Dad, political sociologist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

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.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Is Simon Busuttil a weak leader?

Sometimes Simon Busuttil is criticised for being a weak leader. I disagree, and I will say why.  Let’s go back some years. In the early years leading to the run-up to Malta’s EU accession, I was active in left-wing group Moviment Graffitti.
We wanted an informed debate on whether to support Malta’s EU accession or not. So we organised two respective debates with Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, who was heading the Campaign for National Independence, and Simon Busuttil, who was heading the Malta-EU Information Centre.
It was the first time I met Simon.
I remember him putting forward convincing, rational arguments for EU accession. Such reasoned, realistic and left-of-centre arguments charmed me.
They were very similar to those of my inspirational friend and fellow sociologist Noel Agius. When I then joined the Green Party, the knowledge I obtained from such persons equipped me during the campaign for Malta’s EU accession.
Malta consequently joined the European Union and Simon was elected MEP with incredible support. I did not meet him again for some years.
As the 2013 general election was approaching, I met Simon in political debates. I was then leader of the Green Party and he was PN deputy leader.
We did not agree on everything, but we debated respectfully. A far cry from other debates I had with some others such as the then-unknown Konrad Mizzi, who excelled in hysterics when we debated on Norman Vella’s TVHemm.
The 2013 general election came and went, Mizzi became part of Labour’s Panama triumvirate and Simon became leader of the Opposition, leaving his lucrative career of Europarliamentarian.
Subsequently, I met Simon some other times, for example when I was invited to address a PN convention with others such as the late Jacqueline Azzopardi and James Debono, in Front Harsien ODZ public activities against the Żonqor development and in some other meetings.
Late in 2015, when Labour’s governance deficit was increasing by the day, I penned an article in the Times of Malta arguing for a rainbow coalition. Eventually, Marlene Farrugia and her new formation, the PD, negotiated with Simon’s PN and formed Forza Nazzjonali.
In 2016, I proposed this idea face to face both to Simon and Arnold Cassola in separate meetings.
Simon made it clear to me that while the PN can open up to collaborate with others, it cannot change its name. Here I immediately noted that Simon is a leader who listens and takes up new ideas but who is also determined in his position. And judging by PN’s agreement with PD, I think that his position is sensible, proportionate and realistic.
I also noted Simon’s determination when he took clear and correct positions on various issues and internal appointments, some of which were not very comforting for some within his own party. He also attracted some new faces to the PN.
When Simon asked me whether I would like to contest the general elections, I explained that I have no aspiration to become a member of parliament. He gently accepted my position, and did not try to pressure me.
And when I decided out of my own will to attend the national protest against corruption of April 24, he also invited me to address it, which I accepted.
I think that the way he mixes his determination with his hearing skills can also be seen in the way he works. Unlike pop politicians who agree with whatever you tell them but then act in other ways, he politely tells you when he disagrees with you.
The man has character.
His two deputy leaders represent different wings in the party. His coalition with PD shows that he respects Farrugia for what she is. The various progressive proposals being put forward by Forza Nazzjonali show that PN is not ossified into ideological dead ends, but is responsive to people’s aspirations, to its coalition partners and to civil society.
What a difference from Malta’s current Prime Minister. Joseph Muscat tries to give an impression of strength, but ­­he is afraid to debate with Farrugia and to accept the European Parliament’s invitation to discuss Panama Papers. 
Above all, he is afraid of completing a five-year legislature.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

My final post on AD's role in the 2017 general election

Today's Malta Independent reports that Arnold Cassola said that AD members should follow the decisions of the executive. 

Fair enough, though I do not consider this to be an end in itself when essential principles are involved. And Greens tend to prize open dialogue. 

For example ex-French Green leader Danny Cohn Bendit publicly supported Macron and not the Socialists (who were supported by the Greens) in the recent French presidential election. 

When I appeal to AD to join the coalition I am also reflecting the opinion of a number of members, ex-members, ex-candidates and green sympathisers who are constantly communicating with me about their preoccupation with #Malta's current situation. 

In any case, I recently offered my resignation as AD member. 

This will be my final post on AD and the elections. I respect their decision not to join the coalition but I disagree with it. 

I reiterate that the only possible way to remove the Panamagang from power is through #ForzaNazzjonali. And the latter is also proposing some great progressive policies. My only interest in the whole matter is to live in a normal European country.



Monday, May 08, 2017

Election at speed of light

In the long weekend leading to May 1, everybody felt that a snap election would be called. It was the talk of town, newspapers were speculating and political parties were spinning.
Then, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat pronounced the inevitable. He did so at a party meeting in front of the Prime Minister’s office, with the podium just in front of the main door. A symbolic confirmation of Malta’s lack of distinction between State and party.
Not that we had a lack of this in the past weeks. From the collapse of public trust in the Commissioner of Police to the massive increase in Tagħna Lkoll positions of trust, to the lack of resignations, Muscat personifies the party-state par excellence.
One could also note the Planning Authority’s timed decisions and non-decisions, depending on the political ramifications of each application in question. Decisions on politically sensitive projects such as the Paceville master plan and Sliema Townsquare were postponed, while small-scale individual developments in rural areas are being granted permission like hotcakes.
But what is really striking in Muscat’s decision to hold a snap election, is that he probably is even preceding the normal time frames to take advantage of the power of incumbency.
Alfred Sant had spoken at length about incumbency after the 2008 general elections. This refers to how the party in government uses the state apparatus to its electoral advantage. This could include resurfacing roads, employing people and so forth.  Usually this takes time and various projects are planned to be finalised near election time. Photo opportunities and unveiling of plaques galore.
In a previous article in the Times of Malta I had imagined that Labour would use money from the non-transparent cash-for-passports scheme to give favours. But maybe it did not even have time for this. Or maybe it did. At this stage one can only speculate, as this scheme is shrouded in secrecy.
Muscat therefore could not take full advantage of the power of incumbency, despite a massive parliamentary majority. The Panama Papers scandal is escalating like an uncontrollable snowball, and the consequences of this cannot be predicted in advance. Nor can they be controlled in a runaway world of global networks, social media and reflexive citizens.
So Muscat might have calculated that it would be better to hold an election as early as possible so as to avoid further escalation of the crisis of his own making. But he would probably know that even an electoral victory might only postpone the crisis we are in.
Muscat’s snap election would also put disgruntled Labour activists in line, as when one is in war mode there is no time to debate. Only that member of parliament Godfrey Farrugia quickly said that he has nothing to do with this.
So Muscat is now doing his utmost to bank on the country’s economic performance, and promise improvements across the board. To promise yet another batch of income tax decreases, while expanding social welfare.
To promise the finishing of the only infrastructural project carried out under his government, namely the Kappara flyover. To promise a tunnel between Malta and Gozo. To promise resurfacing all of Malta’s roads. To promise jobs, promotions and housing. We can only imagine what else is to come. I wouldn’t bet on promises to remove Keith Schembri and Konrad Mizzi.
In the meantime, some are resorting to a myriad of explanations to justify Muscat. This ranges from the cynical ‘all politicians are the same’ bait to the pseudo-historical faith that Labour is destined to modernise Malta as it is the workers’ party. Only that workers do not usually form part of the Panama Papers elite.
I believe Muscat’s strategy was very simple, really: the dominant group in the Labour government has a 10-year plan to populate its assets. This is done while attempting to buy support from specific single-issue lobbies/individuals and from the public through feudal electoral freebies financed by the taxpayer. Never mind the real bill.
In the meantime, the Labour PR machine is doing its utmost to depict Muscat as offering a safe pair of hands, as a strong leader, and so forth. Only that his body language is giving him away.

Monday, May 01, 2017

How is a tyrant identified?

Picture: Charles A. Buchel: Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Macbeth


History does not repeat itself, but it does instruct us. It can warn us about signs which show that the political order is in danger.
This is the opinion of Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University and contributor to the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.
He writes about this in his most recent publication, On Tyranny: Twenty lessons from the twentieth century. The book is mainly aimed at an American audience, but its message is universally relevant.
Snyder’s first lesson states “do not obey in advance”. As he puts it, anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy, as was the case in Nazi Germany and communist Czechoslovakia, when Nazi and communist parties won respective elections in 1932 and 1946 but quickly carried out regime change from democracy to tyranny.
The reader is then told to defend institutions. Examples include courts, newspapers, laws and workers’ unions, which might fall one by one unless they are defended from the start. In this regard, Snyder appeals to the reader to be involved in politics. This does not necessarily mean party politics – it could also include membership in organisations, expressing views, and donating money to charities within civil society.
On Tyranny adds that every one of us should take responsibility for the face of the world.
We should not look away when we see signs of hate such as racism and discrimination. Withdrawal from daily life through apathy, renunciation and non-engagement can help empower oppressors.
One may also go a step further and stand out. Snyder explains that the moment one sets an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.
On a political level, this is what Winston Churchill did in May 1940, when Great Britain was initially alone in standing up against Hitler’s Nazis. So did many selfless individuals who helped Jews escape persecution from the Nazis.
The book adds that modern tyranny is terror management. It is not the first time that tyrants have profited from ‘sudden disasters’ by eroding civil liberties, checks and balances and normal procedure. But we can always choose not to comply. This is what Hannah Arendt did after the Reichstag fire in Nazi Germany. Indeed, she wrote that “I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander”.
Snyder adds that professional ethics are imperative in such circumstances. As he puts it, when political leaders set a negative example, professional commitment to fair practice becomes even more important. In his words, “Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seeks businessmen interested in cheap labour”.
Here, it is imperative to believe in truth and not to reduce everything to spectacle. The reader is warned that one submits to tyranny when one renounces the difference between what one wants to hear and what is actually the case.
“Post-truth is pre-fascism”, and fascists loved slogans that resonated like a new religion.
Snyder also refers to various ways how we can equip ourselves against tyrants in the making. These include reading, investigating, figuring out things for oneself and spending more time with long articles. One may also wish to subscribe to reputable media and to share and retweet statements and writings of those who follow journalistic protocols.
We may thus equip ourselves against perils such as fake identities, fake news, alternative facts and online trolls. We may also avoid internet bait which tries to hook us.
We may also be attentive to the use of language to justify power. For example when adversaries are labelled ‘extremists’ or when governments justify ‘exceptional’ behaviour by removing checks and balances.
Finally, Snyder invites his readers to be patriotic and courageous. As he puts it, patriots are not those who share advisers with oligarchs or who admire foreign dictators. Patriots are those who serve their country and who want it to live up to its ideals.
In turbulent political times we may be tempted to ignore the bigger picture in favour of personal perks or detached gratification. But we may also choose not to succumb to those who imperil democracy. And no one can take away this freedom.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Country before Party - AD should join the coalition


At 1.30pm today, a delegation representing Alternattiva Demokratika - The Green Party will be meeting a delegation representing the Nationalist Party. The possibility of broadening the national rainbow pre-electoral coalition, Forza Nazzjonali, will be discussed. 

I reiterate my strong belief that AD should join the coalition, for two main reasons. 

First, this will help create a national democratic force to defeat the Labour Party in the upcoming general elections. Labour has been hijacked by the Panama Papers gang, and corruption is overdetermining its style of governance. Malta is facing a political and constitutional crisis, and trust in institutions such as the Police is being eroded. 

Second, as things stand, this is the only way how third party candidates can have a real chance of being elected in parliament. Given that candidates from different parties will be on the same list, the 'wasted vote' preoccupation of many voters will be defeated, and votes for separate parties will not be split to Labour's advantage. This is because votes given to candidates from different parties but on the same party list will be counted together as one group.

If AD does not join the coalition it risks fading into irrelevance. 

I assume that the Greens will be offered a similar type of offer that was agreed upon by the Nationalist and Democratic Parties. This comprises the following:

1. The parties will be contesting the next election under the PN’s name and banner, with PD candidates to have Tal-Orangjo added after their name. Candidates fall under the respective parties' responsibilities.

2. The parties will be working together to present one electoral programme and that, if elected, will take decisions and give appointments in the best interests  of the country and without partisan considerations.

3. The parties will have one single manifesto, based on the principles of good governance, social justice, a sustainable economy, safeguarding of the environment and constitutional reform.

I think that this agreement represents a sensible, realistic, proportionate and genuine compromise.

I am writing as a former Chairperson of the Greens, a Green local councillor since 2003 and as a proponent of the rainbow coalition for the past two years. But above all, I am writing as someone who believes that country comes before party.  

I also confirm that I will not be contesting the general elections, but I will do my best to assist a coalition victory for Malta's greater good. 

Country before party. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Marlene impact

What is Marlene Farrugia’s impact on Malta’s political situation? On November 30, 2015, I published an article in the Times of Malta entitled 'Marlene's Moment'. I hypothesised that Farrugia’s resignation from the Labour Party could be indicative of the party’s potential implosion.
My reasoning was based on the premise that it is one thing to win an election by reconciling different interests, factions and ideas, but it is another thing to govern over such a broad spectrum.
Two years later, polls show that Labour is still in the lead, even though the margin of error and relatively high number of undecided/undeclared voters suggest that a red victory is not a foregone conclusion.
In my article I also wrote that Marlene Farrugia was proving to be a bold, effective and charismatic parliamentarian, and that her resignation from Labour can make history. I suggested that there are various paths that she could follow.
These included being an independent and non-partisan citizens’ voice through parliamentarian and extra-parliamentarian activism; to join Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party (AD); or to contest the forthcoming general elections with the Nationalist Party. I considered the latter to be her safest bet should she wish to continue her parliamentary career.
In subsequent articles during the past two years, I argued that as things stand, the only way for small parties to stand a chance for parliamentary election is through pre-electoral ‘rainbow’ coalitions with bigger parties. The fear of the ‘wasted vote’ would be defeated, as voters who are sympathetic to third party candidates would be voting within a big party list. This could be to the advantage of both the big and small parties on the same party list, and would avoid giving an advantage to the other big party which a voter would not want in government.
In the meantime Farrugia launched her own party, the Partit Demokratiku (PD), and it recently announced its intention to be part of a pre-electoral coalition with the Nationalist Party. The main premise of this coalition, if it takes place, is that it can unite forces to remove Labour from government and ensure that a Nationalist government is kept in check. At the same time, big and small party candidates will be on the same voting list, thus avoiding splitting votes to Labour’s advantage.
There were various reactions to this strategy. Labour said that this shows the Nationalist Party’s weakness and instability, and that only Joseph Muscat can guarantee a stable government. In what seems to be a coordinated strategy, different news reports added that not all PN candidates were enthusiastic about the coalition option.
Carmel Cacopardo from the Green Party was not impressed either, and said that principles come before arithmetic. Henry Battistino from the other small party, the Patriots, argued that with a coalition in place, it is only his party and the Greens which are offering an alternative to the big parties.
On the other hand Ann Fenech from the Nationalist Party argued that this can be the way forward for politics of consensus for the greater good, and PD’s Anthony Buttigieg said that a coalition will ensure that values such as good governance and transparency are in place.
The social media was coloured with all sorts of comments, some being more realistic than others. On the non-realistic end, some expressed the wish to have a change in Malta’s electoral law to give a chance to small parties.
Any serious political analyst knows that a change in electoral law has zero chance of coming to life before the next general election. And in my opinion, small parties do have a chance. If they form part of a pre-electoral coalition, that is.
I reiterate that rather than waiting on the sidelines for some magic electoral moment that might never come, it would be more useful for small parties to try to seek maximum opportunity through existing electoral options.
This would involve compromise and give-and-take, which are two essential characteristics of liberal democracy. But it could also mean that one’s principles are represented in parliament.
In the meantime, as electoral fever is increasing, one can only expect a greater polarisation of opinions on Marlene’s impact.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Open letter to Arnold Cassola

In reply to Arnold's request to Daphne Caruana Galizia to give evidence on the Egrant scandal to the enquiry demanded by Joseph Muscat - the same enquiry that was called for too late in the day due to Police inaction and suspicious movements from Pilatus Bank.

Dear Arnold,


With all due respect: sorry you are wrong. The enquiry being carried out is a farce. 

Judging by his comment on your wall, even Carmel Cacopardo agrees that Daphne is right. She is doing her job as a journalist. 

AD should join tomorrow's demonstration and put country before party. 

Malta is facing an institutional crisis. And AD is heading towards irrelevance by sitting on the fence. We Greens should know better than constructing partisan walls.

Arnold, you mention egos on your wall. This is not about egos - let us leave that to the psychologists. This is about a gang which is usurping Malta's institutions. 


Given that Labour will not remove the gang which has taken over, the people in the streets can do this through peaceful protest. 

Will you attend tomorrow's protest? I will. As a Green.

Respectfully yours,

Michael


p.s. As you know, last year proof on Panama Papers was published online by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. It is available here. This should have been enough to have a national coalition against the gang.



Thursday, April 20, 2017

#StopCorruption Stand up to be counted #Malta


Malta needs a national democratic coalition to stop the malaise of corruption. Persons of goodwill, red, blue, green, orange and of no political colour should stand up to be counted.

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Update 21/4/17: 11.07am: Malta is facing an institutional crisis.  The  Prime Minister should resign until his name is cleared. I will be attending Sunday's protest.
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Update 21/4/17: 2.15pm: Civil Society Network calls for coalition for good governance. More info here

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Norm Rejection live at Rock the South

Norm Rejection will be headlining the red stage on the third and final day of Rock the South at Zion, Marsascala, on Sunday 23rd April between 2230 and 2310 sharp. Full programme is attached below (click on it for larger version).

Norm Rejection is Wil Pace (Vocals), Sean Vukovic (Guitar), Michael Briguglio (Drums)

Facebook event page of rock the south. Click here.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Big Data, Big Issues

Big data is a new term in the world of policymaking. It is at once all over the place yet invisible. Indeed, many people have probably never heard of it.
A cursory search for the meaning of big data reveals that this refers to data that is too big to be processed through traditional methods. This data can be used to analyse human behaviour and policy processes, and can also be useful to predict, to increase efficiency, and to innovate.
Both individuals and organisations can benefit from big data through personalised services, networked-policymaking, online consultation, prevention of terrorist attacks and traffic management, to name a few.
The network societies in which we live are subject to all forms of big data. Human beings interact on the Internet to buy products, to communicate with friends, to seek government services, to entertain themselves, and in a myriad of other ways. In turn, such behaviour is connected like a capillary, and big data is produced.
In practical terms: did you ever wonder why adverts which pop up on your computer or smartphone are usually related to your tastes? For example, I buy a lot of books, so I frequently get adverts from booksellers. Similarly, Joseph Muscat’s face was all over the Maltese online-sphere before the 2013 general election. And security agencies usually show great interest in the online activity of suspected terrorists.
These are not coincidences. These are produced through analytics, a key element of big data. Our digital footprint provides all sorts of data which can be used by government agencies, private companies, financial institutions and search engines. They might want to sell us products which satisfy our tastes, make sure that our behaviour conforms with legislation, or verify whether new policies may be effective.
The new world of big data is generating great interest in the social sciences. Some see it as a tool of democratisation and evidence-based policymaking. Others see it as Orwell’s 1984 in a 21st century setting.
In this regard, a group of sociologists from the University of Stanford recently announced that online research studies can help us understand better the way how people interact with each other and with social structures. Analysis of online behaviour can also show how and why people trust each other.
Some examples come to mind. Why do some people give more importance to ‘fake’ news than to the established media? Why do some online providers of services win customers, while others fail miserably? Why are some bloggers trusted more than certain government agencies? Why do some people create fake profiles, and why are many people increasingly willing to reveal private information on the social media?
The big data issue is also being given importance by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), which represents different civil society interests across the EU.
The EESC recently published a study which focused on the ethical and social implications of big data. Its findings and recommendations should be of great interest to policymakers.
The study highlights the benefits of big data but also emphasises risks on individuals such as breaches of privacy and surveillance. When interacting online, we might be unintentionally giving away information to third parties.
Hence, the EESC is recommending a European web portal which informs citizens as to what personal data they have given in exchange for what services. Besides, a European digital service may be created which certifies companies for ethical data protection practices. In turn, this could win trust of consumers and be used as a positive criterion for public procurement by government agencies.
Another recommendation by the EESC deals with healthcare. Here, citizens would be able to provide information to healthcare institutions such as hospitals and universities which will then be anonymised and used for better health services.
The EESC is also recommending increased digital education on big data so that citizens can be better informed about their online rights and responsibilities.
In this regard, it is positive to note that a variety of Maltese institutions are showing increased interest and activity on such education and practices. This area is ripe for political consensus.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Deciphering the surplus

Image result for malta surplus 2016

For the first time since 1981, the government’s consolidated fund registered a surplus for the year ending 2016. Finance Minister Edward Scicluna said he expected the €8.9 million surplus to grow when the accrual accounts are presented.
As expected, this news led to opposing reactions from Malta’s parliamentary forces. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the country was performing an economic miracle without resorting to austerity measures.
The leader of the Opposition, Simon Busuttil, replied that the surplus was mainly achieved due to reduced capital expenditure. This was immediately rebutted by the government, which emphasised that the such expenditure was within normal levels.
Busuttil stressed that the government’s recurrent expenditure was growing in a way which reflected ‘vote-buying’ tactics by the ‘populist’ government.
So is the government’s surplus good or bad?
If you had to ask me, this is good news. Indeed, Malta is continuing a trend that was also present under the previous Gonzi administration, namely to navigate in a relatively safe manner amid rough economic seas in southern Europe.
The 2016 surplus shows that the present government is apparently now doing even better.
However, it has to be seen whether this surplus is the beginning of a trend or whether it will be a poisoned chalice that tempts the government to put fiscal prudence aside.
I hope this surplus is not a product of creative accounting, as was the case before the 1996 general election. The deficit of the time proved to be much bigger than what was stated by the previous Fenech Adami administration, thus presenting the new Alfred Sant government with unanticipated obstacles.
But today’s government accounting systems offer less possibilities for fiscal deceit. So let us assume that the surplus adequately reflects the current state of affairs.
The government can adopt different strategies to build upon this success.
First, it can opt for increased expenditure and investment in priority areas such as welfare, environmental protection and education. Such investment can arguably have an economic multiplier effect like the creation of employment (including green jobs) and it can also help improve people’s quality of life. In this regard, I commend the government’s current active-labour policies that are encouraging people to seek employment and avoid welfare dependency.
Second, the government can opt for an electoral shopping spree to encourage people to vote Labour in the upcoming election. Malta witnessed such examples of the power of incumbency in various previous elections. Government and parastatal corporations were used as employment agencies and various quick-fix infrastructural works were carried out at the expense of the taxpayer.
The government may obviously be tempted to take this route and my suspicion is that the cash-for-passports scheme will be used for this purpose. As I had written some weeks ago, this scheme is shrouded by secrecy and is not subject to the accountability characterising European Union and budgetary funds.
Another route the government may take is that of fiscal prudence. Perhaps Parliament should debate whether Malta’s Constitution should include a ‘golden rule’ that does not allow fiscal deficits, thus ensuring that future generations would not have to carry financial burdens.
In this regard, the government may also decide to adopt a Norwegian model and create a sovereign fund financed by surpluses that can then be used when the need arises in the future. Parliamentary consensus on such a policy can result in a fiscal pact and, thus, avoid certain unsustainable practices.
The above routes do not necessarily exclude each other and they may be complemented by different fiscal strategies with regard to income tax, VAT and so forth.
It is important to note that Malta also had a hefty national debt of €5,785,000,000 as at December 31, 2016.
Theoretically, if Malta’s surplus represents a trend rather than a one-off achievement, this will have a positive impact on national debt. But debt can also grow in absolute terms, decrease in relative terms and, thus, conform to the EU Stability and Growth Pact.
This takes place when the national debt ratio to the country’s GDP decreases, mainly due to three factors: a growing economy, a yearly deficit of under three per cent and a government debt ratio of 60 per cent of GDP. Malta is currently satisfying all criteria.