Monday, March 27, 2017

Islam taught in schools

Picture: Convergence by Jackson Pollock , 1952
Should Islam be taught in schools in Malta? This question has recently featured quite prominently in the public sphere. The issue peaked some days ago on Xarabank, the programme which everybody loves to criticise but everybody loves to watch. I saw most of it and was impressed by the civil debate despite disagreements among participants.
I also discussed the issue during some sociology lectures at the University of Malta and, again, I was most impressed by the passionate exchange among students at the University of the Third Age.
Indeed, there are four basic positions within the Islam debate. I would define these as assimilationist, secular, integrationist and multicultural.
The assimilationist view would argue that Malta is constitutionally and culturally Catholic and that, therefore, this religion should feature prominently within the educational system. As the argument goes, Malta should be proud of its religious heritage. Guests as well as religious minorities should respect this fact and, at best, pupils and students could be exempt from taking religious lessons. Assimilationists add that if future religious lobbies also call for their own religious education in schools, social cohesion and stability would be under threat from a mishmash of cultures.
The secular view also disagrees that Islam should be taught in schools. But seculars argue that no other religion should be taught, too. Instead, schools should remove religious symbols and practices and all students take up ethics. This ‘French’ model believes that secular education ensures that students are equal citizens with rights and responsibilities. In a way, the secular model is assimilationist but it replaces Catholicism with humanism.
At the opposite end one finds the multicultural view. This perspective argues that the education system should celebrate different cultures and provide for a plurality of religious and non-religious beliefs through a culture of tolerance. One major challenge of this perspective is where to draw a line and how to avoid cultural ghettos or non-compatible beliefs.
In practice: should Malta’s educational system permit religious beliefs which, for example, promote intolerance?
Finally, there is the integrationist view. This perspective gives priority to the integration of students within common values. But it does not necessarily exclude plural identities. Hence, this perspective could argue that Islam may be taught in Maltese schools provided that what is being taught does not violate Malta’s Constitution. Education Minister Evarist Bartolo is adopting this perspective. He acknowledges the right of students to have a sense of belonging to their religious background but he also made it clear that it is up to the State, and not religious lobbies, to set the curriculum.
Personally, I agree with the minister’s perspective. Incidentally, a dissertation by Omar Rababah, which I supervised, showed that parents of Muslim children in State schools would have a stronger sense of belonging if their religious identity is respected. Thus, if mutual respect takes place, this could provide a win-win situation through a culture of tolerance and respect of basic values.
This perspective can therefore provide an intercultural framework that would establish redlines as to what is acceptable and what is not. Social theorist Jurgen Habermas had dubbed this practice as ‘constitutional patriotism’.
I would however go a step further and ensure that ethics is a compulsory subject for all students while respective religious subjects would be optional for students depending on their respective religious or non-religious backgrounds.
Let us keep in mind that the Islamic education issue has parallels in other fields. For example, the learning of Maltese language. Again, I agree with the Ministry of Education’s efforts and directives to ensure that all students, irrespective of nationality, should learn Maltese and, if need be, they should be provided with extra lessons.
This too helps enforce social cohesion and integration. Various State, local council and EU-funded initiatives are also assisting in this regard.
Another related issue that requires sober discussion in Maltese society relates to the proposed anti-discrimination legislation. It is not clear where lines should be drawn between freedom, identity and dominant values, which, in the case of the proposed legislation, are liberal. Hence the need to further the deliberative process.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

For a coalition, one should be proactive

The Green Coalition debate needs to go beyond comfy yet detached bubbles and nag-nag-nagging on others.

Instead, one can think in terms of bridges, windows of opportunity and how a small party in Malta can make it to parliament. To date, realistic alternative proposals have not been presented against the proposed investigation of a pre-electoral coalition.

The (unintended) consequence of accomodating oneself in a trench could well be the perpetuation of the duopolistic status quo.

I am for a proactive exploration of a rainbow coalition because I believe that we can have a more diverse parliament.

This won't be achieved through grumbling but through real political work and negotiations: the norm of European politics.

Greens were/are partners in many national,regional and local Governments and had good impacts: Sweden is currently a case in point. There are so many other examples.

Shall we keep Malta out of this mindset?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Green Coalition debate (continued)

Malta Today journalist James Debono has published a sober and reflexive analysis of my proposal to investigate a pre-electoral coalition as well as Carmel Cacopardo's take on this. As James rightly says, the differences between Carmel and myself are not substantive but tactical.

In the meantime I wish to clarify the following:

1. I have been putting forward my proposal for quite some time, both within the Green Party as well as in public, for example in my weekly column in the Times of Malta. In short, I believe that  AD should consider and investigate a pre-electoral coalition so that it would have a real chance of being elected in parliament whilst doing away with the''wasted vote" preoccupation of so many voters who agree with the Greens but who choose a bigger party so as not to give advantage to another bigger party which they would not want in Government

2. Contrary to what is being said by some other columnists and some commentators in the social media, AD's executive has decided not to close any doors on such proposals. Indeed, this is a proposal which requires a process, and not rash decisions. Some people are really quick in appointing themselves spokespersons of Green politics, but then you never see them around come election time.

3. For Greens in Europe, coalitions are something normal in the democratic process. This what enables Greens to participate in national, regional and local governments. In Malta it is even more imperative as it is what can enable Green participation in parliament. Ironically, some local critics of this mindset are  trapped in a PLPN binary logic by ignoring the opportunities for a more pluralistic parliament and for small parties. Thinking outside the box? Ma tarax! I do not happen to be a person who in encapsulated in total love or total hate for one party or another. I am Green, but I have no problem seeking coalitions of the willing with others. And I happen to believe that this is the safest bet to do away with our suffocating tribalism. 

4. I also want to dispel any myths regarding my relationship with Carmel Cacopardo and Arnold Cassola. The three of us have strong characters, which inevitably lead to sparks when I chaired the party. Again, this is normal in all leadership structures, and Greens are surely no exception. But we also agreed most of the time and also contested on the same party ticket. I feel I can contribute much more to Green politics as a local councillor and as one of the coordinators of the Ceratonia Foundation

5. Some have asked me whether I intend to contest the 2017-8 general election. For the record, I have been asked to contest the election by more than one party, but I belong to the Greens, full-stop. I do not intend to contest this election for the simple reason that I do not aspire to be a parliamentarian. I am a dad, a full-time lecturer and I have been occupying the role of Green local councillor for around 12 years. I am more than happy like this. But I do aspire to have the Greens in parliament, and I am doing my utmost in this regard. 

James Debono's analysis can be read here.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Call for chapters: Social Policy in Southern Europe

Image result for mediterranean sea landscape malta

Academics and researchers in the field of social policy are invited to submit abstracts proposing chapters for inclusion in the forthcoming book Social Policy in Southern Europe: A Comparative Introduction, edited by sociologists Michael Briguglio and Maria BrownThe project is currently at proposal stage for publication by an internationally renowned publisher. The proposed volume will offer a concise comparative analysis of social policy in the Southern European region. It will draw on classic and contemporary theories of social policy, as well as political, social and economic contexts and processes, to illuminate contemporary social policies in Southern Europe. The proposed volume is intended to appeal to a wide international audience comprising undergraduate and postgraduate students, academics, researchers and policy-makers. 

Interested authors are invited to submit abstracts to propose chapters that discuss how the following themes are being addressed in specific Southern European countries: poverty, social exclusion, gender norms, risks, social investment, welfare regime forms, employment, governance, social movements, diversity and sustainability*. Proposed chapters should deploy a critical comparative approach that focuses on specific countries in Southern Europe whilst comparing regional commonalities and differences. 

Chapter abstracts are to be submitted to by 15th April 2017, clearly indicating:

  • Name and surname of author/s
  • Institutional Affiliation
  • Proposed chapter title
  • Country being discussed
  • Themes* addressed
  • Abstract (300 words) describing content and scope
  • Chapter sub-headings

The actual chapters will be c.2000-3000 words long.

Kindly note the following projected timeframes:
  • Abstract submission: 15th April 2017
  • Notification of acceptance or otherwise: 15th September 2017
  • Chapter drafts: 15th April 2018

For more information kindly email: 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Investigating Green coalitions

My recent interview with Albert Gauci Cunningham (Illum) brought different reactions. Some public, some private. Some positive, some negative. Some from people within AD, some from people who have some sympathy for AD, some for others whose sympathies lie elsewhere. I have no problem with different opinions which are genuine, even if we disagree. This only enriches debate. And I hope that this debate continues within AD and within the public sphere.

In case you missed the interview, I argued that AD should consider and investigate a pre-electoral coalition so that it would have a real chance of being elected in parliament whilst doing away with the ''wasted vote" preoccupation of so many voters who agree with the Greens but who choose a bigger party so as not to give advantage to another bigger party which they would not want in Government. 

Some self-proclaimed 'leftists' who are suddenly shedding crocodile tears for AD did not support it when it had a green-left manifesto in the 2013 and 2014 general and European elections. Just because they yell and troll on Facebook doesn't make them Green Party members and only reveals their lack of contact with diverse AD activists who are contributing to the party in different ways. Green Parties in Europe are always characterised by vibrant dialogue from the radical and realist wings and this is what enriches them. My appeal to the crocodile criers is simple: Be consistent and match your rhetoric with action. Talk is cheap.

Needless to say, some of those who are most nervous with my intervention include some who want a Labour government at all costs. Fair enough, but they should make this clear. My intentions are clear: Having the Greens in parliament through realistic strategy, and not through the politics from Mars. And this is precisely what most Green Parties in Europe do: forming coalitions at national, regional and local levels with other parties including social democrats, christian democrats, liberals, leftists and others, depending on the context and arrangements. As Green icon Petra Kelly once said, "not left, not right, but forward".

Perhaps my role as Green councillor since 2003 and former Green Party leader puts me on the pragmatic side of things. For this reason, and I believe that coalitions of the willing and give-and-take politics can succeed, provided there is genuine goodwill. 

The politics that I believe in is based on possibilities, not grudges. On bridges not walls. It is forward looking, and not trapped in the cages of yesterday.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Is the economy doing well?

Image result for malta economy
Times of Malta 20 March 2017
According to Eurostat and the National Statistics Office, real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Malta has grown at a very fast rate since 2013, faster than that of most EU member states.
It is important to note that around 50 per cent of incomes generated from GDP refer to wages and other compensations to employees. The remaining portion of income generated from local production includes self-employment income, profits, rents and interests.
Does this statistic mean that we should be happy with Malta’s economic situation?
A yes argument would hold that Malta’s economic growth encourages consumers to generate further income through purchase of goods, services and investment. In turn, this can help increase government revenue, mainly through income tax, VAT and excise tax. The government would then possibly be in a position to allocate more funds to improve citizens’ quality of life, for example through investment in infrastructure, social welfare and education.
A side effect of this is that as the GDP grows, the government will be allowed, according to the Stability and Growth Pact of the EU, to increase its actual amount in euros of budget deficit (the annual difference between government revenue and government expenditure) and debt (accumulated deficits over the years) without transgressing the permitted thresholds, namely three per cent of GDP for the annual budget deficit and 60 per cent of GDP for government debt.
As a matter of fact, government debt has increased substantially since 2013, but its ratio to GDP has decreased. Again, this should permit the government to increase expenditure to help improve people’s quality of life.
A no argument, on the other hand, would emphasise different factors. For example, is Malta’s economic growth sustainable? Is it really being translated into improvements in the overall quality of life of its citizens? And is the increase in GDP being redistributed in an equal way, or are some social categories benefitting much more than others?
The sustainability argument would argue that Malta is too reliant on sectors which can implode (such as construction), or sectors which are currently lucrative but which can quickly shift investment elsewhere (such as gaming). This argument would emphasise that apart from the sale of citizenship and the tax-payer-subsidised investments in energy, Malta has not really produced new economic sectors in the past years. It could be the case that Malta’s current model consequently gives primacy to electoral cycles.
The quality of life argument would highlight everyday experiences of citizens. These would include the large number of bad roads, dangerous pavements, traffic congestion, overdevelopment, environmental degradation, pollution, very poor enforcement on various inconveniences, increased noise pollution, and so forth.
The income distribution argument would emphasise that Malta is experiencing an increase in poverty. This may include both working and non-working poor people who are relatively poorer when one takes into consideration the increase in rents and costs of basic items such as foodstuffs. Indeed, there is no evidence that with the recent economic growth, poverty has decreased.
Undoubtedly, Malta’s economic situation will feature heavily in the upcoming general election.
But let us keep in mind that at the time of the last general election, Malta’s economy was doing relatively well and successfully endured the great global recession. But the Nationalist Party lost by a record margin. This suggests that a significant number of Labour voters gave importance to other factors apart from the state of the economy.
By ‘significant’ I am not referring to the majority of voters who would vote red or blue come rain or shine. I am referring to the thousands of voters who are more flexible and vote for one party or another – including small parties – for one or a myriad of reasons. These may include self-interest, one’s principles, specific issues, patronage, sympathy or antipathy towards party leaders, economic factors and governance.
In this regard, it is interesting to note that the recent Malta Today electoral survey shows that a significant number of persons are not stating their voting intentions. Besides, the younger generation tends to be less sure on voting preference when compared to other age groups. Do such voters give primacy to the economy?

L-Alternattiva Demokratika u l-elezzjoni generali

Image result for rainbow malta

F'intervista ma' Albert Gauci Cunningham nispjega ghalfejn l-Alternattiva Demokratika, permezz ta' process ta' djalogu, ghandha tikkunsidra li tkun parti minn koalizzjon pre-elettorali sabiex ikollha cans li tigi eletta fil-parlament kif ukoll li teghleb il-preokupazzjoni tal-'vot mohli' lejn partiti zghar.

Aqra l-intervista online: hawn u hawn. Tista' taqra wkoll 'Equivalent political parties?' hawnhekk.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Impacts of development

Image result for development times of malta
Does the Planning Authority analyse the impacts of development? A minimalistic perspective would argue that it does. The Authority consults with stakeholders such as the Environment and Resources Authority, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, local councils, NGOs and the public. It appoints case officers for each application, it obliges applicants to conform to standard requirements and it duly files all necessary information.
When necessary as required by law, the authority carries out environment impact assessments and it approves experts involved in this regard.
But policymaking is not only about observing established procedures and championing them as if they are foolproof. Judging by public concern, civil society activism, political controversy and media coverage of developments, there is a growing concern on the ramifications of development in Malta.
This calls for more comprehensive tools of analysis of development proposals. I am proposing some basic indicators which can be adopted by the Planning Authority to give due importance to evidence when deciding on specific development applications.
To begin with, when the size of an application is defined, this should be based on realistic assumptions. Measurement should go beyond the area of the specific proposal. Thus, if for example a proposed development does not qualify for an environment impact assessment but is physically close to other development proposals, the cumulative impacts of the proposals should be considered holistically.
This would require more comprehensive methodologies than those currently in place. The latter are heavily tilted towards the requests of individual developers. A recent example is Malta’s rural development policy, which is resulting in approval of many individual projects which are altering Malta’s countryside.
Development proposals should include comprehensive economic impact assessments. As things stand, the authority assumes that each applicant is making a risk through his or her proposal, and that it is not the authority’s business to look further than that. But a comprehensive economic impact assessment would go beyond this and analyse, for example, the impacts of massive commercial development in a locality already characterised by ample commercial activities.
Social impact assessments should also be mainstreamed as a key feature of development proposals. These should include quantitative and qualitative surveys of residential needs and concerns, community profiles, social indicators, thorough consultation with stakeholders as well as enforceable proposals for mitigation and compensation measures.
Social impacts under analysis should also include waste management, health impacts, noise, lifestyle and cultural factors.
Traffic impact assessments should go beyond counting of cars and should give equivalent importance to parking plans, alternative means of transport, quantification of health impacts due to pollution and economic impacts of traffic congestion.
When ecological factors are concerned, seasonality is a key concern. This is due to possible impacts on flora and fauna, biodiversity, and marine habitats.
In sum, impact assessments should be continuous processes, and not one-off exercises. This requirement is ever more timely when continuous change characterises Maltese society. Reporting back to authorities, communities and other stakeholders should be a key feature in this regard.
In order to ensure reliability and validity of impact assessments, they should be compared with other assessments and actual development so as to identify good and bad practices. Independent peer-review would also help ensure that proper research methods were used to gather the required information.
To be fair to the Planning Authority, some of the proposals written in this article do form part of its decision-making process, but it is not the first time that the same authority was criticised for giving minor importance to very important evidence. This situates the whole development process into another dimension: the political.
Indeed, one may argue that even with the best available evidence possible, the institutional autonomy of the Planning Authority leaves much to be desired due to excessive political interference.
I would be the first to agree with this argument. But robust evidence on development proposals can help expose and disarm political excesses.

Monday, March 06, 2017

To hell with poverty

A growing wave of social and political forces is calling for an increase in the minimum wage in Malta. It is quite evident that the phenomenon of the ‘working poor’ exists in our society. Basically, this refers to persons who are in employment but still find it difficult to make ends meet. Increasing prices of foodstuffs, housing as well as basic lifestyle expectations are all associated with this phenomenon.
Such persons are not the ‘welfare dependent’ category of persons who do not wish to work. These are the persons who are playing by the rules yet losing the game. They are contributing to Malta’s economy, but are getting too little in return to enable a decent standard of living.
And they are not the only category of persons who are in such a precarious situation. For example, many elderly persons face difficulties to make ends meet through their pensions.
This situation is paradoxical given Malta’s economic performance on a macro level. Indeed, Malta is one of the best performers in the EU when it comes to economic growth, unemployment rates and related indicators. In the recent years, Labour and Nationalist governments both introduced reforms which aim to assist persons through active employment measures such as in-work benefits and training.
Indeed, Malta’s welfare system has been a main reason why Malta tends to be characterised by relative, and not absolute poverty. Still, relative poverty is of great significance when thousands of persons find it difficult to enjoy what the vast majority of the population takes for granted. Besides, there are others who are at risk of joining this social category.
It is important to acknowledge that while it is clear that a substantial number of people find it difficult, if not impossible, to make ends meet, there is no monolithic definition of what poverty is all about and what should be done to stop it.
Some argue that poverty should be measured through financial aspects. This means that someone is poor if he or she does not have sufficient income to purchase the basic goods and services of a society. Hence, this position argues that increase in income or benefits can assist such persons to move out of poverty.
Others say that poverty is intrinsically related to social exclusion. Thus, if one is excluded from activities and interactions which enable a decent quality of life, one is at risk of poverty. This could range from lack of interaction in one’s community to lack of networks and lack of access to transport, clean air and leisure activities. Such factors are not always measurable in financial terms, but can have a direct impact on one’s everyday life.
This takes us to questions on whether poverty is caused by one’s behaviour or by social structures.
The structural approach argues that poverty is largely the product of the context in which one is living. This could have to do with the type of economy one lives in, social policies, one’s location, one’s family background and a myriad of other structural factors. As the argument goes, a person from a working-class background in a working-class locality within a neo-liberal economy is more likely to face poverty than a middle-class person within a strong social model.
The lifestyle approach argues that one’s behaviour and choices are what really influence poverty. Thus, as long as opportunities exist, one can choose to move out of poverty for example through a work ethic and responsible decisions. Thus, if one buys more books than beer, one may be investing in his own social opportunities.
Beyond these two poles lie conceptualisations of poverty which assume that structure and action need not necessarily exclude each other. Material deprivation and social exclusion may sometimes be two sides of the same coin.
The latter approach advocates multi-disciplinary analysis from experts in sociology, economics, psychology, education, anthropology and other disciplines.
It requires a plurality of research methods which can then propose evidence-based policymaking. These could include statistics, surveys, ethnographic analyses of how poverty is lived and interpreted by the poor, discursive analyses of how different social forces define poverty, as well as grounded approaches which depart from observation rather than preconceived ideas.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Malta's party funding mess

Image result for corruption networks
What has been known for ages, namely that oligarchs use dirty methods to influence decision making, is becoming clearer by the day.  The new law on party financing is already proving to be a joke and the lack of real autonomy of institutions such as the electoral commission doesn't help.

Amid this mess, I strongly urge politicians against corruption to put the common good before partisan interest.

Whether one's affiliation is red, blue, green or orange, politicians against corruption should declare that they will not accept illegal donations for themselves or for their parties nor will they have conflict of interests with respect to their political and professional work.

Politicians currently involved in such illegalities and conflicts of interest should resign. It is quite clear that some do not have the decency to do so. I hope that the electorate gives them a lesson.

In the run up to the general election, one can only accept more dirt to come out in the open. My hunch is that unless good-willed politicians unite against corruption, there will be a zero-sum game of divide and rule, to the ultimate benefit of the corrupt status quo.

Small parties have a vital role in being voices of reason to help clean up the political system. Good-willed politicians from major parties should unite behind the anti-corruption banner.

It's about time that Malta seriously considers state-party financing and full-time parliamentarians, rather than an amateur system running on dubious donations.

(Also appears in Malta Today, 6 March 2017)

Questioning Malta's economic model

Image result for malta construction
Malta's economy is doing well at macro-level. But is it peaking and moving towards unsustainability in view of over-reliance on construction? 

Apart from the sale of citizenship and tax-payer subsidized electricity provision, it seems that there are practically no new alternatives to sectors which are more fragile than others. 

Is Government's current economic policy modelled around electoral cycles or around sustainability? 

I think that it is imperative to ask such questions and to read between the lines when copying and pasting reports on Malta's economy.

(also appears in Malta Today, 6 March 2017)