.
It also shows that one of the best performers of the current government is giving importance to sustainability.
Scicluna is not the first to put forward such views. In recent decades, these views were also pronounced by different voices within academia, civil society and politics.
It seems that Malta’s economic growth is a coin with two sides. On the one hand, this provides jobs and relative stability. On the other side, there is growing social inequality and environmental precariousness.
The latter could have a direct impact on the former if short-term economic considerations are treated like unquestionable dogma. Spain can teach us something about this.
Some relate such considerations to the ‘tragedy of the commons’, a concept proposed by Garret Hardin some decades ago, wherein short-term interests of free-riders could bring ruin to all.
Maltese land is seen by the construction industry as a resource to exploit, and little consideration is given to holistic, cumulative and long-term impacts
One can also go back to the texts of Nicos Poulantzas, who once wrote about the economic state apparatus and the way it functions. Were the Greek sociologist alive today, he would have plenty to write about if he considered Malta as a case study.
Indeed, Maltese governments have depended too much on the construction industry and vice-versa. One provided jobs and economic growth, and the other provides the necessary infrastructure, incentives and policies to facilitate matters. Often, the State also provides land at dirt-cheap prices for developers so that they can go on with the construction frenzy.
Hence Maltese land is seen by the construction industry as a resource to exploit, and little consideration is given to holistic, cumulative and long-term impacts of this. Corporate social responsibility and community investment remain buzzwords fit for propaganda but rarely seen in everyday life.
Take Manoel Island. The land was practically given to developers at a pittance and they simply stopped developing when they no longer saw it profitable to do so. In the meantime, much of the island is a rundown mess, with dirt and litter accumulating in various places, while other places are declared out of bounds for the public.
Take The Point. The pedestrianised square is now facing a huge building which has practically blocked the sea view for visitors. As long as an extra buck is made, the commons comes second.
Take Fort Cambridge. The same developers who want to develop a 40-storey skyscraper in violation of the original development brief, have left parts of the surrounding area looking like a shanty-town, with wires, bricks and other eyesores all over the place.
In the meantime, an environment planning study on development in the area warns that residents could be elbowed out of Tignè and Qui-si-sana.
I can go on with other similar examples around Malta. It is difficult to predict if and when this economic bubble will burst. Yet, in the meantime, the general public is bearing the brunt of overdevelopment, loss of public space, construction nuisance and traffic problems.
The public is also subsidising such big developers. Arthur Gauci, CEO of Seabank, could not have put it better, when he told the Times of Malta the following words regarding the proposed development on public land at St George’s Bay:
“If we were to pay commercial rates for the land, a hotel on its own would never be viable. The numbers just don’t add up.”

Thursday, June 09, 2016

ODZ is political, not merely technical

The environment is a political issue as much as it is an technical and scientific issue. Hence I support proposals that add another layer of democratic scrutiny in addition to Planning Authority approval, as is the current PN proposal to have an additional 2/3 parliamentary majority apart from PA approval when it comes to ODZ, so as to make it as difficult as possible to have such development. 

The PN is not the first party to use such a logic. In its 2013 general election manifesto, Alternattiva Demokratika The Green Party used a similar logic when it proposed the introduction of local referenda on projects deemed controversial by local councils or residents, with parliament assuming responsibility for decisions taken.

Front Harsien ODZ, Flimkien ghall-Ambjent Ahjar, Din l-Art Helwa and Civil Society Network are also using this logic in their position on ODZ. The Nationalist Party's proposal on the matter is a big step in the right direction and through fine tuning it can be totally in synch with what NGOs are saying. I hope progressive political parties will co-own this proposal so that there may be a national consensus. 

Of course, it is then up to the public to elect politicians and parties which are really in favour of environmental protection. 

Monday, June 06, 2016

Mutiny in the Labour Party?

Not everything seems to be sailing smoothly aboard the Labour Party. For a starter, scientific surveys are showing that its 36,000 vote majority has all but disappeared.
Yet it might also be evident that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is facing an internal problem of diminishing authority in view of his staunch defence – or powerlessness – over Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri.
Traditionally, Labour’s structure has been hierarchical and rather lacking in pluralism. Everyone is expected to toe the party line and there is a strong sense of loyalty even when policy U-turns are pronounced.
And discipline needn’t be imposed from above – party members regulate themselves on behalf of the party’s greater good.
One can say that this is an iron law of all political parties and institutionalised organisations, and to a certain extent this is true. But surely, Labour, and its loyal ally GWU, prove the point.
But is the party now taking things too far? Party machines are made up of people after all. And even in the most authoritarian of structures, people still have the possibility to think and to communicate.
People can choose. Of course, choice is related to different pressures, influences, experiences and motives, ranging from the rational to the emotional, but still, it exists.
And here lie some interesting choices made by different distinguished Labourites in the past weeks. I will not elaborate on Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi’s respective choices to cling to power despite Panama Papers, nor of Joseph Muscat’s choice to defend the duo at all costs, even at the risk of sinking with them when political judgement day arrives.
Instead, I will hereby write about some pronouncements made by other distinguished Labourites in the past days. And coming from a party which, as I said previously, is rather monolithic in its discourse, such pronouncements may be very significant.
Choice is related to different pressures, influences, experiences and motives, ranging from the rational to the emotional
First, Evarist Bartolo. Through parliamentary intervention, Facebook posts and comments to the press, the Minister of Education and Employment has expressed unease on the Panama Papers issue and related topics such as regulation of offshore investment. At times he was clear, at other times he used metaphors to explain his unease.
Second, Edward Scicluna. The Finance Minister took immediate action to suspend a civil servant from the Inland Revenue Department because of a spouse’s company linked to Panama Papers, which was opened before they got married.
Using the same yardstick, Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi should be suspended by Muscat, especially when they opened their respective controversial companies after they became Prime Minister’s chief of staff and minister respectively. Was Scicluna’s decision to suspend the civil servant a message to the Prime Minister regarding how things should be done?
Third, Edward Zammit Lewis. Some days after Malta woke up to read of the shocking mega-project at St George’s Bay, the Minister of Tourism made it clear that the Institute of Tourism Studies will only move out of St George’s Bay once work on a campus and hotel at Smart City are completed in 2019.
The ministry’s statement might just have been a clarification. But it might also have been a sign of defiance to decisions taken high up within the oligarchy.
Fourth, Alfred Sant.
The former prime minister and current member of the European Parliament can be criticised on various grounds, however, he surely was instrumental in the modernising of Labour and in the cleaning up of the party from violent and criminal elements. And he recently made it clear that Mizzi should go.
These distinguished politicians all happen to be among the top performers of today’s Labour Party. Then there are other Labour politicians such as Helena Dalli, Jose’ Herrera, Louis Grech and Leo Brincat who have not gone out of their way to defend Mizzi and Schembri. And again, these politicians happen to be among Labour’s best elements. Hence, their silence is significant.
Of course, there are those who did go out of their way to defend the Panama Papers protagonists, and these include two of the deputy leadership contenders, namely Chris Cardona and Owen Bonnici. Will their tactical choices pay off politically?
(Picture: Robert Dodd:  The mutineers turning Lt Bligh and some of the officers and crew adrift from His Majesty's Ship Bounty, 1789)

Hegemonic Formations and Social Change

A hegemonic formation - whether on a macro or micro level - can be replaced by another, formed by a relatively stable fixing of plural discourses. Sectarianism and absolutism hinder this.

Further reading: 

·                     Howarth, D. (2000): Discourse. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
·                     Howarth, D. (2004): ‘Hegemony, political subjectivity and radical democracy’, in Critchley S. and Marchart O. (Eds.): Laclau: A critical reader, pp.256-276Routledge: London.  
·                     Howarth, D. and Stavrakakis, Y. (2000): ‘Introducing discourse theory and political analysis’, in Howarth, D., Norval, A.J., and Stavrakakis, Y. (eds.):Discourse Theory and Political Analysis: Identities, Hegemonies and Social Change, pp.1-23. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
·                     Laclau, E. (2005) On Populist Reason. London: Verso.
·                     Laclau, E. (2014): The Rhetorical Foundations of Society. London: Verso
·                     Laclau E. and Mouffe C. (1985): Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards A Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.
·                     Mouffe, C. (2005): On the Political. London: Routledge.
·                     Mouffe, C. (2013): Antagonistics. London: Verso