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,


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.

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.
Update 21/4/17: 2.15pm: Civil Society Network calls for coalition for good governance. More info 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.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Migration, Libya, Lebanon

Libya and Lebanon are both Mediterranean countries heavily affected by migration. Yet they are worlds apart when it comes to dealing with the issue. At least this is what emerged from a most interesting seminar on migration organised by the Konrad Adenauer Institute a few days ago.
When speakers touched upon the Libyan situation, it was made clear that political, social and economic investment in the Libyan post-revolutionary state-building transition have been lacking.
The country has characteristics of a failed State, despite having an internationally-recognised Government of National Accord.
At the same time, different parts of the country are run by competing tribal, Islamist and rebel militias, and Tripoli and Tobruk have different leaderships.
Libya is almost always used as a country of transit for migrants searching a better life in Europe via the Mediterranean. It was explained that most crossings start from two ports and when Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Gaddafi had reached an agreement before the revolution, these diminished drastically. But what about the human rights of such persons?
Most people who cross through Libya are sub-Saharan, and they pay around $10,000 to cross illegally. Once they cross, Libya no longer assumes responsibility for them.
In the meantime, there is a push for an agreement between the EU and Libya to control migration. At face-value, this might sound like a simple solution.
But what about the fact that Libya is characterised by an uncontrolled flow of arms and war criminals, by the criminalisation of refugees, and by detention camps with gross violations of human rights? Not to mention that it has no unified security system.
Which takes us to Lebanon. This country has experienced its fair share of crises, but it is often seen as a beacon of hope and resilience in the turbulent Middle East.
The country is a parliamentary democracy which guarantees high-ranking political offices to specific groups, which in this case are based on religious affiliation.
This system, known as ‘consocioationalist’, is also found elsewhere for example in Northern Ireland and Belgium. It is usually implemented in divided societies to avoid sectarian conflict and to represent demographic fairness.
Before its 15-year-long civil war, which ended in 1990, Lebanon was a prosperous and stable country. Following its reconstruction, it experienced other crises, including the assassination of a Prime Minister, Syrian occupation and spin-offs from the Israeli-Hizbollah conflict.
In recent years, Lebanon has undergone parliamentary-term extensions and a vacant presidency for two years. The country is expected to have general elections next June.
Within this context, the country has the highest Human Development Index and Gross Domestic Product per capita in the Arab world, when one excludes the oil-rich Persian countries. In addition, it has an incredible demographic situation: besides 4.2 million Lebanese people, it also hosts 1.2 million Syrians as well as almost half a million Palestinians.
So how is Lebanon coping with the migration issue? A speaker in the conference, Based Shabb, said this has much to do with the Lebanese state and its honest relationship with the EU.
The major political parties representing Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Christians have made compromises, and the EU has heavily increased its assistance to the country since the Syrian civil war. Financial assistance is coupled with political investment in parliamentary procedure, civil society and rule of law.
The US has also given a lot of assistance to Lebanon, but it is not clear what will happen now that Trump is president. At the same time, European assistance is also focusing very much on security and the threat of terrorism.
Yet there is another factor which is of utmost importance when explaining the Lebanese example. Refugees are treated with dignity. Social rights are relatively high, and alienation is low. Social investment is therefore enabling relative stability amid a region characterised by turmoil and despair.
The Libyan and Lebanese examples show that the politics of migration should not only be about short-term solutions. It should also focus heavily on political, social and economic investment, a give-and-take approach, and, above all, genuine dialogue.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Publication of paper on Environmental NGO impacts on Climate Change Policy

My latest paper, ENGO Impacts on Climate Change Policy in European Malta, has been published in the peer-reviewed journal Sociology and Anthropology

This article analyzes the impacts of ENGOs with respect to Maltese climate change policy in an EU context. In particular, focus is made on the politics of climate change in Malta and the EU in the first five years following the country’s EU accession, which led to the setting of energy emissions targets by 2020. The main conclusion of this article is that ENGOs formed part of an EU-wide hegemonic formation on climate change, wherein a common position with binding emissions targets was reached. The common position was signified around the discourse of ecological modernization. EU multi-level governance provided an opportunity for ENGOs to put forward discourses for climate-change adaptation.

The paper may be downloaded  here. It is also available at Research Gate, Academia and the Open Access Repository, University of Malta

Ethics should be compulsory, Religion/s optional

In an interview with Rachel Attard (The Malta Independent), I argued that Ethics should be a compulsory subject in Maltese schools and that students should also have the option to choose religion, provided that what is taught is approved by the Education Division.  

During the interview we also discussed the Maltese Catholic church, Islam and culture.

The interview may be seen here.

In the meantime, I have been informed that at the moment Ethics in being provided in 12 Primary Schools and 14 Middle/Secondary Schools.  One of the reasons that Ethics is not yet widely available is that teachers need to have a Post-Graduate Certificate in the teaching of Ethics in order to be able to teach the subject. A third course is currently underway, in fact. It is envisaged that more schools will offer Ethics as from the next scholastic year.

Earlier this week I also published an article in the Times of Malta about Islam in Maltese schools. The article may be accessed here.