Monday, September 26, 2016

Proposals for the budget

According to the government, the upcoming Budget will be targeting ‘prosperity with social justice’. Finance Minister Edward Scicluna has stated that government’s aim is to keep reducing the deficit while guaranteeing a decent standard of living for everyone.
Scicluna has also highlighted that Malta’s economic growth rate can determine how soon Malta can converge with major European economies.
An objective analysis of Malta’s performance in this regard can highlight various strengths of the current direction of the economy: more people are entering gainful employment, unemployment is on the decrease, the deficit seems to be under control and growth rates are in the EU elite league. This is no mean feat, especially when one considers the economic and social angst faced in most of our southern European neighbours. Welfare-to-work schemes ranging from free childcare for working parents to training seem to be paying off, though fine-tuning is always required. Publication of data and social-scientific analyses on all welfare-to-work schemes would shed more light on their individual performance.
What is less certain is whether Malta’s energy direction will reap what was promised by Konrad Mizzi. It is still unclear whether the new power station is really required given the supply of energy from the interconnector between Malta and Sicily. In this regard, one should also keep in mind Malta’s international energy commitments on emissions and energy use.
Another characteristic of Malta today is unevenness in various sectors. Our transport sector is a laggard in aspects ranging from emissions from junk cars to poor maintenance of infrastructure. Local councils are underfunded, and evidence-based policy making is not mainstreamed.
The Maltese economy is also over-reliant on construction projects, and the decision-making process is tilted towards the demands of oligarchs and partisan priorities over the longer-term good. Prof. Scicluna himself recently warned against over-reliance on construction projects.
All in all, it seems that there is a lot of anticipation for progressive social measures in the upcoming budget. This does not only result from the government’s declared priorities, but also from what is being demanded by various voices in civil society.
Indeed, despite Malta’s positive economic performance, there are concerns that that the results are not inclusive enough. An increase in the minimum wage and pensions could help out those who do not seem to be benefitting as much as others from Malta’s positive economic performance. Pensions’ long-run sustainability should also be given priority.
It seems that there is a lot of anticipation for progressive social measures in the upcoming budget
Yet there is no universal consensus on the need for such increases, and this does not only include opposition from employers’ associations, but also from some major trade unions.  Their main argument is that Malta can lose out on competitiveness should such increases take place.
In this regard, the least that one expectsis a comprehensive discussion withinthe Malta Council for Economic andSocial Development, where clear evidence is put forward to help inform sustainablepolicy-making.
Government can also consider upward revisions in tax brackets for low-income earners as well as commencing a process to update Malta’s cost-of-living and pension indices. Here one should keep in mind that despite its EU-approved methodology, the rate of inflation calculated by the National Statistics Office does not correspond to the inflation rate experienced by low income earners.
Government should also introduce concrete measures to tackle precarious employment, which also includes the exploitation of foreign workers in the black economy. Here one should keep in mind that there are workers in areas ranging from ‘Chinese’ massage parlours to the collection of waste whose jobs are beyond the reach of trade unions. Such workers do not seem to be benefiting from decent working conditions.
Another area which is seldom referred to but which requires much attention has to do with low pay in caring jobs. The situation becomes worse when workers are employed on a part-time basis. It simply does not do justice to have high responsibilities and low pay.
Last but not least, the time has come for the government to address affordability discrepancies in the housing market. Again, I hope that MCESD discusses this issue in an informed way.
Notwithstanding MCESD discussions, however, the fact that Malta is moving closer towards a general election will probably influence the timing of certain budgetary decisions.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Manoel Island, Gzira Council and the Government

Tomorrow, KEA and the Gzira Local Council will be organizing a protest to claim access to the island's foreshore. The protest very much captures the mood of many people who are concerned with Malta's overdevelopment, and is a build up of activism in the past days on this same issue. 

In reply, MIDI's CEO Luke Coppini has written that MIDI has contractual obligations with the Government. 

Malta's legislation is clear about access to the foreshore, and Government also has contractual obligations with MIDI. It is now up to Government take action on the MIDI foreshore and up to the court (if necessary, and if asked to do so) to give a ruling, unless some form of consensual agreement is reached.  The ball is therefore now in Government's court. 

Incidentally, the Planning Authority recently approved development on the Gzira promenade. Only 2 metres of passageway will be left in the area making way for a private lido. 

As regards calls for the 'opening up' of Manoel Island, I think that one should be clear about what this means. If it means creating a 'family park',  this requires Government intervention, especially in view of Government's contract with MIDI. This goes way beyond having access to the foreshore. 

On a national level this had been proposed by a political party (Alternattiva Demokratika - The Green Party) in 2012. The following links refer: 

Should the Gzira Local Council be proposing to the Government to intervene to create a 'family park', it must discuss this in an official council meeting and decide accordingly. The public and the press have a right to attend local council meetings. 

Should the Gzira Local Council agree to propose to Government to create a family park in Manoel Island, it will then be up to Government to take action.  Again, it will be up to the court (if necessary, and if asked to do so) to interpret the issue with regard to Government's contract with MIDI.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Greek gifts in Gzira

The non-violent direct action carried out by Kamp Emerġenza Ambjent (KEA) at Manoel Island was a welcome breath of fresh air in terms of environmental politics in this country.
The KEA activists basically enabled access to the foreshore of Manoel Island. The foreshore is public, yet access to it has been sealed by the developers, MIDI.
Apart from access to the lovely beach at Manoel Island in this specific case, this type of activism has two major impacts.
First of all, through colourful and spectacular action, it can raise public awareness on certain issues.
This does not mean that direct action will always enjoy such public support. But in the case of Manoel Island, the support was widespread. The island has been rendered to a glorified junk yard, with MIDI’s property sealed off amid a lack of social responsibility. One needn’t be a radical environmentalist to have rage against such parcelling out of Malta’s heritage and public domain.
The second major impact of such activism is internal. Even if a specific campaign is not won, a sense of belonging can be created among activists. If this proves to be resilient to internal and external challenges, it can help create a stronger environmentalist community.
Another interesting dimension of environmental activism is the way in which it is portrayed by the media in Malta’s present political context.
The independent media generally has favourable coverage of different types of environmental activism, whether it comes from KEA or from more moderate ENGOs such as Din l-Art Ħelwa. Independent media also plays an instrumental role in raising awareness and reporting on various environmental issues. Malta’s largest ever environmental protest – the one organised by Front Ħarsien ODZ in 2015 –benefitted from favourable coverage from such media. This included constant coverage in the run up to the actual protest.
What really struck me with regard to KEA’s opening up of Manoel Island was the favourable coverage it obtained from state television and Labour media
Then there is the media owned by the Nationalist Party. Whether out of conviction or out of political opportunism, this media is also giving much coverage to environmental activism. A similar stance was adopted by the Labour Party media when the reds were in opposition. In both cases, media coverage did not always tally with what the respective political masters were promising to different interest groups.
What really struck me with regard to KEA’s opening up of Manoel Island was the favourable coverage it obtained from state television and Labour media (including the media of the GWU).  The activists were portrayed positively and as being in the good company of the Labour mayor of Gżira.
Maybe one can argue that the appointment of John Bundy as CEO at PBS represents a culture change in the reporting of such activism. Or that the inews portal is realising that the environment matters to many voters, including those who thought that Labour would improve green governance.
Will such positive coverage by Labour-friendly media persist in other environmental issues? If yes, we would suddenly be experiencing a move away from the recent negative portrayal of environmentalists by Labour spin-doctors. We all know the untruthful tune of this tactic: environmental activism was inexistent under previous administrations, environmentalists are blue secret agents, and so forth.
This takes us to a more critical – and cynical – reading of the sudden interest in Manoel Island by the Labour-friendly media. And here one should really keep in mind that Joseph Muscat’s Labour Party is a master of media strategy.
What if the Manoel Island activism was used by such media as a decoy to steer away attention from other issues which are subject to imminent decisions? These may include the Mrieħel and Townsquare controversies. Both will very soon be subject to appeals by ENGOs, and in the case of the latter, also by Sliema local council and the Environment Resources Authority.
Which reminds me of Trojan horses. As the saying goes, beware gifts from the Greeks.
If the government supports the demands of such activism, and if it really wants to give a genuine gift to the public, it has the opportunity to do so. How about actually guaranteeing public access to the foreshore all around Malta, as enshrined in Malta’s law?
The analysis of this issue can also be complemented by some other remarks made on the social media. I will refer to 2 specific comments made on Facebook. 
1. James Vella Clark (15 September): "In politics, timing is key. Strangely enough, there's hardly any talk about Sliema and Mrieħel towers now that we have this Manoel Island saga.....courtesy of PL mayor of Gżira.."
2. James Debono (19 September): "There could also be an interest in labour quarters to push MIDI to sell to someone else"
To which I add, 
1. Yes indeed, I too argued along the same lines on 11 September, as it was interesting to note how certain media outlets in the Labour orbit were suddenly enthusiastic about environmental activism. And this itself raises further questions. For example, what do Johnny-come-latelys have to say about other issues related to access to foreshore, to the MIDI project and to similar development projects in general? I am still awaiting a reply from the Mayor of Gzira as to whether he agrees with the 2012 proposal by the Green Party on the Manoel Island development. I asked him this specifically on Facebook on 15 September 2016.   
2. What if there is interest by certain competitors to have less competition in the property market?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Sliema Strand has become a cowboy's paradise

Malta Today 17 September 2016

Yet another terrible accident at the Sliema/Gzira Strand has taken place. 

A 50-year old woman has been run over by a car and is in critical condition. Just a few weeks ago a 26-year old man died after being run over by another car on the same road. 

Such accidents have their own individual merits, and I will not go into this. 

But I want to remind everyone that Transport Malta recently decided to keep traffic lights permanently flashing on amber. The Strand is now a dangerous free-for-all devoid of responsible traffic management.

The official reason for this, and I am quoting  correspondence during this Summer between TM officials and myself as Sliema Local Councillor, was that "The pedestrian crossings along The Strand where switched to flashing amber by order of the Roads Department due to the works at Kappara junction. This was done in order to relieve traffic At the moment we are looking into the option of activating the crossings in the evenings, to at least be able to provide a safe crossing during that time". 

As everyone knows, this was not followed up by TM. So don't hold your breath to wait till the traffic lights are turned to their normal function so as to safeguard pedestrians and cyclists' safety.

TM are also aware of the dangerous situation on the bus lane at the Strand, where cowboys frequently zigzag and accelerate into it at all times of the day so as to avoid traffic. Again, I have been raising this issue with Transport Malta and the press for quite some time, yet TM stubbornly refuses to take action. 

Like many other Sliema residents, I pass from this road every day, and I have never seen wardens or TM officials stop drivers irregularly using the bus lane. Many moons after the authorities were asked by Sliema Local Council on how many tickets were given on this matter in preceding months, we finally received a reply. The grand total number of tickets given was 12. Yes, 12. 

Anyone who frequents the strand that 12 cars abuse the bus lane every five minutes. 

TM's crass irresponsibility has rendered the Strand to a highway of permanent danger.  And let us keep in mind that the Strand is full of other irregularities: ticketing booths, tables and chairs irregularly occupying walking space. Vendors permanently usurping parking spaces. A public car park characterized by private revenue for parkers. 

In short, the Strand is a cowboy's paradise. 

Who will take political responsibility for this?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Workers in the community

“For the first time in history, the unemployment rate in Malta dropped to under four per cent”. This triumphant statement was made by the Department of Information last month. Technically speaking, the statement is correct. At 3.9 per cent, Malta’s unemployment rate also happens to be the lowest in the European Union.
Just as the government was busy promoting this achievement, the Times of Malta published some facts that shed further light on the matter.
Basically, it transpired that the newly-launched Community Work Scheme Enterprise Foundation absorbed 567 long-term unemployed individuals from the 4,033 registered unemployed, thus resulting in a downward revision of Malta’s official unemployment rate.
This move was carried out by the Jobs Plus agency (the former Employment and Training Corporation) and these people are now being paid the minimum wage, courtesy of the taxpayer.
They are full-time employees - “so far, for five years” - with the public service in a scheme run by the General Workers’ Union. They are said to perform tasks with local councils, carry out maintenance work at schools and other public entities and assist NGOs.
The Ministry for Education and Employment has hailed this initiative as one which provides “experience and skill-building rather than fixed employment, while individuals are helped in the process of finding work in the private sector”.
Is this initiative justified or not?
The Community Work Scheme requires visibility, transparency, accountability and auditing
I think there are different ways at looking at this issue and these are not necessarily exclusive of each other.
One interpretation would welcome this initiative as one that gives dignity to people who were otherwise unemployable and who are now being productive instead of welfare dependent.
This would be in synch with the social policy perspective known as welfare-to-work. Here, people are incentivised towards employment. Other schemes along these lines include the tapering of benefits for persons who enter employment, the provision of universal childcare facilities for working parents and investment in training for unemployed workers.
This interpretation is being put forward by the government but can easily be supported by those – myself included - who believe in a progressive social policy that aims to empower people.
Yet, another interpretation would suggest investigating what is actually being carried out by these workers. Are they really being productive and is their work being audited?
In this regard, some local councils have complained that workers are giving less output than what is expected from full-timers. This is quite common in similar schemes, which have been in place under different administrations.
Whether such workers are productive or not depends on various factors, ranging from their attitude to the type of jobs they are being assigned.
Local councils rely on goodwill and the power of persuasion because ultimate authority over such workers lies elsewhere.
A more cynical interpretation of such schemes would enquire whether the jobs and conditions given to the workers are in any way related to constituency requirements of respective ministers and other politicians in government.
And, sometimes, ministers might feel jealous when rising star candidates from local councils are performing well, especially if they are deemed to be competitors in general elections.
Finally, another interpretation of this initiative would be that the government is carrying out an exercise of creative accounting, which conveniently lowers the official unemployment rate.
This interpretation has its strengths but one should also keep in mind that Malta’s private sector keeps creating thousands of new jobs, to the benefit of Malta’s economy. Yet, paradoxically, there are also many workers who are experiencing increased hardships due to low wages.
In my view, the Community Work Scheme is in itself a good idea. But it requires visibility, transparency, accountability and auditing, especially since it is financed through public expenditure. Entities using the service of its workers should also have a greater say in its operations and implementation.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Privacy versus Security

Should policymakers give priority to privacy or to security? This question represents a key quandary of our times.  Reference to the film Jason Bourne, one of the global blockbusters of 2016, would help to illustrate this dilemma.
I will not discuss the entire plot of the film, nor the entire series, whether on film or in its original novel format. I will refer to a subplot which deals with the privacy vs security quandary.
In the film, CIA director Robert Dewey requires usage of the social media for mass surveillance against enemies of the state such as terrorists. He is scheduled to attend a public debate with Aaron Kalloor, the CEO of social media giant Deep Dream to discuss this issue.
Kalloor thinks otherwise and insists that the right to users’ privacy is sacred in the internet age. Yet he has a big problem. He had received secret funds from Dewey, and thus risks losing all legitimacy on his claims.
This subplot then develops to a spectacular climax, which is beyond the remit of my article.
That state agencies around the real world are involved in surveillance is no news. Actually, we are also experiencing the opposite too, when hacktivists like Wikileaks expose state secrets.
Surveillance also takes place for commercial purposes. And it seems that no social media site is free from this practice.
Take WhatsApp Messenger. This smartphone service has recently declared a user base of over one billion clients worldwide, and for many, its services are increasingly replacing SMS and phone calls. Through WhatsApp, one can freely send text messages, documents, images, videos, audio messages and locations to other users.
Like Aaron Kalloor in Jason Bourne, WhatsApp was originally committed to ensure that its data is private. When the company was purchased by Facebook in 2014 for $19.3 billion, the company emphasised that “respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA, and we built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible”.
What if the ‘good life’ is threatened? Would we be ready to sacrifice some privacy to be more secure?
Yet, anyone using WhatsApp knows that this promise now seems to be jeopardised. A few weeks ago it transpired that it will start giving information to Facebook. The latter will be able to see WhatsApp users’ phone numbers, thus allowing the tracking of people who use both sites, and ultimately providing information for ads.
It is now being argued that even those opting out of WhatsApp’s new terms are not exempt from the sharing of information from one company to the other. Before one concludes that there is some global conspiracy to brainwash internet users, one should keep in mind that such sharing of information may be for legitimate use, such as combating spam. But where is the line going to be drawn?
In the meantime, in another parallel with Jason Bourne, the US government and Apple were recently entangled in a controversy on access to data in terrorists’ phones.
Across the Atlantic, France and Germany have recently been reported as wanting the EU to force technology companies to provide access to private messages. The two countries, which have experienced terrorist attacks in the recent past, reportedly want access to such information so as to monitor suspected terrorists.
And this takes us back to the privacy vs security paradox of our times. Is surveillance of internet users acceptable? In the affirmative, to what extent should this be allowed? And who is to decide on this?
Liberal democracies such as those in the EU give priority to civil liberties such as the right to privacy and individuality. Irrespective of one’s social background, one has the right to one’s identity so long as it is within the remits of law. This is a key aspect of the ‘good life’ which makes Western societies so attractive worldwide.
Yet, what if the ‘good life’ is threatened?  Would we be ready to sacrifice some privacy to be more secure?
I think that a key factor in this quandary is trust in democracy and state institutions.
The same governments which try to balance out privacy with security should ensure that governance is accountable, transparent and based on evidence. As we can see, good governance has rami­fications on our most basic interactions in everyday life.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Book Launch - Sociology of the Maltese Islands

Official Book Launch

Sociology of the Maltese Islands, Edited by Michael Briguglio & Maria Brown
Published by Miller

Hon Evarist Bartolo, Minister for Education and Employment will be launching the book. The panel will also consist of sociologist Angele Deguara, and journalist James Debono who will chair. 

The book will be available for sale during the launch. The panel discussion will be followed by a reception. 

Sociology of the Maltese Islands provides a broad sociological introduction to various areas of Maltese society currently featuring in public and scholarly debate and research. 

This book may be of interest to a wide range of students, including undergraduates, students at post-secondary level, as well those carrying out research at post-graduate level.

Researchers, policy makers, politicians, journalists, activists and the general public may find this book useful for the provision and scholarly review of data and debates on key issues, areas and concepts relevant to contemporary Maltese society.

Edited by Michael Briguglio and Maria Brown. Includes contributions by Godfrey Baldacchino. Angela Abela, Katya DeGiovanni, Joanne Cassar, Marvin Formosa, Maja Miljanic Brinkworth, Nathalie Grima, Maria Brown, Ruth Baldacchino, JosAnn Cutajar, Brenda Murphy, Marceline Naudi, Peter Mayo, Manwel Debono, Saviour Rizzo, George Cassar, Valerie Visanich, Noel Agius, Michael Briguglio, Mary Grace Vella, Silvan Agius, Helena Dalli, Ian Bugeja, Jacqueline Azzopardi, Mario Vassallo, Carmen Sammut.

Date: Thursday 6 October
Time: 7pm-9pm
Gateway Hall E, University of Malta

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