Monday, July 31, 2017

Network politics

Social networks are everywhere. People belong to different social groups and interact with relatives, friends, colleagues, civil servants, professionals and politicians. Interaction may take place through various forms of communication and is influenced by a variety of political, cultural, social and economic factors. In our times, information technology has accelerated and widened the possibilities, pace and flows of communication.
In Malta, physical and digital networks are perhaps more pronounced than is the case in many larger societies. Given the size and population density of our country, we are always physically close to each other. Hence, we can chat on Facebook in the morning and bump into each other in Valletta in the afternoon.
Many of us also tend to wear multiple hats. For example, many behind-the-scenes political party volunteers during elections may also have other affiliations such as family, employment, pastimes, memberships and favourite hang-out venues. 
Malta also has one of the highest incidences of social media usage in the EU. Politicians ignore the social media at their peril, but the opposite does not necessarily hold. Indeed, there are some politicians who never tire of posting comments on everything under the sun, but who still fail in elections.
This may have to do with various reasons including political party affiliation, charisma, communication skills and mere luck. But contact with constituents is definitely a key factor for political success in Maltese society. House visits are imperative, but so are other activities such as mingling with residents and communities in localised fora, places and activities.
The proximity of constituents and politicians can translate itself into stronger communities. Here, politicians would be in synch with everyday challenges, problems, needs and aspirations. Micro-issues such as the quality of pavements, the quality of playing areas for kids and one’s employment experiences may not hit the news headlines, but may be priorities for constituents. And the effective politician knows this very well.
This is not to say that such networks do not face challenges. As our society becomes more diverse, social integration is becoming a major challenge for policymakers, community leaders, educators and politicians. As individualisation increases, it also becomes difficult to reconcile instant gratification with the common good.
People’s individual needs may also vary and may slip beneath the net of social solidarity. Some politicians or community leaders may not even be aware of the needs of certain individuals, who may be lonely, disconnected or suffering in silence due for example due to mental health issues or oppressive family realities.
Strong social networks may also have negative impacts such as corruption. This may encourage certain politicians to promise corrupt practices to their constituents in return for their vote. It may also act as a form of social control to keep voters in check.
We needn’t look far. It is an open secret that before June’s general election Labour micro-targeted constituents and satisfied their requirements even when these were not exactly in line with good governance. Hence the explosion of development permits, public service jobs and other favours.
Social networks or the lack of them can also help reproduce inequality. Here, one may refer to individuals or groups whose employment experience is precarious or non-unionised. Their voice tends to be muted compared to those of unionised workers.
Inequality can also have a partisan flavour, for example if partisan decisions such as promotions or vindictive transfers take place. And Malta does not seem to be lacking in this regard.
Hence the presence of social networks, and their impacts, whether positive or negative, should be seen as a key starting point for grounded politics. Empirical social-scientific research on people’s trust, interaction and sense of belonging can be very helpful in this regard.
It is also imperative to analyse the importance of leisure, pastimes, identities and voluntary work. And such research should be grounded into local realities, traditions, challenges and changes. The bigger picture is only as real as its parts.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Liberal or Conservative?

Current public debate on the Nationalist Party is often referring to the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.
Perhaps this binary is being used as a reaction to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s appropriation of the term liberal in his victorious rhetoric. Never mind that various aspects of Labour’s governance, such as the lack of checks and balances, are not reminiscent of liberal democracy.
Key liberal ideas are based on the premise of individual freedom through a myriad of civil, political and social rights. Here the individual is given primacy over the State. In liberal democracies, the rule of law and pluralism protect citizens’ rights.
On the other hand, conservatism is based on the premise that each individual faces an internal struggle between the good and the bad, that each one of us has obligations towards society, and that the latter learns from traditions inherited from one generation to the other. It is also cautious over sudden changes to the social fabric.
So far so good. But I think that society is more complex and fluid than this.
Indeed, I think that it would be a strategic mistake for a mass party seeking to be in government to corner itself into one ideological discourse.
I would instead suggest a form of bridge-building that is grounded in today’s society. Here, rights would be reconciled with responsibilities, and the individual is seen as having a myriad of identities such as resident, citizen, consumer and member of organisation/s.
Transposed into everyday policy, this would mean that environmental policies give importance to the common good and sustainability. Consumption and development would be married with responsibilities in matters such as waste management, residents’ rights and accessibility.
Family policy would celebrate the diversity of different family forms which are permitted by law. But it would also emphasise that all parents, whether married or single, have responsibilities towards their children.
Social policy would do its best to ensure no one is left out from economic wealth and that social rights are universal. But it would also expect that such rights are matched with responsibilities such as training. The State would become a source of empowerment, rather than a source of political and social dependency.
Economic policy would encourage the creation of wealth through less red tape and more fiscal incentives, but would also ensure that economic actors are accountable through social and environmental responsibilities.
Such policies can be implemented through a mix of methods such as the persuasion, education, incentives and enforcement.
Malta is crying for such a political approach especially when the current Labour government is scoring high in the generation of economic growth and civil liberties, but is much less convincing when it comes to considerations such as the common good and sustainability.
It seems that the current government cannot tell right from wrong, and is relativising everything as if they are just different interpretations. For example, it is defining the institutional breakdown on Panama Papers as a ‘Nationalist’ interpretation, and not as a fact in relation to governance practices. Such relativism would be fine for a scholarly study, but can be dangerous in the politics of ‘anything goes’.
Similarly, the current government is rewarding self-centred orientations through political favours within the public service and dubious development permits, but does not seem to be valuing the broader implications on the public purse, productivity and sustainable land use.
Instead, the Nationalist Opposition can aim to balance universal individual rights with the common good. But it can also go further and fill in a gap which seems to be growing in Malta today: that of solidarity.
The Opposition can emphasise that personal responsibility should be matched with genuine opportunities to participate in social life.
When one looks into matters such bad work conditions, low pay, high rents and political favouritism, it becomes clear that a window of political opportunity exists in this regard.
The ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ imaginary is also reductive as it tends to ignore the importance of other imperative political skills. These include organisation, networking, micro and macro management, communication, leadership style and so forth. These can be discussed in future articles.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Uneven job realities

Times of Malta 17 July 2017

Malta’s economy is characterised by uneven employment realities. On the one hand, Malta is top European performer on a macro-level, with the third lowest unemployment rate in the EU and with a consistently growing economy.
On the other hand there are quite a lot of working-age persons who do not form part of the labour market. According to Eurostat around 31 per cent of Malta’s working-age population is economically inactive, which is on the European high side and above the average rate of 27 per cent.  Around 7,000 young persons are not registering for employment nor attending educational facilities.
This could be happening for a variety of cultural, social and economic reasons. Qualitative and quantitive social-scientific evidence is imperative to assist policymakers to understand the situations, motivations and reasons for this.
Then there are many workers who are experiencing hard times.  This does not only include those who receive the minimum wage, which is subject to increases in the coming years. It also includes others who are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet and who experience bad work conditions.
In this regard, it is interesting to note that around 35,000 foreign workers are employed in Malta, and these account for much of the increase in workers in the country. Some are employed in high-paying legitimate jobs, for example in Malta’s financial and gaming sectors. Others perform a wide range of regular jobs in various sectors and at various levels. But it is quite clear that others are employed for purely exploitative reasons, resulting in a depression of wages in their respective sectors.
Something else to note is that Jobs Plus recently reported that it caught 3,500 workers working illegally, and that 1,105 persons were removed from the unemployment register as they were abusing the system. It would be interesting to commission studies to verify why persons may be working illegally. For example, do the Maltese authorities have data on persons working in quasi slavery conditions?
Which takes us to the underground economy. In 2013 economist Friedrich Schneider carried out a study of 31 European and five other OECD countries which showed that Malta’s underground economy accounted for 25 per cent of the GDP, which is higher than the EU average of 18 per cent.
Applied to the world of work, the underground economy may create risks for workers in terms of health and safety, lack of security, bad work conditions and lack of stability.
But there may be other reasons related to the underground economy. Some persons might voluntarily choose to go underground to evade taxes, some may wish to avoid bureaucratic hurdles related to occasional jobs, community-oriented initiatives and other matters. Going underground might also incentivise a degree of creativity in start-ups before they take the plunge and officially register themselves.
The government should ensure that workers who are experiencing bad working conditions, whether through regular or irregular employment, are protected.
How can this be done? In some cases, workers can benefit through the formalisation of their economic activities through incentives. These may include lower taxes and bureaucratic simplification.
The government can also increase educational and outreach initiatives that encourage voluntary commitment, self-regulation and trust in formal registration of work.
Some reforms have already taken place in Malta. For example, workers in private companies providing jobs for public services are receiving the same wage, otherwise the companies would not be eligible to tender their offers. Public sector tenders also include various obligations, for example on limits of subcontracting works, minimum hourly rates to workers and so forth.
But government should also ensure that exploited workers who want to report their experiences trust authorities and do not fear repercussions for speaking up. More work inspectors should be employed, and random inspections should increase.
Malta’s uneven labour market clearly informs us that equality is not only about liberal legislation such as equal marriage and LGBITQ rights. Equality is also about ensuring that workers in the labour market get equal pay for equal work, equal opportunities and equal worth in terms of the policy process.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Localise not centralise

Are local councils equipped to meet the needs of their respective localities? Do they have enough funds and authority to govern? I believe these are key questions which need thorough debate, especially when local councils are so close to citizens’ everyday needs.
Government funding of local councils has increased in the past years. Indeed, in 2017, Malta’s 68 local councils received a total of €35.5 million from government, an increase of €3.5 million from 2015. High earners include St Paul’s Bay (€1,684,906), Birkirkara (€1,283,056), Mosta (€1,185,524) and Sliema (€1,110,593).
The government will also engage in a road-building programme in the next seven years. It recently announced that it would take over this responsibility from local councils, which are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with hefty demands in this sector.
One expects that in the near future government elaborates on its intentions and consults accordingly. For example, will the road building programme covered by the government include pavements? Will the  government’s plans affect local council funding? Will local councils be responsible just for patching of roads, or would councils still be expected to budget for full-road asphalting? And who will decide on which roads will be prioritised?
Going back to the original question of this article, let us keep in mind that local councils have very limited options for the generation of other revenue. Sure, local councils may apply for EU funds and for discretionary government schemes. They may also generate some revenue through permit fees, adverts and the like.
But it is more than evident that something has to be done to ensure that local councils may adequately cover their growing demands and needs. These include not only infrastructure and waste management, but also educational, cultural and social initiatives which are very important for social cohesion, integration and community building.
Ideally, Malta’s local agenda should emphasise decentralisation to ensure that no government, entity or sector has excessive power. This should be accompanied by subsidiarity, where decisions are taken at the lowest level possible, meaning that decisions which can easily be taken by local councils needn’t be taken by ministers or authorities.
In addition, more state-owned land should be devolved to local councils. This may include public car parks, public buildings and heritage sites. Local councils can then manage such areas in the best interest of the locality, possibly generating funds in the process. Such funds can then be used to help finance local programmes and initiatives.
Unfortunately, Malta’s government is progressively moving towards the other direction. Apart from discretionary schemes referred to earlier in this article, we are witnessing increased centralisation of power.
One key example of this is enforcement. Local councils are frequently at the receiving end of complaints related to illegal street vendors, abusive parking, careless construction practices, noise pollution, illegal littering and so forth. Given that wardens are now under central government control, there is not much that local councils can do to ensure that enforcement takes place. The same applies with regard to other enforcing agencies such as the police, the Building Regulations Office and the Planning Authority.
Centralisation of power gives excessive strength to ministers, who in turn are omnipresent at macro and micro levels in Maltese society. Thus, a local council may require enforcement against abusive practices which affect residents’ quality of life, but this may be prohibited from taking place due to partisan political reasons and patronage.
The centralisation of powers makes citizens and local councils increasingly dependent on ministers, and this can erode the dynamics of local governance. It can also result in increased apathy and lack of initiative.
On the other hand, decentralisation, subsidiarity and devolution can incentivise both local councils and citizens to be more creative and innovative in the governance of localities. It would also help diversify power. In a politically-charged society like Malta, this could enrich democracy, giving more value and legitimacy to local council elections and other similar appointments.

Monday, July 03, 2017

LGBTIQ is political

From a European laggard, Malta is now on top of the world when it comes to legislation in the field of LGBTIQ rights and responsibilities.
There are various reasons why this happened. First, the divorce referendum in 2011 represented a historic break which enabled the mainstreaming of civil rights in Malta’s political agenda. This took place in the context of cultural changes characterised by an interplay of modern and traditional values, secularism and diversity.
Second, the LGBTIQ movement proved to be an excellent strategic player which chose its allies well in its pursuit of its goals. In Joseph Muscat’s Labour it found a winning party ready to uphold its agenda. In particular, Minister Helena Dalli and policy expert Silvan Agius ensured that the LGBTIQ agenda is implemented.
Third, the proposals put forward by the LGBTIQ movement did not rock the economic boat and did not have adversaries in the form of strong business interests. This is different from other civil society battles, such as those faced by environmentalists focusing on land development. But I would be very wary of reducing the LGBTIQ strategy to class analysis. I reiterate that MGRM and its allies had a very shrewd strategy.
On a personal note, I am proud that when I chaired Alternattiva Demokratika between 2009 and 2013, I was the first party leader to pronounce myself in favour of legislation for equal marriage. Back then, it was not only the other parties that were not yet in favour but also some prominent Greens.
But the past is past and Malta is now discussing the first proposed law under the second Muscat government: that for equal marriage. I support the proposal in principle but I also believe that Muscat has made some streetwise political calculations on its timing.
My hunch is that Labour is rushing things on this matter to play the divide-and-rule game, hitting the Nationalist Party when it is at its post-electoral weakest and when Labour is in its second honeymoon period.
I think Simon Busuttil is doing the right thing in urging the PN to support the proposed legislation, in line with the party’s electoral position.
Some are arguing for a free vote among parliamentarians on this matter. This could be an easy way out and is in line with what Angela Merkel did with her Christian Democratic Party in Germany on the same matter.
Let us remember that this is the same Merkel whom many are considering as the new leader of the free world. And having a free vote on matters affecting one’s conscience is not unheard of.
But in Malta’s bipartisan polarised system, granting a free vote has risks in terms of feeding the appetite of Labour’s massive media machine and its allies. Should the PN do any favours to its adversaries?
I believe that there is a way how the PN can bypass Labour’s political trap and unite its internal factions. Perhaps the party should articulate a discourse which is at once liberal and communitarian.
It should praise the liberal dimensions of the equal marriage law, namely the granting of rights, the prizing of equality and the fact that it is not taking rights away from anyone.
But it should also emphasise another aspect of the new law, one that is being understated in the current debate. Here, the PN can stress that the mainstreaming of marriage legislation can ultimately increase social cohesion and a sense of belonging. This also means that all those who are affected by the legislation have not only been granted rights but have also a wide range of responsibilities.
In this regard, sociologists such as Anthony Giddens believe that the future of family policy should revolve around the rights of children, especially when there are so many diverse family set-ups. Another sociologist, Nancy Fraser, adds that all parents, irrespective of their gender and sexuality, should be universal caregivers in the sharing of rights and responsibilities.
Rights and responsibilities: I believe these are two keywords in the PN’s quest to unite its liberal and conservative factions. Similarly, individual freedom and the common good should be seen as two sides of the same coin.
(This article appeared as LGBTIQ rights and duties in Times of Malta)