Dad, political sociologist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Update on my role as local councillor

As from today I am representing the Partit Nazzjonalista in Sliema Local Council. This follows after an official request which I sent to PN General Secretary Rosette Thake last week.

I formally joined the PN as a member last May, after resigning from Alternattiva Demokratika. I was elected in Sliema Local Council in 2003, 2006, 2012 and 2013.

I will keep being active for good governance, the environment and social justice.

News report available here.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Social impacts in Siggiewi

A few days ago Siġġiewi residents protested against a social housing project that will host 84 new units in the middle of a residential area. Mayor Alessia Psaila Zammit invited me to address the meeting in my capacity as sociologist, which I did.
Unfortunately there were no government or Labour Party representatives present, despite being invited to attend. It seems that the government is busier pronouncing the Siġġiewi project through a propaganda advert featuring cheerleaders. I assume that this is being accompanied with patronage through incumbency.
I find it very sad when local issues which concern residents are simply boycotted by elected local councillors simply because their party is in government. There are notable exceptions though – the Gżira mayor being a case in point.
To be fair, one may legitimately ask why a social housing project should be opposed by residents, who, after all, chose the same area for their residence. I believe that the answer to this legitimate question is twofold.
First. The area might be ghettoised. When a large housing project is filled in by people in a short space of time, this might have a myriad of consequences. Some are obvious, like an increase in traffic, parking problems and over-congestion. Another possible consequence, though unintended, relates to social dysfunction.
A sudden influx of social housing applicants might lead to stigma, especially when existing residents were not consulted by authorities. It could lead to segregation between regular residents and the newcomers, or between the newcomers themselves. This is especially the case when such people do not know each other and suddenly all have to get used to their new situations.
Classic sociologist Emile Durkheim had referred to the sudden change in people’s conditions as “anomie”, wherein people may find it difficult to cope, thus resulting in adverse social consequences.
In this regard, did the government consider smaller housing projects and alternative housing schemes, which disperse social housing applicants in different parts of Malta? This could possibly facilitate matters in terms of integration and impacts on existing residents. Rather than creating state-sponsored pockets of poverty, the government and local councils could work together to build social inclusion and integration through more ‘invisible’ social housing, education, social facilities and so forth.
My second reply has to do with evidence-based policymaking. I have good reason to believe that the government frequently takes decisions in certain areas which have got to do more with short-term electoral concerns rather than longer-term priorities and outcomes.  The Siġġiewi project seems to be no exception.
Indeed, did the government commission a social impact assessment? This could provide valuable evidence.
I would expect such an assessment to verify the impacts of development on existing and prospective communities. It should establish a community profile, engage with residents and other stakeholders and look at the impacts of similar housing projects elsewhere.
A proper social impact assessment should also verify and identify alternatives, cumulative impacts and mitigation measures. It should be peer-reviewed by experts, and not by partisan appointees who may not be experts in the field.
Hence, I would expect the government to justify its choice of such a massive housing project with evidence, rather than through propaganda adverts.
Beyond the immediate plans in Siġġiewi, the government can also look at good practices of social housing around the world. For example, in Vienna, around 25 per cent of the housing stock is owned by the government, and rent is comparatively lower than that of similar cities. But social housing is not restricted to low-income residents, and much ghettoisation is avoided.
This example is also followed in some other cities around the world. To the contrary, cities which segregate poor people in housing projects, such as some infamous examples in some American cities, have negative outcomes in terms of poverty and crime.
And this takes us to the government’s self-professed social conscience. Is this conscience really so strong when Malta is experiencing an increase of working poor people whose wages are simply outclassed by increasing prices in rental market? As long as demand, especially from foreign residents increases, and as long as the government keeps adopting a laissez-faire approach, the situation for such people seems bleak.
Will they apply for social housing?

Friday, September 15, 2017

Grazzi Simon

Diskors ta' ringrazzjament lil Simon Busuttil
Michael Briguglio
Konvenzjoni PN 15 ta' Settembru 2017

Kieku mhux ghal Simon Busuttil, jien m’inix qieghed hawn fostkom.
Simon kien strumentali biex nappogga d-dhul ta’ Malta fl-UE.
Fil-kampanja biex nidhlu fl-UE, Simon kien il-vuci tar-raguni.
Haddiehor ma kellux fiducja fil-Maltin.
Ghall-kuntrarju, Simon kellu argumenti razzjonali, ragunati li jappellaw ghall-emozzjoni.
Ejjew nimmaginaw x’kien jigri li kieku ma dhalniex fl-UE.
Minflok, pajjizna gheleb il-krizi ekonomika, anke ghax grazzi ghal Laurence Gonzi, pajjizna issieheb fil-Euro.
Simon kien strumentali biex nissieheb fil-PN.
Dan sar permezz ta’ vjagg politiku li wassalni hawnhekk.
Meta jien kont immexxi l-AD, Simon u jien iltqajna f’dibattiti fuq it-TV, u dejjem irrispettajna lil xulxin.
Kellna simpatija lejn xulxin u qisu qbilna li dnub li m’ahniex fl-istess partit.
Eventwalment Simon, bl-ikbar sens ta’ servizz u sagrificcju, dahal ghall-kariga ta’ mexxej Nazzjonalista.
Fl-iktar mument difficli.
Halla r-rwol prestigjuz li kellu fil-Parlament Ewropew.
Simon huwa politiku ta’ karattru.
Wara li sar mexxej tal-PN, u wara li jien irrizenjajt minn mexxej tal-AD, Simon stedinni nindirizza l-ewwel konvenzjoni li saret taht it-tmexxija tieghu.
Iltqajna kemm-il darba, u bl-istil gentili u kalm tieghu, ipperswadini biex nidhol fil-familja Nazzjonalista.
Meta faqqghu l-iskandli relatati mal-Panama Papers, ma stajtx naghmel mod iehor.
Kelli niehu pozizzjoni.
Dan ghamiltu mis-socjetà civili.
Izda eventwalment ghamilt ghazla hielsa li naghti daqqa t’id lill-Partit Nazzjonalista.
Simon steddinni biex nindirizza l-protesta nazzjonali fit-23 ta’ April li ghadda. Ghamilt dan mill-qalb.
Hbieb, jien ma dhaltx fil-PN ghax ridt xi haga, izda ghax ridt nikkontribwixxi.
U Simon ippersonifika dak li nemmen :
li nghix f’pajjiz normali, pajjiz Ewropew, pajjiz bil-governanza tajba, pajjiz gust. Pajjiz fejn il-politici huma nies normali, u mhux allat ’il fuq mil-ligi.
Simon huwa l-politiku Ewropew.
Ejjew naghmlu hilitina biex nimxu mal-ezempju tieghu.
Ejew naghmlu hilitina biex pajjizna jkollu oppozizzjoni b’sahhitha.
Ghax hekk tirrikjedi d-demokrazija.
Grazzi Simon.
Jien ser inkun fuq quddiem biex nimxi fuq l-ezempju tieghek.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Choosing the leader

Who should Nationalist Party members support in the leadership contest between Adrian Delia and Chris Said?
Before I write further, I have to highlight that I prefer Said, but I only arrived at this conclusion after a process where I met both candidates and analysed their speeches, policies and behaviour. Others may have done the same and reached different conclusions.
But perhaps there are members who are not sure who to support. I would therefore like to propose five criteria which can help in this regard. It is then up to the reader to decide accordingly.
The first criterion is charisma. Sociologist Max Weber once identified this type of authority as being characterised by “devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person”. In essence, here one is referring to one’s gravitas, one’s charm, the way one connects to people and to audiences.
Charismatic leaders can be democrats as well as dictators. Churchill and Hitler were both charismatic, but they had totally different goals. Once rules and norms start to be sidelined in favour of a leader’s charisma, democracy is in trouble. On the other hand, charisma can energise people, strengthening their sense of belonging to a cause. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is an example of a charismatic leader today.
The second criterion is experience. Here one may refer to a politician’s experience in elections, in governance, in party administration, in civil society, in political networking or volunteering. One may also refer to life experiences beyond politics, such as leadership in business or scholarly pursuits. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and current US President Donald Trump had no political experience before leading their respective parties and countries. But they had much experience in business. To the contrary, German Chancellor Merkel and former US President Obama rose through the political party ladders before leading their countries. So did Joseph Muscat, Dom Mintoff and Eddie Fenech Adami.
The third criterion is integrity. Here we are referring to character traits such as honesty, strong moral principles and ethical standards. A politician with integrity is active against corruption and favours good governance, transparency and accountability. Politicians without integrity usually face a tough time in modern liberal democracies. Integrity can result in trust and support, but the last Maltese general election has shown us that even a lack of integrity can be politically successful.
The fourth criterion is unity. Some leaders are divisive, others manage to unite different factions, interests and ideas. The former uses a more antagonistic language. The latter opts for reconciliation and compromise for the greater good. Unity does not mean that there are no political adversaries. But it values internal stability over absolutism and bickering. Above all, it prizes and respects the democratic process through give and take, procedure and transparent voting processes.
Then again, unity can be imposed through top-down military discipline. But this type of style is not usually associated with the Nationalist Party. Under Fenech Adami, the PN was united against its adversary. But it was also enrichedby different wings within its democra-tic structure.
The fifth criterion is leadership. There are many facets of good leadership. These may include how one manages to balance principles with pragmatism, authority with power and how to be respected and loved at the same time. It also has to do with how much one is a doer, a builder, a listener and a facilitator of ideas. Indeed, a leader is only as good as the people around him.
One may also opt to look at potential leaders in terms of opportunity and risk. Is it better to have a safe bet or a wide gamble? Do potential opportunities outweigh potential risks? Could known risks be managed, or do they represent a Pandora’s Box of uncertainty?
Finally, one can refer to two words being used in the leadership campaign: ‘new’ and ‘right’. Is newness necessarily better? What does it represent? Does it offer an alternative to the party in government? Is the right way politically effective, and can it be flexible? How about reconciling the right way with the new way?
This would help promote unity, help keep positive aspects of the party and renew where necessary.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

GUEST POST: What will you do with what we started?

By a Volunteer, PN 2017 Electoral Campaign

Dear Adrian and Chris, 

I've been involved in other election campaigns in the past, however the 2017 election was different. This time I was there for a cause. It was not just about electing a party into government, it was about being on the right side of things. 

My involvement started off as a minor contribution but as the events unfolded, what should have been a marketing think tank, ended up becoming the unofficial campaign group. Some of us had never been involved in the party before. Others had been there ever since. What kept us going was a strong belief that this time things had to change. 

By the end of it, we were leaving our base in the early morning hours and waking up again there. Some of us were clearly deprived of sleep. But it did not matter. The cause was much bigger. Every day we came across people who switched back. Some of these we never thought would ever do so, let alone help out and endorse PN publicly.

This really encouraged us to work harder. We turned ideas round at a speed we never imagined possible. We produced videos at a fraction of the normal production times. We were not alone in this. Our families had to be patient enough to go through it with us.

In hindsight it still remains a meaningful experience. Through it I learnt a lot.

I learnt that passion is key! The more people joined the volunteer team, the more I realized that what was common between us was the passion to prove to the world that Malta can do better and that our leaders should not be anywhere close to the allegations of corruption we have read about. (You could be legalistic about proof, or the lack of it, however I believe that it is simply lowering the standard of what an inspiring leader should be).

As a team we shared an aspiration to deliver a campaign like never before. We aimed to restore PN's reputation, as one which is closer to the people, and one which can continue shaping the lives of people as it has done in the past. We put in a lot of effort to do things in a different way...and we did. 

Behind us was the difficult experience the party had gone through in 2013. That defeat humbled the members of the party. Contrary to what some think, the party was very realistic on the prospects of it winning. We opted to not lose hope in context of an expected defeat. We banked on the supposedly undecided voter. If Simon Busuttil was courageous enough to leave his comfortable job as an MEP and do the crazy thing of trying to rebuild a party from the ground up, it would have been insulting to give up now. 

And in truth, why should we give up now? Why should you ever give up? The numbers do not do justice to the hard work that went into putting the party back on its feet. The outcome was surely not the result we worked hard for but that does not mean we were not on the right side of things.

The day after the 3rd of June we still believed we had started something meaningful, beautiful amidst the noise. We hoped that a lot of good will come out of this and that it definitely won't stop there. 

Hindsight offers a very comfortable view of what could have been done better, and rightly so. Many don't know that a week after the election result was announced, a group of volunteers started meeting regularly to prepare a list of learnings for the new administration to build on. I would say that 80% of the issues we listed came as no surprise and a set of weaknesses which probably even PL is aware of. 

Fast forward a few months later. What happened to what we started and what will you do with it if trusted to lead this party? A big chunk of us were there for the cause of what is right. Do we dismiss that a few weeks down the line simply because the vote did not come our way? What would have happened to Malta's accession in the European Union had our leaders moved away from this vision after the 1996 result?

Could it be that PN has still to learn how to be in opposition before it can get back to government. It is like changing jobs after years of working at the same company. Suddenly you have to learn new ways of doing things and you are not in your comfort zone anymore. 

To add to the complexity of the situation, in this case you did not change your job out of choice, you were made redundant and there is the hurt of tackling that as well. What do you do then? Do you dismiss the sense of purpose that made you get out of bed everyday. Wouldn't that make you like the average guy in the company and lessen your chances of making a notable difference? More importantly wouldn't that kill who you really are and bring to a halt what you started with such passion and conviction?

In the past weeks the momentum that the party had gained post election has been replaced by the hype around the leadership race. Some of the volunteers that campaigned together pre-election are now campaigning for you in one team or the other. 

This is not a sign of disunity and it highlights an important moment for the PN and for Malta. The new mindset and enthusiasm that either of you will bring along, will shape the party for the years to come. As in the case of the EU vision, it will shape what Malta will be like. 

I just hope that when the party regains the momentum (as hard as it will be), and if you ever ask me to help out again, I would have no difficulty in juggling work and family time for a meaningful cause, meaningful enough as what we started.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Why I am supporting Chris Said

Chris Said is an Angela Merkel, not a Donald Trump. He appeals to reason and reflection. Getting to support him is like a journey which eventually has a clear destination: One with strong roots and character.
I myself underwent a journey which eventually resulted in my support for Chris Said. In the past weeks I met both Adrian Delia and himself, as I value different views and evidence before deciding on something. Both contenders have strengths and weaknesses. But I believe that Chris is the better choice.
However, my first encounter with Chris goes back to the years when I was chairperson of Alternattiva Demokratika between 2009 and 2013. His ministerial duties included responsibility for the Malta-EU Steering Action Committee. During these meetings, Chris welcomed dialogue. He was at once convincing in his positions and ready to listen to advice from different stakeholders. I also met Chris on various other occasions and he was always decent, down-to-earth and warm. He spoke to you as a colleague, and not as some inferior species. He comes to you, and not vice versa. Essential qualities for a prime minister. 
His ministerial experience also showed that he never ran away from responsibility. And this includes taking responsibilities during public controversies. In such cases, some politicians take the honorable road and resign. Others do the opposite. Take Panama Papers: The Icelandic prime minister resigned immediately. Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri had their roles even more centralized within the Prime Minister’s Office. 
When Chris was embroiled in a controversy during his ministerial years, he immediately offered to resign even though he had done nothing wrong. Indeed, his name was cleared and he eventually re-assumed his role as minister. Chris is a servant of power, and not one who wants to monopolize it.  His politics is based on integrity. 
Chris’s politics is also based on thirty years’ experience. Being a local councillor myself, I associate myself with the importance he gives to local community life. Whether we are speaking about residents’ everyday concerns, elderly persons and mobility, young persons and their pastimes, or workers and their aspirations, Chris’s experience as mayor of Nadur speaks for itself. This was a locality which was looked up to by councillors from different parties all around Malta and Gozo. It was a high-flyer in the winning of EU funds. And its Nationalist majority kept growing under Chris’s mayorship. 
Another key characteristic of a future prime minister is the need to unite.  Chris practises unity and values the people around him. During the current leadership campaign, he did not use the easy populist tool of blaming or rubbishing others for past mistakes. To the contrary, he promised to build bridges between different factions. He promised to keep up the struggle for good governance – the same struggle which distinguishes the Nationalist Party from Labour. And Chris is the best option to ensure that good governance is on the agenda. 
For him politics is a lifelong vocation, and not a seasonal challenge. He is principled but pragmatic, as befits the true democrat. And rather than being explosive and larger than life, he opts for a calm, reasoned and decent approach. He is not excessive, but he can help save Malta from its excesses today. 
Indeed, Chris Said reminds me of Eddie Fenech Adami, who had all these qualities, and ultimately defeated the Mintoffian hangover. Maybe this is why the Labour Party does not want Chris Said to lead the Nationalist Party.
Integrity, experience, unity: These three words really sum up Chris Said.

Monday, September 04, 2017

A University fit for our times

In a recent interview on TVM, Rector Alfred Vella made bold statements on how he would like to see the University of Malta develop.
Vella emphasised that it is not only students who are supposed to learn at University. Lecturers need to undergo training to ensure that their work is of top standard. Proposals included the training of lecturers on how to better deliver lectures, on how to communicate, on how to conduct better research and on how to access EU funds.
He also spoke about students who are not only employable but who also have generic, transferable skills that can be used and adopted in different sectors. Hence the vitality of both humanities and sciences.
Being myself a lecturer at the University of Malta, I have direct interest in Vella’s words. I am four-square behind this vision.
I couldn’t agree more with Vella’s idea that lecturers themselves should undergo training. The University does offer training courses, but these are often voluntary, save for the professional development training programmes which lecturers must undergo before being promoted to the grade of senior lecturer.
Last year I participated in this programme splendidly coordinated by John Portelli. I joined as a reluctant sceptic and left as a convert. The programme was inspiring in that we learned about different lecturing and assessment methods, we shared our experiences, and we reviewed each other’s work. Lecturers from different departments and institutes had the opportunity to network.
Going back to Vella’s vision, whyshouldn’t such a course be obligatory for all academic staff, including professors?
I also agree with Vella’s insistence on the importance of research. The inevitable question is whether this is always given the importance it deserves. Do selection boards always value research when recruiting new staff? Are teaching assistants being recruited to support lecturers with lectures and corrections so that the latter have more time for research? Do all faculties and institutes encourage and promote research?
The same questions can be applied to EU funding opportunities. Why are some University structures high-performers when compared to others? My hunch is that this depends on the commitment given by respective deans and heads.
If I may propose further reforms which the rector may wish to consider, consultation would score highly. In the recent and not so recent past some decisions were taken which could have benefited from consultation with academic staff and other stakeholders.
These include decisions on feedback reports, certain University structures and committees and so forth. The issue is not whether the University took the right decisions – for example I think that the open access policy is developing well – but whether discussion and debate could have helped academic staff feel a greater sense of recognition and belonging; as well as provide a broader spectrum of expertise.
I would also like to see more meetings within respective faculties, departments and institutes, beyond the bare minimum which is often in place.  Vision, policy, research agendas, collaboration between different faculties and departments and with other entities and outreach should be given as much importance as exam scripts and programmes of studies. Outreach and collaboration also support the struggle against territorial monopolies.
Finally, an urgent issue which needs to be addressed is the precariousness of the employment conditions being offered to many junior academics, employed - or rather - exploited, on casual and visiting basis. The teaching and academic effort of some of these exceeds that of some resident academics; while their remuneration would not exceed a third of the latter’s. Joint posts could be one solution: an academic should be expected to be loyal to his or her work and not to other considerations such as voting preferences within University structures.
We need to look beyond the sentiment that the world owes us a living. As much as I insist that universities are vital for any self-respecting society, I also hold that our academic freedom should be matched with responsibility: to adapt, to innovate, to contribute to society, to share knowledge, to be transparent and accountable, and to look beyond our comfortable shells.
The introduction of new universities – which I welcome – will only accentuate the need to reform.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Discussing the bridge

Times of Malta, 28 August 2017

Would it not be great to walk from Sliema to Valletta on a pedestrian bridge? When I read about this proposal, I gave it an instinctive thumbs-up.
The proposal, by London-based celebrated architect Konrad Xuereb, is reportedly estimated to cost about €8 million and would link Tignè Point to the Valletta gun post. It would add another option for transport between the two localities.
If another proposal, this time by AX Holdings is approved, there would also be added transport options through a tunnel beneath Valletta, which connects Sliema to Cottonera by ferry.
Such multi-modal forms of connection are commonplace in many towns and cities across the world and they can offer practical solutions to combat Malta’s traffic challenges. Interestingly, this newspaper reports (August 23) that, about 60 years ago, a cable-car project was proposed across Marsamxett Harbour, from Sliema Ferries to Hastings Garden, in Valletta, with Manoel Island in between. As we know, this project never took off.
But let’s go back to the future.
Architect Xuereb is arguing that his 300-metre-long bridge proposal will “mean less pollution, fewer people using their cars and [have a] long-term benefit for Valletta, which will feel more connected to places in Sliema”.
Let us assume the government or local councils are interested in developing this public project, what should be the way forward? I would argue for a mix of public consultation and evidence-based policymaking.
In the first instance, funding possibilities would have to be sought for. Given that the government is committed to upgrade Malta’s road network over a seven-year period, would a pedestrian bridge fit within this remit? I think it should, especially when Malta is committed to develop and encourage modal shifts towards alternative forms of transport.
Alternatively, the government can vote specific capital funding or apply for EU funds, the latter also being possible through local council involvement. In the previous legislature, the government spending on capital projects was relaxed, so perhaps this time around the trend can be shifted in a sustainable manner.
Cost-benefit analyses should also be commissioned to verify investment potential of the project, given possible savings elsewhere.
What about the technicalities of the project? Environmental impact studies would have to be carried out on the marine environment, wind impact and other ecological features. This would help stakeholders discuss the issue in an informed manner. This should be so obvious but, very often, we see quite the opposite, for example within the social media, where some people excel in appointing themselves experts of everything. The technical possibilities of development projects require much more than trigger-happy Facebook chats and impulsive decisions by vote-hunters.
This is not to say that public participation is not important. Far from it. Indeed, the participation of the public and various stakeholders can help broaden the debate and create a sense of ownership and belonging to the project, should it proceed.
Local councils directly implicated in this project should have a key role in this regard. The Valletta and Sliema local councils comprise the directly-elected representatives of the respective localities and are directly involved in the day-to-day issues facing residents, businesses, tourists and others.
Let me mention just one example that readily comes to mind. The public beach under Tignè Point is becoming increasingly popular among locals and tourists alike. How will this be impacted by the development of a bridge?
Sliema and Valletta are also characterised by the increased use of bicycles and hats off to that. Given that bicycles comprise clean, light transport, would it be possible to give access to cyclists on the bridge? In the affirmative, what boundaries and limits should be established on usage?
It is by now evident that this development proposal would require a social impact assessment. Mixed sociological and other social-scientific methods should consequently analyse, monitor and manage the intended and unintended social consequences, both positive and negative, of the proposal. It would give considerable importance to dimensions such as culture, perceptions, community, health, well-being and personal and property rights.
The bridge proposal could indeed serve as a case study of truly transparent, democratic and sustainable policymaking. Malta is crying for such processes.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Dark side of best of times

Times of Malta 21 August 2017

Slavery: a word belonging to the past, yet so alive today. Illegal everywhere, yet present in all corners of the world. And increasing, too. Indeed, in every country there are people working for little or no pay, yet, who must do this due to threats, debt and violence. They are denied of freedom because their lives are practically controlled by other people.
Slavery make take place in various forms. It can be present in labour camps, the sex industry, domestic work and sweatshops. Given that it is often hidden from the public sphere, it is difficult to produce accurate figures on how many people are involved in it. Nevertheless, some research organisations, institutions and non-governmental institutions are doing their utmost to present an accurate picture of modern slavery.
For example, the global slavery index estimates that about 45.8 million people were victims in 2016. The countries with the highest estimated prevalence, in proportion to their population, are North Korea, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, India and Qatar. The countries with the highest absolute numbers of people in modern slavery are India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan. It is important to note that, in this regard, several countries produce low-cost consumer goods for markets around the world.
The same index concludes that the countries with the lowest estimated prevalence of modern slavery in the proportion to their population generally have higher economic wealth, higher levels of government response, higher levels of political stability, lower levels of conflict and greater willingness to combat slavery. These include Luxembourg, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Another important report was published recently by the US Department of State. It focuses on the trafficking of people in 2016.
The report refers to Malta and states that people are trafficked to the island for sexual and labour purposes. The island is also identified as a source of trafficking, meaning that people are also trafficked to other countries. It refers to women who are trafficked, primarily for sexual purposes, from countries such as China, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia and Ukraine.
The Department of State also refers to the trafficking of Maltese women and children and to the ‘internal’ trafficking of people for sexual purposes.
The report also refers to precarious and abusive labour involving workers from China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, women from south east Europe in domestic labour, women from China in massage parlours and women from central and eastern Europe working in nightclubs under exploitative conditions.
The Department of State adds that about 5,000 irregular migrants from Africa work in abusive conditions in construction, hospitality and other private activities.
Malta was also mentioned in the Modern Slavery Index 2017, which highlights the increase in modern slavery within Europe. It was listed as one of the 20 EU member states were the risk of modern slavery has increased over the past year.
These eye-opening reports makes it clear that the government of Malta is not conforming to minimum standards to combat the trafficking of people.
What is stopping the government from commissioning studies to collect evidence on people at risk or involved in such abuse? The government can also conduct educational campaigns and push for more police presence in the field. Apparently, only two investigations and two prosecutions took place in Malta last year. In 2015, the corresponding figures were five and seven respectively.
These shocking reports are really food for thought and action, especially when one considers the government’s propaganda strategy to depict Malta as experiencing some golden age. Let us not be dazzled by glittery adverts and seductive spin. Beyond the hyperreality of economic growth, glitzy PR and primetime news on mundane topics, there are people living in miserable conditions in an island state measuring a grand total of 316 square kilometres.
Let us also not allow the government and its allies to label all those who question certain policies as belonging to some stone age society. I myself am liberal but liberalism without social justice and communitarian responsibility can result in social breakdown and exploitation.
Considering that the government is proposing policies on areas such as prostitution and strip clubs, we should be vigilant to read beyond the spin.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A maritime sociology

Some years ago, I encountered the curious world of maritime sociology. It transpired that maritime sociology covers a broad range of topics, fields and issues. These may intersect with other sociological areas such as family, employment and environment, but they may also have commonalities such as their interest in seaside and maritime areas.
Given that Malta is a small island in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, maritime sociology should be of interest to scholars and policymakers. Some facts can help. Malta’s territorial waters are 14 times bigger than the country’s land area, and the 25-nautical-mile Fisheries Management Zone is almost 40 times of the land area. Malta’s coastal zone is almost one fifth of the country’s surface area, and the coastline extends 273 kilometres.
According to Eurostat, Malta is a European high flier in terms of unloaded goods and international intra-EU marine transport. In the second half of 2016, Malta had 1.4 million kilograms of registered fish landings and Malta is also a Mediterranean protagonist in the fish farm and cruise liner industries.
A conference held in Malta some years ago featured statistics by the Net Mari Med project, which estimated that the marine and maritime sectors contribute to almost 15 per cent of Malta’s gross domestic product, and that this is expected to increase. Around 40,000 persons (25 per cent of Malta’s workforce) are employed in coastal tourism, water sports, fishing and fisheries, and Malta has one of the largest merchant ship registers in the world.
In this regard, the term blue economy has become mainstreamed in the vocabulary of institutions such as the European Union and the World Bank.  It commonly refers to economic activity in the maritime sector, and it is often aligned with the concept of sustainable development, thus adding social and environmental dimensions to its meaning.
This can take us to the realm of sociology in general and Maltese sociology in particular. There are so many aspects of the marine sphere which are of interest.
For example, given that the maritime sectors provide so many job opportunities, it is important to verify who is being employed and under which conditions. Who works in bunkering, yachting, mooring? Are trade unions involved? How many workers are on fixed or temporary contracts? What are the nationalities of workers? How do they interact with each other and with significant others such as family members?
If we had to look at maritime communities such as fishermen, we can research their aspirations, challenges, opportunities and threats. In this regard, Alicia Said has researched the artisanal activities of small-scale fishermen. Others can research fishermen employed with big business companies. Malta also has its own fishing cooperative, fish shops, markets and other spin offs.
The bluefin tuna industry has recently captured the public imagination due to the slime issue. As early as the mid-1990s, the late Maggie Borg had already warned that this type of industry could have negative environmental impacts. I myself researched the political dimension of bluefin tuna fishing as part of my doctoral thesis.
As we all know, the sea around Malta has also become a main route of irregular migration. Maria Pisani and Mark Micallef carry out research in this area, which is characterised by a myriad of interactions involving death, new lives, exploitation, abuse, hope and fear, and by the governance of state and non-governmental organisations.
The politics of marine life is a fascinating area of research characterised by power networks, interests, and discourses. One can analyse the interaction of different stakeholders ranging from the European Union to environmental NGOs, and from fishermen’s representatives to the government.
One can analyse industries such as construction, cruising and fishing, but also micro-politics such as the occupation of space in public beaches. Think of the recent deckchairs and umbrella issue. Or the areas demarcated for swimmers and dogs.  Think of communities who live near fishing areas and beaches from Marsaxlokk to Sliema.
Maritime sociology is ripe for growth and institutionalisation. Similar to other areas such as small island states, this could well prove to be a niche sector for Maltese social scientists with global impact.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Not just about quotas

“How will your baby affect your chances of being prime minister?”  This question was asked a few days ago to Jacinda Ardern, the new leader of New Zealand’s opposition. Needless to say, this raised controversy and captured news headlines around the world.
To me, this shows that when we discuss gender equality, we need to think beyond quotas and whether a prime minister is male, female, gay or black.
Sure, having politicians come from different social backgrounds can be symbolic of broader changes taking place in society.  But evidence-based policymaking will point out a wide range of factors which contribute to inequality.
Some feminists, for example, argue that even in societies which prize gender equality, women may experience inequalities such as prejudice over women’s capabilities, responsibilities and potential.
In various cases, women employed in the labour market end up facing double (or triple) shifts when they face a heavy burden of housework. And often, family responsibilities have a greater negative impact on women than on men whenit comes to matters such as promotions at work.
In no way am I trying to play down social policy achievements of various countries in this matter. For example, the Nordic welfare states of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland are often referred to as ‘women-friendly’ welfare states. Here, personal autonomy is not burdened by one’s gender, and work-life balance policies have helped reduce various inequalities.
These include equal pay for equal work, prohibition of employment discrimination based on one’s gender, public provision of childcare and various reforms in family and pensions legislation.
In Nordic and other liberal democracies, there has also been a gradual increase in women in politics. This has taken place due to a variety of factors, which also include quotas. Indeed, according to, more than 100 countries have some form of political quotas, though this also includes voluntary quotas imposed by political parties.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has made it clear that he wants a parliamentary discussion on gender quotas in the near future. Some political party and civil society players have already declared themselves in favour or against. They obviously have every right to declare their positions, though I do hope that they consult with social-scientific evidence and experts before rushing with conclusions on the social media.
In this regard, I appeal for the widening of the remit of the gender equality debate. Some examples have already been touched upon in the public sphere. For example, Malta’s parliament does not have family-friendly working hours. And by the way, there are many Dad politicians, too. Others have referred to the need for updating policies related to violence, abuse and reproductive rights.
On a more optimistic note, some emphasise that there is a growing number of women in Malta’s labour market, that females are outperforming malesin education, and that policy reforms such as childcare are helping improve gender equality.
But I think that other aspects related to gender inequality are being elbowed out of the debate. Some matters have to do with social justice. For example, is the national debate giving enough importance to ‘invisible’ women in various employment sectors? I don’t think so. Here I am referring to women with low wages in regular jobs, women in casual or precarious work, and women with no union representation.
Would it be right to celebrate the entry of a minority of women into the pinnacles of politics and employment, when so many other women are facing difficult social circumstances? Does the fact that some women make it to the top suffice to declare gender equality? Are gender neutral legal provisions the be-all and end-all of policymaking?
I would answer in the negative. Indeed, I believe that discourse on gender neutrality and quotas should not alienate us from realities such as one’s social class, age, nationality, situations and so forth. And by the way, there are exploited men too: likewise, many happen to be politically voiceless.
Thus, when new policies are discussed, let us keep in mind that society is not simply made up of monolithic genders. Different persons may have different possibilities, experiences, interests and choices.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The Planning Authority has failed

A few days ago I was interviewed by Kevin Schembri Orland, The Malta Independent, about the Planning Authority, development and the property market. You can check it out here.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Network politics

Social networks are everywhere. People belong to different social groups and interact with relatives, friends, colleagues, civil servants, professionals and politicians. Interaction may take place through various forms of communication and is influenced by a variety of political, cultural, social and economic factors. In our times, information technology has accelerated and widened the possibilities, pace and flows of communication.
In Malta, physical and digital networks are perhaps more pronounced than is the case in many larger societies. Given the size and population density of our country, we are always physically close to each other. Hence, we can chat on Facebook in the morning and bump into each other in Valletta in the afternoon.
Many of us also tend to wear multiple hats. For example, many behind-the-scenes political party volunteers during elections may also have other affiliations such as family, employment, pastimes, memberships and favourite hang-out venues. 
Malta also has one of the highest incidences of social media usage in the EU. Politicians ignore the social media at their peril, but the opposite does not necessarily hold. Indeed, there are some politicians who never tire of posting comments on everything under the sun, but who still fail in elections.
This may have to do with various reasons including political party affiliation, charisma, communication skills and mere luck. But contact with constituents is definitely a key factor for political success in Maltese society. House visits are imperative, but so are other activities such as mingling with residents and communities in localised fora, places and activities.
The proximity of constituents and politicians can translate itself into stronger communities. Here, politicians would be in synch with everyday challenges, problems, needs and aspirations. Micro-issues such as the quality of pavements, the quality of playing areas for kids and one’s employment experiences may not hit the news headlines, but may be priorities for constituents. And the effective politician knows this very well.
This is not to say that such networks do not face challenges. As our society becomes more diverse, social integration is becoming a major challenge for policymakers, community leaders, educators and politicians. As individualisation increases, it also becomes difficult to reconcile instant gratification with the common good.
People’s individual needs may also vary and may slip beneath the net of social solidarity. Some politicians or community leaders may not even be aware of the needs of certain individuals, who may be lonely, disconnected or suffering in silence due for example due to mental health issues or oppressive family realities.
Strong social networks may also have negative impacts such as corruption. This may encourage certain politicians to promise corrupt practices to their constituents in return for their vote. It may also act as a form of social control to keep voters in check.
We needn’t look far. It is an open secret that before June’s general election Labour micro-targeted constituents and satisfied their requirements even when these were not exactly in line with good governance. Hence the explosion of development permits, public service jobs and other favours.
Social networks or the lack of them can also help reproduce inequality. Here, one may refer to individuals or groups whose employment experience is precarious or non-unionised. Their voice tends to be muted compared to those of unionised workers.
Inequality can also have a partisan flavour, for example if partisan decisions such as promotions or vindictive transfers take place. And Malta does not seem to be lacking in this regard.
Hence the presence of social networks, and their impacts, whether positive or negative, should be seen as a key starting point for grounded politics. Empirical social-scientific research on people’s trust, interaction and sense of belonging can be very helpful in this regard.
It is also imperative to analyse the importance of leisure, pastimes, identities and voluntary work. And such research should be grounded into local realities, traditions, challenges and changes. The bigger picture is only as real as its parts.