Monday, February 27, 2017

Running out of tricks

When Daphne Caruana Galizia hit the headlines through her writings on Chris Cardona’s voyage to Germany, the minister responded through libels and garnishee orders. Some said he did the right thing, many others said that he overreacted. This was a threat to press freedom, they argued.
The Labour government immediately hit the media sphere by both supporting Cardona and proposing new press legislation. The latter is being promoted as a guarantor of free speech, but it seems more of a rash mish-mash of à la carte proposals which contradict each other. Looks like European continental breakfast stir-fried and topped with Chinese soy sauce.
Indeed, if Cardona’s garnishee order opened a Pandora’s box of opposition, the government’s subsequent actions opened even bigger ones.
On the one hand, the new media proposal does away with contentious criminal libel. Journalistic defences in civil libel suits will be broadened, and warrants in libel lawsuits will be banned. So far so good.
But on the other hand, the proposed law also suggests that Malta-based websites dealing with news or current affairs have to register in a government-controlled system. Failure to do so can result in fines. Critics are stating that this is reminiscent of authoritarian regimes.
Many questions follow. What exactly is a news or current affairs website? And what isn’t? And what exactly will the government internet register do? What if government starts introducing restrictive conditions for such websites, driving them out of the business of free speech?
Let us keep in mind that in authoritarian regimes, state agencies carry out surveillance not only for security purposes but also to stifle criticism, repress dissidents and track down protest. Activists in Hong Kong, Turkey, Russia, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan know something about this.
Ever conscious about its media communiques, the government is now investing in a damage control exercise. Justice Minister Owen Bonnici recently tried to assure critics that the proposed legislation was aimed at news websites, and said the government was open to defining this better in the proposed law.
But assurances from the Labour government must be put into context. This is the same government that promised transparency of public contracts, accountability, fixing the Sai Mizzi Liang mess, you name it.
Writing on the proposed media law, Malta Today columnist Raphael Vassallo couldn’t have put it better when he stated that “if it ain’t broke, don’t reinvent it”. And Malta’s internet sphere, with all its plusses and minuses, is one of the pillars of its liberal democracy. Legal remedies already exist against fake or libellous news posted on the internet. If anything, they should be refined and not substituted by proposals that would make Putin proud.
Citizens who are not involved in the public sphere may not care about the proposed legislation. But practically all citizens are involved in the internet, so they can end up being sucked in the law’s ramifications should it rear its ugly head.
But paradoxically, the dark side of the government’s proposals can also serve as a motivation for net-resistance. And it already is.
The internet is not a physical publishing house which can be burned down. Its messages are multi-directional and can be disseminated from anyone at any time and in every corner of the world. Sure, governments and big businesses have more resources at their disposal, but the recipients of messages can also be the producers of dissent. And net resistance can never be captured and completely stopped.
These past days offered some colourful examples. Take the Egrant ownership news item which was obviously orchestrated to coincide with the Pana committee’s visit to Malta. Rather than clearing the air, it resulted in a chorus of disbelief on the social media. If anything, government is now even less credible than it was in the run-up to Pana.
Some days later, the government suddenly proposed gay marriage and millons of euros’ worth of social housing. Again, the timing of these proposals suggested that they were attempts to divert from issues which are embarrassing the government. And this was pointed out by many on the web. The issue was not whether the government was proposing the right thing, but whether government is running out of media tricks.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Equivalent political parties?

Times of Malta 20 February 2017

Voters who are attracted to smaller parties may face difficult choices in Maltese general elections. Should they vote for a small party which reflects their beliefs, or should they vote for one of the two large parties?
Voting for the former will most probably not result in parliamentary election. It can also assist the large party which is furthest from one’s beliefs. And voting for a large party can help it win the election but can eventually result in disappointment if it betrays promises close to the voter’s heart.
Examples of the latter include Labour’s promises of meritocracy and good governance before the 2013 election. Very few analytical voters would dispute that Labour has failed miserably in this regard.
On the other hand, Labour’s promises to certain lobbies and interest groups have borne fruit. These cross ideological lines and include the hunting lobby, big business, the construction industry and the LGBTIQ movement among others.
In many instances, Labour has also capitalised on the sectarianism and lack of cross-interest alliances in Maltese civil society. For example, Malta’s LGBTIQ movement has various progressive aims and has impressively constructed a united front on related issues. But the same movement has not actively supported other progressive causes in Malta, such as environmentalism and anti-poverty.
Thus, voters who may have beliefs which are closer to the Green Party may have voted Labour in 2013 as they knew that their aspirations were more likely to be achieved this way. Today, some are rather satisfied with Labour’s reforms in related areas such as civil rights and social policy. But others are terribly disappointed when they consider the overall style of Labour governance.
The latter may consequently form part of the sizeable minority of voters who are expressing lack of trust towards both major political parties. Whether they will abstain from voting, invalidate their vote, vote for a small party or end up voting for a large party can never be fully captured in advance by surveys.
Perhaps a cross-party, pre-electoral coalition – with different party candidates on the same list – may offer the best of both worlds if formulated properly. It would comprise smaller parties who are closer to such voters’ beliefs, and it would also dispel the ‘wasted vote’ threat.
And this takes me to a very important consideration for Malta today: equivalence.
Should the Labour and Nationalist parties be seen as equivalent? Do their respective mass party structures make them identical? Or are there key differences between them?
Here I am not only referring to ideology and issue proposals. Indeed, one party may be more to the left than the other on certain issues, and less liberal on others.
What I am referring to is style of governance. Particularly when it comes to controversial decisions, allegations of corruption, long-term societal implications and so forth.
Voters may not cite governance as the most important issue in surveys, yet its implications can be universally applicable across various sectors. For example, corruption can have negative implications in economic and environmental terms.
Labour is playing a cynical yet effective game in this regard. Whenever the government is in trouble on matters such as corruption, its media strategists and allies use trump cards by blowing up comparatively minor issues that embarrass the Nationalist Party.
The Labour media strategy thus aims to increase disillusion with the entire political system, so that the voters Labour risks losing do not vote blue. Small parties and civil society are thus seen as useful bait by Labour and its allies: small party criticism and differences with the PN are amplified, but talk which does not sound good to Labour may be obscured or distorted.
The hard truth remains, however, that as things stand, the only viable hope to remove the oligarchy which is orchestrating Malta’s bad governance is to unite parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggles into a common will. Here, the bigger picture would come before sectarianism and cannibalisation.
Alternatively one can hope for Malta’s political system to implode and face a radical rupture. But this can never be predicted. Nor can its outcomes in terms of political victors and governance.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Muscat's pyrrhic victory

Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist of global influence is comparing Trump’s presidency to an experiment on whether the United States “is a nation of laws or a nation of men”. This is because US democracy, with all its limitations, has a resilient system of constitutional checks and balances against the excessive concentration of executive power.
On the other hand, Donald Trump does not seem very much concerned with the legitimacy of established institutions such as official statistics, the free press and the judiciary.
Such institutions are what differentiate liberal democracies from illiberal ones. The former is based on majority rule but equally values the rights of the individual and of minorities. Here, no majority rule can take away rights such as free speech or fair hearings at court. Multi-levels of power ranging from central government to local councils and from the judiciary to the public service are supposed to balance each other out.
Thus, democracy is safeguarded from the dangers of authoritarian or totalitarian rule. The Western world is usually seen as the best example of liberal democracy. Hence the current anxiety caused by Trump’s antics.
On the other hand, illiberal democracy is based on majority rule, full stop. Two current examples include Russia and Turkey. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan were both elected to their positions in multi-party elections, and both have popular support. Yet, checks and balances are largely lacking. Independent journalists, critical academics and civil society do not enjoy the freedoms which exist in many western societies.
Hannah Arendt, a great political thinker during the mid-20th century said that temptations to accumulate power and wealth may be found in all political systems. But liberal democracies have checks and balances which act against such excesses. And if these are weakened or destroyed, society may slip towards authoritarian or totalitarian rule.
Hence, it is the duty of every self-respecting democrat to be wary of political maneuvers which disregard checks and balances.
Which takes us to Malta.
From a legal perspective, checks and balances exist in Malta, as the country conforms to the basic prerequisites required by EU member states.
Yet, politics and policy-making is not simply about transposing legislation, important as this is.  The implementation and improvement of legislation is equally important. The state should ensure that institutions are adequately equipped to ensure that democracy functions properly.
The behavior of Joseph Muscat’s Labour government is acting in bad faith in this regard. There are too many examples of bad governance. To add insult to injury, various key exponents of the government speak and act shamelessly. Chris Cardona’s garnishee order against Daphne Caruana Galizia is the latest of such examples.
Like the various Trumps and Erdogans, the Prime Minister and a good number of Cabinet ministers say that they have the support of the majority and therefore they decide, full stop.
They ignore the advice of the National Audit Office, one of Malta’s most upright institutions. They dodge parliamentary questions and the press. When they publish public contracts, they rub off key information. They are eroding people’s trust in the police force and state authorities. Instead of resigning due to scandals such as Panama Papers, they remain anchored in their positions and kill all credibility when discussing basic issues such as electricity power cuts. They think that people are not concerned about corruption.
Well, let’s face it, when a Maltese civil society protest was held last year on the Panama Papers scandal, there weren’t the huge crowds which demonstrated in the various Icelands and Romanias. The former forced the Prime Minister to resign due to his involvement in Panama Papers, the latter has forced the government to withdraw legislation which institutionalises corruption.
But 400 people did turn up in Malta, which, by our standards, is quite high - higher than most other civil society demonstrations organised in Malta bar the 4,000-strong save Żonqor one in 2015.
And it could be the case that Malta has a silent section of voters who won’t go out to protest but will judge the government on election day. Indeed, Muscat’s huge victory in 2013 may prove to be pyrrhic one.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

A democracy that tramples upon checks, balances and accountability is treading on dangerous ground

Before the 2013 General Elections, when I chaired Alrernattiva Demokratika The Green Party, I experienced fierce criticism from Daphne Caruana Galizia and others. 

It hurt and caused me terrible anxiety. What hurt me more was that certain 'friends' did not empathize: neither face-to-face nor in public, unlike other true friends- those who are always there come rain or shine. 

But I always thought that Daphne had every right to criticize me, as this is a basic freedom in a democracy. She is a journalist, and good journalists do their job. 

I have the same thoughts for state propagandist Glenn Bedingfield, who criticized me big time during the Panamapapers civil society protest which I co-organized. Strong democracies require criticism and diverging views. 

In short, I have no brief for Daphne. But today's garnishee order against her is over the top and should be opposed by all those who believe in the basic norms of democracy. Some have already spoken up. I hope others do so too. I personally couldn't give a hoot about partisan politics when basic democratic norms are threatened.

See also: Carmel Cacopardo's blog on the matter. Click here

Monday, February 06, 2017

Towards a social Europe?

Times of Malta 6 February 2017
During the past year or so, the European Commission embarked on a consultation process on the European Pillar of Social Rights. This policy framework deals with social policy and employment and aims to create a more social and fair Europe.
This policy process is subject to negotiation and approval by the European Parliament and the European Council of Ministers. The Commission will launch its proposal around March and it will then host a ‘social summit for fair jobs and growth’ in Gothenburg, Sweden on November 17.
According to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the pillar should initially apply to Eurozone countries but other EU member states would be free to join. The pillar aims to screen employment and social matters of participating member states and to drive reforms at national level within an EU framework.
This means that rather than adopting a rigid one-size-fits-all model for the EU, the proposed model aims for a general framework with minimum standards that respect differences among member states. A similar approach was used by the EU for its climate change commitments. Here, different and particular member states have different targets within the universal EU commitment.
An important European institution in this regard is the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). This consultative committee comprises civil society representatives from all member states. Malta’s five representatives represent employers, workers and women’s organisations respectively.
Last January, the EESC produced an important document which should serve as an important backbone to the EU’s social pillar process.
It emphasised the perils of short-sighted national interests and anti-EU political parties “with quick answers but no solutions”. Other challenges which were referred to include pressures from outside the EU and to loss of trust by many persons towards political leaders and the European project.
Comparatively low growth rates within the EU and abuses such as social dumping, were highlighted as immediate social challenges. An example of the latter includes the posting of workers from one member state to another primarily to pay them lower wages than what is paid other workers doing the same job. This type of exploitation should be tackled so as to build confidence in fair competition within the European single market.
In this regard, the EESC emphasises the need for clear and coherent governance. European, national and local governing bodies shouldn’t encourage the loss of social rights for example in public procurement. The latter is often characterised by public entities buying private services at dirt-cheap prices at the expense of workers’ conditions.
According to the EESC, lack of good governance also takes place when workers who move to other EU member states encounter bureaucratic difficulties in recognition of their skills and qualifications and other social requirements. Increased standardisation of public service procedures can free workers from a big source of anxiety and insecurity in their everyday lives.
Of particular relevance to Malta is the EESC’s concern on regulatory gaps in taxation policy. In my view, the concern here is twofold. First, Malta is gaining the reputation of a country with preferential tax rates for foreign companies, thus encouraging tax avoidance. And second, Malta’s government remains stubbornly attached to the Panama Papers controversy, thus resulting in lack of credibility when it talks about good governance.  Malta’s current EU presidency only adds to the embarrassment.
Hopefully, the European Commission, Parliament and Council will take heed of the concerns of the EESC, thus ensuring that the European social pillar respects diversity within a framework of fair competition and high social standards.
Indeed, the creation of a social pillar can help reassert the European Union’s role as the largest investor in people’s social welfare and social rights. Countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Finland have consistently shown that social investment and economic competitiveness are not necessarily adverse poles. These countries top global tables in such respective areas.
The social pillar can also have an important political spin-off by constructing a European narrative which resonates with the aspirations, anxieties and hopes of millions of citizens who are being seduced by Eurosceptic narratives.
Incidentally, the UK’s departure from the EU could serve as a blessing in disguise, particularly when the UK has frequently blocked proposals for a more social Europe.