Dad, political sociologist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

Monday, July 17, 2017

Uneven job realities


Times of Malta 17 July 2017

Malta’s economy is characterised by uneven employment realities. On the one hand, Malta is top European performer on a macro-level, with the third lowest unemployment rate in the EU and with a consistently growing economy.
On the other hand there are quite a lot of working-age persons who do not form part of the labour market. According to Eurostat around 31 per cent of Malta’s working-age population is economically inactive, which is on the European high side and above the average rate of 27 per cent.  Around 7,000 young persons are not registering for employment nor attending educational facilities.
This could be happening for a variety of cultural, social and economic reasons. Qualitative and quantitive social-scientific evidence is imperative to assist policymakers to understand the situations, motivations and reasons for this.
Then there are many workers who are experiencing hard times.  This does not only include those who receive the minimum wage, which is subject to increases in the coming years. It also includes others who are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet and who experience bad work conditions.
In this regard, it is interesting to note that around 35,000 foreign workers are employed in Malta, and these account for much of the increase in workers in the country. Some are employed in high-paying legitimate jobs, for example in Malta’s financial and gaming sectors. Others perform a wide range of regular jobs in various sectors and at various levels. But it is quite clear that others are employed for purely exploitative reasons, resulting in a depression of wages in their respective sectors.
Something else to note is that Jobs Plus recently reported that it caught 3,500 workers working illegally, and that 1,105 persons were removed from the unemployment register as they were abusing the system. It would be interesting to commission studies to verify why persons may be working illegally. For example, do the Maltese authorities have data on persons working in quasi slavery conditions?
Which takes us to the underground economy. In 2013 economist Friedrich Schneider carried out a study of 31 European and five other OECD countries which showed that Malta’s underground economy accounted for 25 per cent of the GDP, which is higher than the EU average of 18 per cent.
Applied to the world of work, the underground economy may create risks for workers in terms of health and safety, lack of security, bad work conditions and lack of stability.
But there may be other reasons related to the underground economy. Some persons might voluntarily choose to go underground to evade taxes, some may wish to avoid bureaucratic hurdles related to occasional jobs, community-oriented initiatives and other matters. Going underground might also incentivise a degree of creativity in start-ups before they take the plunge and officially register themselves.
The government should ensure that workers who are experiencing bad working conditions, whether through regular or irregular employment, are protected.
How can this be done? In some cases, workers can benefit through the formalisation of their economic activities through incentives. These may include lower taxes and bureaucratic simplification.
The government can also increase educational and outreach initiatives that encourage voluntary commitment, self-regulation and trust in formal registration of work.
Some reforms have already taken place in Malta. For example, workers in private companies providing jobs for public services are receiving the same wage, otherwise the companies would not be eligible to tender their offers. Public sector tenders also include various obligations, for example on limits of subcontracting works, minimum hourly rates to workers and so forth.
But government should also ensure that exploited workers who want to report their experiences trust authorities and do not fear repercussions for speaking up. More work inspectors should be employed, and random inspections should increase.
Malta’s uneven labour market clearly informs us that equality is not only about liberal legislation such as equal marriage and LGBITQ rights. Equality is also about ensuring that workers in the labour market get equal pay for equal work, equal opportunities and equal worth in terms of the policy process.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Localise not centralise

Are local councils equipped to meet the needs of their respective localities? Do they have enough funds and authority to govern? I believe these are key questions which need thorough debate, especially when local councils are so close to citizens’ everyday needs.
Government funding of local councils has increased in the past years. Indeed, in 2017, Malta’s 68 local councils received a total of €35.5 million from government, an increase of €3.5 million from 2015. High earners include St Paul’s Bay (€1,684,906), Birkirkara (€1,283,056), Mosta (€1,185,524) and Sliema (€1,110,593).
The government will also engage in a road-building programme in the next seven years. It recently announced that it would take over this responsibility from local councils, which are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with hefty demands in this sector.
One expects that in the near future government elaborates on its intentions and consults accordingly. For example, will the road building programme covered by the government include pavements? Will the  government’s plans affect local council funding? Will local councils be responsible just for patching of roads, or would councils still be expected to budget for full-road asphalting? And who will decide on which roads will be prioritised?
Going back to the original question of this article, let us keep in mind that local councils have very limited options for the generation of other revenue. Sure, local councils may apply for EU funds and for discretionary government schemes. They may also generate some revenue through permit fees, adverts and the like.
But it is more than evident that something has to be done to ensure that local councils may adequately cover their growing demands and needs. These include not only infrastructure and waste management, but also educational, cultural and social initiatives which are very important for social cohesion, integration and community building.
Ideally, Malta’s local agenda should emphasise decentralisation to ensure that no government, entity or sector has excessive power. This should be accompanied by subsidiarity, where decisions are taken at the lowest level possible, meaning that decisions which can easily be taken by local councils needn’t be taken by ministers or authorities.
In addition, more state-owned land should be devolved to local councils. This may include public car parks, public buildings and heritage sites. Local councils can then manage such areas in the best interest of the locality, possibly generating funds in the process. Such funds can then be used to help finance local programmes and initiatives.
Unfortunately, Malta’s government is progressively moving towards the other direction. Apart from discretionary schemes referred to earlier in this article, we are witnessing increased centralisation of power.
One key example of this is enforcement. Local councils are frequently at the receiving end of complaints related to illegal street vendors, abusive parking, careless construction practices, noise pollution, illegal littering and so forth. Given that wardens are now under central government control, there is not much that local councils can do to ensure that enforcement takes place. The same applies with regard to other enforcing agencies such as the police, the Building Regulations Office and the Planning Authority.
Centralisation of power gives excessive strength to ministers, who in turn are omnipresent at macro and micro levels in Maltese society. Thus, a local council may require enforcement against abusive practices which affect residents’ quality of life, but this may be prohibited from taking place due to partisan political reasons and patronage.
The centralisation of powers makes citizens and local councils increasingly dependent on ministers, and this can erode the dynamics of local governance. It can also result in increased apathy and lack of initiative.
On the other hand, decentralisation, subsidiarity and devolution can incentivise both local councils and citizens to be more creative and innovative in the governance of localities. It would also help diversify power. In a politically-charged society like Malta, this could enrich democracy, giving more value and legitimacy to local council elections and other similar appointments.

Monday, July 03, 2017

LGBTIQ is political


From a European laggard, Malta is now on top of the world when it comes to legislation in the field of LGBTIQ rights and responsibilities.
There are various reasons why this happened. First, the divorce referendum in 2011 represented a historic break which enabled the mainstreaming of civil rights in Malta’s political agenda. This took place in the context of cultural changes characterised by an interplay of modern and traditional values, secularism and diversity.
Second, the LGBTIQ movement proved to be an excellent strategic player which chose its allies well in its pursuit of its goals. In Joseph Muscat’s Labour it found a winning party ready to uphold its agenda. In particular, Minister Helena Dalli and policy expert Silvan Agius ensured that the LGBTIQ agenda is implemented.
Third, the proposals put forward by the LGBTIQ movement did not rock the economic boat and did not have adversaries in the form of strong business interests. This is different from other civil society battles, such as those faced by environmentalists focusing on land development. But I would be very wary of reducing the LGBTIQ strategy to class analysis. I reiterate that MGRM and its allies had a very shrewd strategy.
On a personal note, I am proud that when I chaired Alternattiva Demokratika between 2009 and 2013, I was the first party leader to pronounce myself in favour of legislation for equal marriage. Back then, it was not only the other parties that were not yet in favour but also some prominent Greens.
But the past is past and Malta is now discussing the first proposed law under the second Muscat government: that for equal marriage. I support the proposal in principle but I also believe that Muscat has made some streetwise political calculations on its timing.
My hunch is that Labour is rushing things on this matter to play the divide-and-rule game, hitting the Nationalist Party when it is at its post-electoral weakest and when Labour is in its second honeymoon period.
I think Simon Busuttil is doing the right thing in urging the PN to support the proposed legislation, in line with the party’s electoral position.
Some are arguing for a free vote among parliamentarians on this matter. This could be an easy way out and is in line with what Angela Merkel did with her Christian Democratic Party in Germany on the same matter.
Let us remember that this is the same Merkel whom many are considering as the new leader of the free world. And having a free vote on matters affecting one’s conscience is not unheard of.
But in Malta’s bipartisan polarised system, granting a free vote has risks in terms of feeding the appetite of Labour’s massive media machine and its allies. Should the PN do any favours to its adversaries?
I believe that there is a way how the PN can bypass Labour’s political trap and unite its internal factions. Perhaps the party should articulate a discourse which is at once liberal and communitarian.
It should praise the liberal dimensions of the equal marriage law, namely the granting of rights, the prizing of equality and the fact that it is not taking rights away from anyone.
But it should also emphasise another aspect of the new law, one that is being understated in the current debate. Here, the PN can stress that the mainstreaming of marriage legislation can ultimately increase social cohesion and a sense of belonging. This also means that all those who are affected by the legislation have not only been granted rights but have also a wide range of responsibilities.
In this regard, sociologists such as Anthony Giddens believe that the future of family policy should revolve around the rights of children, especially when there are so many diverse family set-ups. Another sociologist, Nancy Fraser, adds that all parents, irrespective of their gender and sexuality, should be universal caregivers in the sharing of rights and responsibilities.
Rights and responsibilities: I believe these are two keywords in the PN’s quest to unite its liberal and conservative factions. Similarly, individual freedom and the common good should be seen as two sides of the same coin.
(This article appeared as LGBTIQ rights and duties in Times of Malta)

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Labour hegemony

What is a hegemony? In politics, this refers to a relatively stable force which is characterised by a unity of different parts. Here, power is durable and enjoys wide consent, especially as its leadership manages to unite different values, interests and identities.
But hegemonic power is not eternal. It can implode and be threatened by counter-hegemonic forces. Essentially, the democratic game can be seen as a struggle of different political forces, some of which become hegemonic.
The Nationalist Party achieved this status after its 1987 electoral victory, when it became the ‘natural party of government’. This era is part of Malta’s past and we are now experiencing a Labour hegemony.
When Alfred Sant became Labour’s leader in 1992, he tried to create a modernised and inclusive alternative to the PN. He purged violent elements from Labour and attempted to build a meritocratic government. Labour won the 1996 general election but some ill-timed decisions and Mintoff’s exploitation of the logic of numbers led to its collapse after 22 months.
When Joseph Muscat was elected Labour leader in 2008 he opened the doors of the party to all those ready to work with it, including Labourites who were not in Sant’s good books. Muscat adopted a populistic ‘moderate and progressive’ strategy and his charisma was increasing steadily.
In 2010, I wrote that such politics without adversaries has good electoral prospects but I also expressed doubt on its impacts and durability. Well, the latter did not quite happen: to date, Labour has won eight consecutive local, European and national victories between 2009 and 2017 with its results varying between 53.4 and 56.6 per cent.
Some might argue that Labour is retaining Malta’s economic status quo, to the benefit of big business, but this reductive argument does not fully explain why this party has been winning consistently.
Under Muscat, the party retained its base of core voters including a good chunk of the working class vote. But its current hegemonic formation also includes supporters of the current economic feel-good factor, those who prioritise the party’s liberal turn, beneficiaries of Labour’s patronage and micro-targeting approaches and people put off by the PN.
Muscat’s great communication skills and the party’s direct and indirect media tactics bond the different parts together and have so far earned him more trust than all other political leaders in the past decade.
Besides, the increased centralisation of powers from local councils and authorities to ministers give the party a greater role to play in managing power.
This is also being accompanied by an increasingly red civil service and policies such as the sale of passports and over-reliance on construction and its spin-offs. As far as the former goes, I wonder whether all revenues are accounted for and whether they help finance Labour’s political strategy.
This is not to say that Labour did not experience its own implosions. Indeed, scientific polls show that Labour did lose votes to the Nationalist Party in the 2017 election. But the opposite happened too, thus resulting in Labour’s massive victory a few weeks ago.
When will Labour’s hegemony come to an end? This is difficult to say. Would anyone have imagined that Labour would have created such an efficient electoral machine after its long years in Opposition? The future always lasts a long time and it is never written in advance.
And this means that the PN can create a strong counter hegemonic force. Maybe it can outdo Labour by turning the latter’s strategy against itself.
The PN can aim for a wide and broad coalition that gels within the party’s main goals. These should not be straitjacketed under one reductive ideology but should be based on common values that fit within a broad umbrella.
The PN can build upon its good governance pledge and coalition approach by ensuring that its electoral strategy is grounded in Malta’s plural realities.
Thus, it should also focus on bread and butter concerns, micro-tactics and effective communication. Internally, the party should keep the doors open to newcomers while ensuring that loyalists feel a sense of belonging.


Monday, June 19, 2017

Who should lead the PN?


Times of Malta 19 June 2017

In my post-election reflection published in this newspaper last week, I suggested that the Nationalist Party calmly takes its time to choose a new leader. I also suggested that in the meantime it can appoint a caretaker interim leadership.
As things stand it seems that there is no clear contender for the post. It would be beneficial to act wisely and slowly to ensure that a proper, open and deliberative leadership contest takes place. Acting rash can give an instant leader, but can have longer-term repercussions.
The current Nationalist leadership may decide otherwise and may have its good reasons to do so.  Should this be the case, I still urge the party to conduct a comprehensive brainstorming exercise to identify the key challenges, opportunities and risks.
The PN should also conduct constant empirical and grounded social-scientific research on demographic trends, lifestyle concerns, aspirations, values and situations of people in Malta. Such research should be ongoing and should involve both quantitative and qualitative methods, from the analysis of big data to the ethnographic interpretation of micro-realities.
The party should also take heed of the various arguments being made of what type of leadership is required in Malta’s current context.
For example, one argument is that the new leader should be an excellent communicator, especially when one considers that Joseph Muscat is capable of turning risks into opportunities through his rhetorical skills. I suggest that Muscat’s declaration that he will not contest in the upcoming general election should also be interpreted within his skill set.
Another argument is that the new leader should be streetwise. Indeed, many voters may not be concerned with abstract theory, but may have more immediate concerns beyond the radars of party strategists. A key challenge here would be how to reconcile such concerns with the common good, with realistic policy and with electability. They often can and should be reconciled, but sometimes, red lines have to be drawn. Again, excellent communication is key.
Some commentators have also discussed the ideological orientation of the PN. I find this debate very interesting. My interpretation in this regard is that both the Nationalist and Labour parties are umbrella parties which are broader than the respective classic textbook definitions of Christian democracy and social democracy.
Indeed, both parties have internal spans across the centre-left and centre-right. They also both have their own traditions, loyalists, factions and other characteristics which go beyond political ideology and which are better interpreted within Maltese social, cultural and economic factors.
The parties sometimes may have peculiarities which may seem odd to observers from other contexts. For example certain liberals may feel more comfortable in the PN and certain conservatives may feel more comfortable in the Labour Party, and vice-versa. This may have to do with historic events for example in the 1960s and 1980s and also with more recent historic events such as Malta’s EU accession, the introduction of divorce, civil liberties and governance issues. This also has to do with political capital of respective party leaderships.
But differences may also have to do with certain dispositions within the respective parties. For example, Labour has inherited an anti-colonial nationalism and top-down centralism while the Nationalist Party is usually more open to a Europeanist legacy of deliberation and self-criticism. Then again, Labour is more in synch with certain cultures in Malta today.
It is therefore imperative that the new leader of the PN reconciles the various factions and traditions within it. And this should also mean that the leadership team as a whole reflects such diversity. A leader is only as good as the team around her or him.
Identity gives a sense of belonging to a party’s members and constituents. But identity itself is never a monolith, unless one opts for the absolutist road. It is the common denominator among diversity that gels a party together.
A politically relevant leadership should therefore be principled but flexible, reaching out to aspirations of plural identities of consumers, citizens, families, groups, categories and classes. Democratic reconciliation is key.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Post-election reflections


Times of Malta 12 June 2017

The Egrant issue hit the headlines. The polls were showing that Labour was clearly on top. Joseph Muscat called a snap election. And Labour decimated Forza Nazzjonali.
Indeed, the public scientific surveys of Malta Today, It-Torca, The Sunday Times of Malta, The Malta Independent and Xarabank all showed clear trends, even though some voters were shifting allegiances.
That one survey was more precise than another is mere coincidence. All had reliable research methods.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Labour’s winning strategy was how it turned a liability into an asset.
Egrant motivated Muscat to go to the polls, and it was evident that this was done to avoid political damage. But eventually, the Labour narrative of ‘where’s the proof’ became stronger and stronger.
Whereas Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi’s involvement in Panama Papers was crystal clear, the ownership of Egrant was subject to debate. Truth? Alternative facts? That is really beside the point.
But surely, Egrant alone cannot explain a 35,000-vote difference.
One major reason why Labour was triumphant is that its leadership was more capable of reading the concerns of different groups in society. These include those who are not trapped in media bubbles and those who are looked down upon and ignored by elitists.
Surely, one important aspect of this strategy was Labour’s exploitation of amoral familism, or the prioritising of immediate interests through patronage over the common good and the longer term.
Hence, whereas Labour’s rural policy was criticised by environmentalists for encouraging development in such areas, small farmers saw this as a boon for their family investment. Whereas the general lack of enforcement in localities was criticized by civilly-minded residents, this was seen as an opportunity for many to make a quick buck.
In the election run-up, Labour managed to micro-target scores of disappointed and non-Labour voters through promotions, permits and so forth.
But again, I don’t think that amoral familism alone can explain Labour’s massive victory. Muscat’s government was a government that delivered in various areas.
This included civil liberties, welfare-to-work social policies, doing away with heavy fuel oil, and achieving a surplus. The economy was performing well for big and small businesses and unemployment was low.
Muscat’s charisma and Southern European machismo was also evidently more attractive than Simon Busuttil’s soft-spokenness.
So, how did the PN achieve such a terrible result?
The PN’s media campaign was very well structured. But Maltese society and media bubbles are not the same thing. Very often, the social media ends up being made up of echo chambers of like-minded people speaking to themselves.
As Robert Arrigo put it, the PN was not street-wise enough.
Corruption ‘protagonists’ and Forza Nazzjonali supporters constantly hit the headlines.
But, clearly there were a good number of concerned Labour voters who trusted Muscat’s package more than that of Busuttil.
They probably now expect Muscat to stay true to his word on his promises regarding governance and accountability.
I suggest that the PN calmly takes its time to choose a new leader, possibly even longer than the September appointment.
In the meantime it can appoint a caretaker interim leadership to manage things. Labour did this with Charles Mangion last time around.
The small parties had mixed fortunes.
Alternattiva Demokratika stood on its own feet but failed miserably. Its puritan discourse against the rest of Malta was too sectarian. Subsequently it lost half its vote and is now no longer Malta’s third party.
On the other hand, Partit Demokratiku’s coalition with the PN proved to be a winner, resulting in the first third party candidate in parliament since 1962.
Marlene Farrugia was a rainbow in the dark in the erstwhile disappointing result of Forza Nazzjonali. Personally, I am proud to have set the ball rolling on this, when I suggested such coalitions in an article in this newspaper in 2015.
Consequently, PD took the plunge and was vindicated. Perhaps it can now act similarly to the CDU/CSU coalition in Germany, being a loyal yet autonomous partner.
Maybe PD can also affirm its autonomy by joining the European Liberals and fielding its own candidates in upcoming local elections while being in coalition in European and general elections.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Sustaining the economy

One of the main challenges of Malta’s newly elected government will be to sustain the country’s economy. This requires a proper balance between economic, social and environmental priorities.
During the last decade or so, Malta registered relatively fast real GDP growth when compared to most EU member states, with growth accelerating during the past four years.
However there are various weaknesses in the economy, mostly associated with impacts on people’s quality of life, social disparities and weak governance. I will give a few examples.
The rapid rate of increase in construction permits by the Planning Authority has led to deterioration in the quality of life of many residents, mostly due to lack of control over the malpractices of various building contractors.
This has led to increased emissions of dust, discomfort for the neighbouring residents, rubble and building debris strewn in the streets, and uglification of the surroundings due to the ramshackle manner in which hoardings are made.
In addition, the unregulated use of old polluting equipment by building contractors, further contributes to the bad quality of the air we inhale. The intrusion of construction developments into ODZ and green areas has led to a reduction of open spaces.
Another economic activity with impacts on the quality of life relates to excessive dependency on private cars. It would be politically suicidal to expect people to do away with their cars, but governments have an important role to play to provide viable alternatives. Thus, modal-shifts to alternative means of transport should be prioritised to mitigate against excessive emissions and traffic congestion.
If we now turn to non-polluting economic activities, such as financial services, we also observe problems due to lack of regulation. Malta’s rate of growth in the financial services was accompanied by a deterioration of the country’s reputation due to matters such as Panama Papers and the Pilatus Bank controversy.
It is vital that institutions such as the Malta Financial Services Authority are reformed so as to enjoy universal trust by economic and political players.
The igaming industry, which has attracted so many foreigners to Malta, has mostly grown as a result of fiscal attractions. If such attractions cease to exist, possibly due to pressure from the EU Commission, the industry could be highly negatively affected.
Therefore, while Malta should seek to maintain its competitive edge in this industry, it should not have excessive dependence on it and should continuously seek to diversify its economy.
It is also important to note that one unintended side-effect of the growth of such industries, also due to lack of proper regulation, is that the inflow of highly-paid foreigner workers has led to a rapid increase in rent of residencies, with spill-over effects on the whole rental market. As is well known, this in turn has led to major social problems for low-income earners.
Similar social problems are also the result of economic disparities such as giving lower wages to workers who do identical work as others. The new government should ensure that regulatory institutions are properly equipped to investigate and enforce on such matters.
Another problem relates to the selling of passports. This practice has indeed generated funds for Malta, but it has been criticised as lacking proper oversight, as selling access to the European Union, possibly undermining the Schengen system, and as associating Malta with shady deals. This approach is not a sustainable way of generating economic growth and is not helping much to improve Malta’s reputation.
Economic good governance has deteriorated during these last four years, with an unacceptable degree of ‘anything goes’ practices, sometimes explicitly or implicitly condoning corruption.
Malta’s new government should address these shortcomings so that Malta’s economic growth will also be sustainable and inclusive. It should lead to factual and tangible improvement in the quality of life and social well-being of residents in Malta.
This requires good political, social, economic and environmental governance, which should be built on sound regulatory frameworks. Such a direction is imperative for the restoration of Malta’s reputation.

Malta Election 2017 - The Bottom Line


The bottom line: Labour achieved an exceptional result, the Nationalist Party achieved a terrible result. 

The electorate kept them practically in same place as in 2013, i.e. a historic gap between them. Labour won 170,976 votes (55.06%). The Nationalist Party's 'Forza Nazzjonali' won 135,696 votes (43.68%). In 2013 Labour obtained 54.83%, whilst the Nationalist Party obtained 43.34%. The difference is so big that further comments on the two parties are futile at this stage. 

The Democratic Party ('orange' candidates within PN list) is now Malta's third party and the first one to be in parliament since 1962, after Marlene Farrugia was elected in the 10th district through the Forza Nazzjonali pre-electoral coalition. Her votes and those of Godfrey Farrugia stand out within PD, with 1016, 821, 494, 1080 first preference votes in the respective 10th, 5th, 6th and 7th districts. In all the party won 4,826 first preference votes, or 1.53%. 

Alternattiva Demokratika received less than 1% for the 2nd time in its history (0.83% : 2003 was the other instance, when it received 0.7%), In 2013 AD won 5,506 first preference votes. This time around the amount decreased to 2,564.

The Patriots won 1,117 first preference votes (0.36%).

This is the basic starting point of any analysis. Numbers don't lie. Context cannot be ignored. And our context is Maltese society. 

I will be giving my interpretation of the 2017 election in my Times of Malta opinion piece next Monday, and in further writings in due course.

In the meantime, taking a step back to reflect is imperative. This requires taking responsibility for one's actions, humility and a healthy dose of introspection and self-critique by all players and analysts.

Official electoral result updates can be found here.

Times of Malta live election blog can be found here.

My initial reaction to Times of Malta on electoral result can be found here

Monday, May 29, 2017

Why Forza Nazzjonali

Image result for forza nazzjonali

On June 3, I will vote for ­Forza Nazzjonali for a simple reason. I want to live in a normal country. Like many other citizens, I am tired of Malta’s deficit in governance. And Joseph Muscat’s government has been tainted with corruption and scandals from the first days of his premiership.
In the past four years, Muscat adopted a cavalier attitude with taxpayer money. He bailed out Café Premier and parcelled out public property in dubious ways. Scandals involving the latter include Australia Hall, Żonqor and Gaffarena. Not to mention that one of Muscat’s first decisions as prime minister was to rent his own car to himself.
His government also locked the country in major contracts with questionable credentials. These include the costly energy contract which will make Malta dependent on Azerbaijani energy for the next 18 years and the mysterious health privatisation deal with a company that has no experience in healthcare.
In addition, Muscat’s gang of four created the sale of passports scheme though it did not feature in Labour’s grand manifesto in 2013. It was implemented as one of the government’s flagships, with Muscat assuming the role of salesman. Given its dubious credentials, lack of transparency and lack of accountability, it was not surprising to read about kickbacks.
In the meantime, while Malta’s image is being associated with corruption, Muscat seems to care only for his gang. He did not remove Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri when the Panama Papers scandal erupted. And the only plausible reason why he called a snap election one year before it was due was to save his skin.
So how come Muscat was not purged from his party? I think that he banked on popular support in two ways. First by exploiting traditionally-loyal Labour supporters, and second by buying people’s support. The former was a dishonest hijacking of people who were tired of being in opposition. The latter was carried out through the positions-of-trust industry and through an ‘anything goes’ approach. Enforcement, permit-granting and regulations were used as partisan tools rather than civic guarantors.
The Planning Authority, the police and other state institutions generally acted to implement this strategy. Such patronage renders people dependent on ministers’ whims, rather than active citizens with rights and responsibilities. Do we want more of this in the next five years? A pro-Muscat argument would say that despite such shortcomings, Malta’s economy flourished under Muscat. This argument could easily be rebutted in various ways.
First, Malta’s economy was always relatively stable under previous Nationalist governments, even when global turbulence was much greater than it is today.  In a way, Muscat’s government reaped the fruit that was created through the economic infrastructure that was already in place.
Second, Malta’s international reputation is going downhill due to the scandals involving Muscat’s gang of four. This can have terrible economic consequences, especially when considering that as a small island Malta is highly dependent on exports and the global economic framework.
Third, prospective prime minister Simon Busuttil has promised to retain the sustainable elements of Malta’s economy and develop new sectors such as the digital economy, the internet of things and the social economy.
Busuttil is also promising major infrastructural projects such as the development of a metro and progressive social policy.
And fourth, Busuttil is promising to clean up Malta’s image if he is elected prime minister. By installing confidence and trust in institutions such as the police, the Financial Services Authority, Parliament and the Attorney General, Malta will be sending a message that it wants its resilience to be based on good governance.
Indeed, good governance provides the basic political infrastructure for sustainable policy-making in economic, social and environmental matters. And I found that Forza Nazzjonali means business in this regard. From my own experience in this electoral campaign, I can testify that Busuttil uses the power of persuasion to show that Malta deserves a better form of governance.
Forza Nazzjonali has opened its arms to people who come from different backgrounds but who share a common dream: that of living in a normal country.  Let us make it happen.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Is Joseph Muscat a strong leader?

Joseph Muscat has been present in my political and sociological experiences for the past 20 years or so.
This goes back to the run-up to the 1996 general election. Prospective prime minister Alfred Sant was depicted as the moderniser of Malta.  Assisted by Labour intellectuals such as Mario Vella, Evarist Bartolo and Alfred Mifsud, Sant ridded Labour of its violent elements and embraced polices and strategies which were previously anathema.
Labour opened up to the middle class and embraced liberal market economics.  Other aspects of Labour’s tradition were retained. These included the top-down culture of strong party leadership and the anti-colonial heritage in foreign policy.
New Labour duly won the election but it imploded after 22 months, largely due to the conflict between Sant and Labour’s old patriarch Dom Mintoff.
At the time Muscat was a young Labour activist. Before the 1996 elections, he wrote a charming book on Alfred Sant. After the 1998 general elections, Muscat’s stature kept growing within Labour, and he remained very close to the Sant ‘modernising’ intellectual circle referred to above. Like future PN leader Simon Busuttil, Muscat was a positive performer as a European parliamentarian.
When Labour lost yet another election in 2008, Muscat announced his candidature for the post of leader. During his campaign, I met him at his Malta office. It was a friendly meeting, and he asked me if greens would be interested in joining Labour and coordinating some form of environmental section. I was flattered by his offer, and I thought it was interesting, but I refused.
Some greens did eventually join Labour though. Both Muscat and myself eventually became respective party leaders. The only times we met at this time was during party leader debates in the run-up to the 2013 general election. I could not help notice his growing stature as a confident and charismatic leader, whose only way was up.
In the meantime, in separate writings, I noted the ‘progressive and moderate’ articulation of the party’s strategy. I said that such a politics without adversaries might win elections but could eventually lead to political implosion due to non-reconcilable interests.
Muscat’s Labour won the election in 2013. His performance was massive. His aura of invincibility was repeated in the European Parliament elections a year later.
But then cracks started to appear. First it was the Manuel Mallia incident. Then it was Michael Falzon. Both of them lost their positions, but were still coopted within Labour’s governing structure. Anġlu Farrugia had experienced something similar when he was removed from deputy leader for a remark he made before the 2013 general election, only to find himself as speaker in the subsequent parliamentary formation.
Muscat seemed strong with such Labour stalwarts. And he also cemented the loyalty of others in the party through extra-paid duties for parliamentarians and various Tagħna Lkoll exponents.
Cracks grew larger when Muscat announced the development of a private University on Żonqor ODZ land. This resulted in the largest civil society protest ever, influencing Muscat to alter his announced plans.  A sort of win-win, if you like.
As Labour’s governance was tainted by constant corrupt practices, parliamentarian Marlene Farrugia distanced herself from Labour, eventually resulting in her role in the Forza Nazzjonali electoral coalition. Labour’s whip Godfrey Farrugia recently followed suit.
When the Panama Papers scandal broke out, Muscat’s image of strength started to be in serious doubt. He could have dismissed Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi, but he did the opposite. A series of unintended consequences emerged, and he seemed less in control.
Eventually, Muscat contradicted what he had said some weeks earlier and called an early election, despite having a massive parliamentary majority (unlike Sant in 1998). He also refused to discuss Panama Papers with the European Parliament.
Muscat today retains his charisma and strength as party leader, but he has also become a parody of his former self.
Even if he wins the election (which is in itself doubtful), he may have only postponed implosion.