Monday, January 30, 2017

The billion-euro question

Times of Malta 30 January 2017
What is being done with the millions of euros being collected through Malta’s cash-for-citizenship scheme?
Officially known as the Individual Investor Programme, this scheme allows non-EU nationals to purchase Maltese citizenship through €1.15 million in cash, real estate and stocks or bonds under an obligatory one-year residency clause. The government promised that no more than 1,800 Maltese passports will be sold to very rich non-Maltese citizens.
How are things faring so far? Let’s take a look at official data released last November by the national regulator. As at June 2016, this scheme generated revenue which exceeds €218.7 million.
A total 723 applications were received in three years, 450 of which last year. The latter accounts for 1,186 persons when one considers the dependents of applicants. In all, 241 applications had been approved so far during year, an increase of 75 per cent from previous year. The rejected amounted to 52.
According to the regulator, the funds generated since this scheme was launched were distributed to various governmental and private entities. This includes almost €55 million within the National Development and Social Fund, around €23.5 million within Malta’s Consolidated Fund; around €7.3 million to Identity Malta and around €5.8 million to Henley & Partners. Furthermore, almost €134 million worth of applications were still under consideration and were therefore accounted for within the suspense account. Besides, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici recently announced in Parliament that around €1.7 million were donated to NGOs as at year end 2016.
The funds generated from Malta’s cash-for-citizenship scheme account for almost three per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. Some may say that this is adding wealth to the Maltese economy especially since the global Passport Index now ranks Malta as having the ninth most powerful passport in the world in terms of mobility opportunities.
Indeed, Malta offers visa-free travel to 150 countries apart from being part of the EU Schengen area.
Who is actually benefitting from such travel is another question. Indeed it is paradoxical that while such opportunities are created for the mega-rich, other persons who flee war and misery are subject to limited mobility, detention or deportation.
From an economic perspective, one may argue that Malta is now becoming dependent on the sale of passports, as Malta’s economy will shrink if the sale stops.
Hence, it would be timely to find alternative sources of revenue which are more sustainable. This is especially the case when the current administration is also emphasising economic paths which commodify everything.
This includes rendering Malta into a crammed and congested building site for massive projects such as high-rise development, and privatising certain public services through non-transparent deals.
But let’s go back to the question with which I opened the article. Can the government elaborate on the revenue generated from the scheme?
For example, is all revenue being accounted for? If the government believes so, is there tangible proof of this, for example through investigations and audit trails?
As regards revenue being deposited in public coffers, does further information exist? For example, what is IdentityMalta doing with its revenue? Is the amount deposited within the consolidated fund used for general or specific government expenditure?
As regards the National Development and Social Fund, what exactly does this represent? Who decides on the allocation and utilisation of funds? What are the timelines? Does a business plan exist? Does this fund have line items of budgeted expenditure?
My hunch is that this fund will be used by the Labour government for partisan purposes in the run up to the general election. Alfred Sant once dubbed such a method as the power of incumbency.
If the Labour government embarks on such a pre-election shopping spree, is this ethical or politically acceptable?
Let us keep in mind that the National Development and Social Fund is not part of the EU funding framework which is subject to strict rules and regulations. Rather, it is under the discretion of those who control it, namely a government characterised by a governance deficit, a Panama Papers albatross around its neck and countless examples of bad governance in its pockets.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Salvu and the small parties

Salvu Mallia’s entry in the political scene has grabbed the headlines for the wrong reasons, which were often based on lazy sensationalism. I am not very much inclined towards Mallia’s communicative style, but what interests me more is the substance of his discourse. In particular, he expresses the sentiment of certain liberal floating voters who trusted Labour in 2013 but were left disappointed.
My reading of Mallia is that he believes that change can come about within one of the two major parties, given their mass support and voters’ consistent preference for candidates from big parties in general elections.
Most voters who are dissatisfied with one major party tend to shift voting preference to other candidates within the same party or to vote for another major party. Such voters prefer this than voting for a small party or not voting at all. And this is also taking place in a context of decreased voter loyalty.
Hence Mallia’s strategy within the political system against the greater adversary, which according to him is the Muscat-Mizzi-Schembri oligarchy.
Of course, such voters are free to disagree with Mallia and may vote for a small party. And the next elections will seem to offer quite a choice in this regard. But do small parties stand a chance to be elected to parliament?
In my view, as things stand, and basing my view on voting trends, the only way small parties can be elected in parliament is through pre-electoral coalitions with bigger parties. Here small parties may field candidates on big party lists, thus overcoming the fear of the ‘wasted vote’ which concerns many voters. This is because should the respective small party candidate not be elected, he or she would still be on a big party list and the vote would still go to that party.  In a way, this is what Mallia is doing, but without being part of a small party.
Should the candidate be elected, he or she can then be in parliament while remaining a member of a small party. This strategy was adopted by Greens in two general elections in Greece in 2015. They contested on the Syriza party list while remaining green party representatives. This resulted in a Green Alternate Minister for the Environment, Giannis Tsironis.

Needless to say, having a pre-electoral coalition has its risks. The only concrete attempt at having this in 2003, when PN and AD were discussing the possibility, did not result in a coalition. But it guaranteed Malta’s entry into the EU.

Small parties can also form post-election coalitions and may also decide to go it alone in parliament, should any of their candidates be elected. Unless Malta encounters a sudden radical political shift, I wouldn’t bet on this option.
This option however gives primacy to important internal sociological, psychological and organisational factors, such as party identity and hope for future growth. On the other hand, non-election can result in disappointment among candidates and party activists who may opt for other political routes.
Even if small parties are not elected in parliament they have other sources of influence. For example, the existence of Malta’s green party is a major reason why the Maltese public is sensitised on issues such as the environment, civil rights and good governance. And some Greens do get elected in local elections.
Besides, the mere existence of small parties can act as an electoral ‘threat’ to big parties which consequently include certain small party issues in their electoral manifestos.
Small parties can also unintentionally assist one big party over another by winning votes from voters whose demographic background or ideological orientation would be closer to that of another big party.
Which takes us to some big questions. Should small parties put their identity before the bigger picture, or can there be room for compromise? Is it correct for small parties to treat big parties as if they were equivalent?  Does anyone want pre-electoral coalitions? Do grudges and pride assist or hinder collaboration between political parties?
European democracy is full of examples of cross-party collaboration. In Malta this only seems to take place when certain non-partisan individuals in parties work together on civil society issues.
(picture in caption depicts a hegemonic formation)

Monday, January 16, 2017

Farewell, Bauman

Times of Malta 16 January 2017
Zygmunt Bauman, one of the most influential sociologists of our times, passed away a few days ago, aged 91. His influence in the academic world is immense, and it is no coincidence that a Bauman Institute was set up in Britain a few years ago. He also became a leading voice for global solidarity across the global media sphere, penning articles and giving interviews for public consumption right up to his passing away.

Before becoming the world-famous sociologist based at the University of Leeds, Bauman had his fair share of life experiences. During and after World War II, he was a communist military officer in Poland. Here he encountered sociology and eventually became a lecturer at the University of Warsaw.

In 1968 Poland faced a political crisis. Intellectuals and students protested against state repression and called for democratisation. This social movement coincided with the Prague spring in Czechoslovakia, which was ultimately repressed by Soviet tanks.

Bauman supported the dissident movement and resigned from member of the ruling Workers’ Party. He was consequently purged together with other Jewish Poles, and after some time in Israel, he eventually emigrated to Britain where he assumed the role of chair in sociology at the University of Leeds. The rest is history.

As a sociologist with global influence, Bauman excelled in two main areas: his conceptualisation of modernity and the Holocaust and his conceptualisation of liquid modernity.

As regards the former, he warned about the dangers of prioritising bureaucracy over values such as care and responsibility. Sure, processes, order and efficiency are key aspects of modern societies, but they should not become an end in itself, devoid of ethics.

Bauman argued that if bureaucracy were taken to its extreme logical conclusion, it could be no different from the holocaust: an efficient machine which eliminates those who do not conform to the ruling diktat. And yet, unfortunately, genocide has not been erased from human history after the Nazi genocide that ended in 1945. Which means that any ideology or form of governance that brushes out the discourse of ethics should be treated suspiciously.

More recently, Bauman focused on liquid modernity. Here, he conceptualised contemporary society as one being paradoxically characterised by freedom and precariousness. In the liquid society we are free to construct our own identity kits, whether through consumption, sexuality, education, family life, employment and other social experiences. Yet, it becomes increasingly difficult to cling to security and stability. Precariousness can affect all these experiences, whether through poverty, unemployment, illness or family breakdown. Love becomes liquid too. It can last, but it can also flow away into nothingness.

Hence, one’s freedom is always relational: it can have a positive or negative impact on someone else’s freedom, identity and aspirations.

In this regard, a pertinent question of our times is how can we reconcile freedom with solidarity. Bauman argues that there never is a final answer to this question, but he warns that a self-interested individualism immersed in the market can tilt the balance too far away from solidarity.

Still, we are living in a globalised marketplace which seems to give priority to consumers’ self-gratification over the plight of those experiencing precariousness. And each and every one of us is at once a consumer with potential or actual precariousness.

Should this lead to the breakdown of society? Bauman argues that politics and social policy have essential roles in redistributing wealth and enhancing egalitarian social relations. In this regard, the welfare state is a key institution which helps us encounter our insecurities and anxieties, through the sharing and pooling of rights and responsibilities.

In his later writings, Bauman also explored the idea of an interregnum – where contemporary society seems to be suspended in a period between major historic shifts.

Bauman reconciled the best of the social democratic tradition with philosophies such as existentialism, without getting stuck into some nostalgic politics of yesteryear. Like philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in the 19th century, Bauman shows how freedom is a leap in the dark. Sure, we are free to improve our life situation, but we also know that things can go wrong. Whether one is a parent, a refugee, a worker or a policymaker, taking decisions is never easy.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Reading Salvu

It is incredible how some self-appointed political 'experts' fail to see the big picture in the Salvu Mallia phenomenon.

If Joseph Muscat does a trick with his left hand only to deviate us from something real with his right, Salvu Mallia is saying some important stuff beyond what is currently appealing to lazy sensationalism and partisan grudges.

Concerns of European citizens

In our times of turbulence, the European Union faces a myriad of existential and practical challenges. In such a context, it is imperative to understand the concerns of the union’s citizens.
One very important tool in this regard is the Eurobarometer. It comprises social-scientific public opinion surveys which are regularly conducted by the European Commission. These surveys gauge people’s perceptions on a range of topical issues which relate to the European Union and its member states.
The most recent Eurobarometer survey can help us understand why political forces such as those of the populist right are doing relatively well within the EU. Paradoxically, it also shows that the same EU enjoys more popular support than often portrayed by Eurosceptic forces including some from the same populist right.
In a nutshell, the latest Eurobarometer clearly shows that migration and terrorism are top European concerns and that support for the EU and the Euro currency is high.
Migration was cited as the top European challenge by 45 per cent of respondents, while terrorism was cited by 32 per cent. Comparatively, member states’ public finances and unemployment scored 17 per cent and 16 per cent respectively.
Migration was cited as the top European challenge in all EU member states, save for Spain and Portugal. Besides, 69 per cent of respondents expressed support for a European migration policy, 61 per cent were positive about migration within EU member states and 81 per cent were in favour of free movement of EU citizens ‘who can live, work, study and do business anywhere in the EU’.
If political strategy aims to be effective, it should be grounded in reality and avoid being trapped in narcissistic bubbles of rhetoric
On the other hand, 56 per cent of respondents were negative about immigration from outside the EU.
As regards challenges at national level, however, unemployment topped migration as the major concern, scoring 31 per cent compared to the latter’s 26 per cent.
In Malta, migration is seen as the biggest European challenge, at 65 per cent, followed by terrorism at 45 per cent.  67 per cent of the Maltese are optimistic about the future of the EU, and 82 per cent of Maltese feel that they are citizens of the EU.
On a European level, 67 per cent of respondents feel that they are EU citizens. The union’s priorities and polices have strong support, and this has increased compared to the previous survey in spring 2016. The Euro enjoys support of 58 per cent within the EU and 70 per cent within the euro area, and a majority of Europeans support state action to stimulate private sector investment within the EU.
There are various ways of interpreting such figures. In my reading, one conclusion is that people do not simply respond to political parties and ideologies by accepting everything as a monolithic credo. To the contrary,people tend to be reflexive and engage with issues and discourses through their everyday experiences and beliefs.
Hence, for example one can be pro-EU but concerned with migration. In a way this position crosses the political spectrum. Indeed, progressives and liberal parties tend to be more supportive of the EU and its policies, whilst conservative, nationalistic and authoritarian parties tend to be more concerned with issues such as migration and with perceived threats to communities and nations.
In this regard, if political strategy aims to be effective, it should be grounded in reality and avoid being trapped in narcissistic bubbles of rhetoric which are detached from people’s concerns. Labels such as ‘bigots’ and ‘racists’ will simply not brush away many people’s concerns on issues like migration, employment and security.
Blaming ‘the mainstream media’ for ‘duping the people’ should also be avoided. This lazy approach is doubtful on two main counts. First, there is no such thing as one uniform media - for every populist tabloid one also finds mainstream news channels which promote solidarity. Second, people tend to interpret the media in different ways.
Finally, I think that it would be very unwise for political strategists to assume that they have a monopoly of truth. In today’s age of networks, social media, multi-directional communication and plural civil society voices, politicians must respond to public concern just as much as they try to influence the public with their own agendas and policies.

Monday, January 02, 2017

The Lonely Festive Season

Two recent news articles in the Times of Malta struck me for pointing out social problems that deserve more attention: loneliness and mental health. In one article, Mental Health Services chairman Anton Grech was quoted saying that dealing with depression or anxiety can get tougher during the festive period. Paradoxically, at a time when families and friends get together to celebrate, some people feel a greater sense of social isolation and loneliness.
In the other article, Caritas director Leonid Mackay referred to sociological studies which emphasised the loneliness experienced by a substantial number of elderly people in Malta.
Such media reports can help sensitise the public and policymakers to the importance of these issues. I feel this is particularly important when both loneliness and mental health are being elbowed out of Malta’s social policy debate.
This is not due to some conspiracy or some grand design but is an unintended consequence of the current wave of debates and social policies that attract more attention in the public sphere.
Policymakers and the press should go beyond current trendsetters and dig deeper in social realities that may not be so fancy and sensational but which may be equally ‘real’.
As sociologist Max Weber put it a century ago, it is important to understand the meanings that people give to their social world. And loneliness and mental health are two issues which deserve more understanding.
For example, it is important to understand that society is not only made up of the persons and identities whom we are accustomed to read about but also of a myriad of others who may be more susceptible to loneliness and mental health challenges.
These may include new pensioners unprepared to face a brave new world after decades of employment; foreigners without family or friends; persons anxious about the personal, family and social changes taking place around them; victims of bullying, racism, labelling, sexism and other forms of discrimination; people who don’t ‘fit in’, and persons who may not even be aware of their mental health situation.
Loneliness and mental health are being elbowed out of Malta’s social policy debate
The list can go on.
I use the term ‘persons’ consciously as I feel the sociological duty to emphasise that sometimes even those who are associated with strength and power may be weak, lonely and fragile and this may also include heterosexual men who are often portrayed as the opposite.
Policy making for gender equality needs to take account of this in the drive towards a more inclusive society.
Indeed, policy making should build upon success stories in other areas and try to mainstream issues such as loneliness and mental health. Both issues are often treated as taboos, for example when persons feel embarrassed to seek professional assistance or to speak up about their anxiety or loneliness.
But the taboo status was also the case in other areas such as LGBTIQ rights and Malta has really moved places in this regard.
Education, the media, politicians and civil society all have a role to play in the attempt to make such issues more visible. Some already do so and they deserve more support.
Loneliness and mental health can transverse ideological and partisan divides and can also be characterised by different forms of governance.
The latter can include the contribution of public, private and voluntary sectors as well as the empowering of persons through the ethic of the care of the self. The social media, schools, local councils and lifelong learning opportunities can enable the construction of stronger communities which are sensitised to such challenges.
In turn, disciplines such as sociology, linguistics, translation studies, psychology, psychiatry, social work and counselling are essential to have social professions who may work in such fields.
Perhaps a good new year’s resolution by stakeholders of Malta’s public sphere would be to look beyond trendy issues that grab most likes and sensational comments.
Best wishes to readers of the Times of Malta. May you experience a lovely new year.