Dad, political sociologist, local councillor, drummer from Malta

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.

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