Monday, September 25, 2017

The crash of bricks

Photo by Jonathan Borg
Last week a roof in Sliema crashed under the weight of bricks that were being transported to an adjacent building under construction. Luckily, a woman inside the room escaped with no injuries.
As is usually the case in such incidents, police are investigating and a magisterial inquiry is under way. Should such procedures suffice? I really don’t think so.
Indeed, some questions come to mind. How many health and safety inspections are carried out by officers from the Occupational Health and Safety Authority on such matters? Is it fair that companies with health and safety requirements face competition by companies that do not invest in protective clothing, safety pro-cedures and the like? Why is it that local councils have no legal authority as re-gards enforcement?
Following the incident in Sliema, a representative of the Chamber of Engineers publicly informed me that they are aware of certain issues regarding new legislation on the safe use of work equipment and that their council was following this up closely. The president of the Local Councils Association, Mario Fava, also publicly informed me that the association was looking into this matter.
One possible way forward in this regard would be to introduce safety wardens. They could work in the same way as traffic wardens, even though I believe that it would be better to have them under direct local council control rather than under the authority of a national government agency. Subsidiarity – the granting of authority at a level closest to citizens – is usually preferable to State centralisation, which is often subject to layers of bureaucracy.
But I would also suggest that one also looks at the bigger picture.  Malta is currently experiencing a construction boom, and it is important to understand its implications.
The most obvious implication relates to the hefty increase in urban, rural and ODZ development permits.
Development optimists would argue that the new scenario may encourage competition among contractors, who may raise standards to their clients’ needs. But it may also be the case that competition can lead to cutthroat practices, often involving foreign workers with inferior work conditions and lax health and safety procedures.
Collaboration between government authorities, local councils, developers’ representatives and experts is imperative to ensure that residents, pedestrians and workers are protected from building abuse and irregularities.
Some may also question whether Malta is too dependent on this economic model, whether the construction industry should be so politically influential and whether we are creating an artificial property bubble. I for one buy such questions, though I would add that the problem is more complex than we usually make it out to be.
One reason for this is that many citizens are directly or indirectly investing in property. Some may be renting property to others, others may be developing, and others may be involved in financial investments which in turn invest in property.
Indeed, many owners of financial assets are finding that it makes more sense to buy property and rent it out, given the poor return on savings and the risk of buying bonds or shares.
For the moment this is proving to be a good investment, as the demand for rented property is high due to the increase in the size of the population, mostly as a result of the large number of foreigners.
However, excessive dependency on foreigner tenants may be risky, especially if numbers slow down. If an increase in property supply exceeds demand, this may encourage speculative behaviour by home buyers and property investors fuelled by unrealistic home price estimates. Given that many developers and contractors are indebted to banks, there could be dire consequences if a bubble occurs and debts cannot be settled.
Thus it would be advisable to ensure proper governance both of construction as it takes place, but also of the property development industry in general. Given that many Maltese people are directly or indirectly involved in this sector, it is ever more important to ensure that the country’s economic model is diversified rather than being over-dependent on one sector. This is yet another area which requires evidence-based policymaking, sustainable governance and proper enforcement.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Update on my role as local councillor

As from today I am representing the Partit Nazzjonalista in Sliema Local Council. This follows after an official request which I sent to PN General Secretary Rosette Thake last week.

I formally joined the PN as a member last May, after resigning from Alternattiva Demokratika. I was elected in Sliema Local Council in 2003, 2006, 2012 and 2013.

I will keep being active for good governance, the environment and social justice.

News report available here.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Social impacts in Siggiewi

A few days ago Siġġiewi residents protested against a social housing project that will host 84 new units in the middle of a residential area. Mayor Alessia Psaila Zammit invited me to address the meeting in my capacity as sociologist, which I did.
Unfortunately there were no government or Labour Party representatives present, despite being invited to attend. It seems that the government is busier pronouncing the Siġġiewi project through a propaganda advert featuring cheerleaders. I assume that this is being accompanied with patronage through incumbency.
I find it very sad when local issues which concern residents are simply boycotted by elected local councillors simply because their party is in government. There are notable exceptions though – the Gżira mayor being a case in point.
To be fair, one may legitimately ask why a social housing project should be opposed by residents, who, after all, chose the same area for their residence. I believe that the answer to this legitimate question is twofold.
First. The area might be ghettoised. When a large housing project is filled in by people in a short space of time, this might have a myriad of consequences. Some are obvious, like an increase in traffic, parking problems and over-congestion. Another possible consequence, though unintended, relates to social dysfunction.
A sudden influx of social housing applicants might lead to stigma, especially when existing residents were not consulted by authorities. It could lead to segregation between regular residents and the newcomers, or between the newcomers themselves. This is especially the case when such people do not know each other and suddenly all have to get used to their new situations.
Classic sociologist Emile Durkheim had referred to the sudden change in people’s conditions as “anomie”, wherein people may find it difficult to cope, thus resulting in adverse social consequences.
In this regard, did the government consider smaller housing projects and alternative housing schemes, which disperse social housing applicants in different parts of Malta? This could possibly facilitate matters in terms of integration and impacts on existing residents. Rather than creating state-sponsored pockets of poverty, the government and local councils could work together to build social inclusion and integration through more ‘invisible’ social housing, education, social facilities and so forth.
My second reply has to do with evidence-based policymaking. I have good reason to believe that the government frequently takes decisions in certain areas which have got to do more with short-term electoral concerns rather than longer-term priorities and outcomes.  The Siġġiewi project seems to be no exception.
Indeed, did the government commission a social impact assessment? This could provide valuable evidence.
I would expect such an assessment to verify the impacts of development on existing and prospective communities. It should establish a community profile, engage with residents and other stakeholders and look at the impacts of similar housing projects elsewhere.
A proper social impact assessment should also verify and identify alternatives, cumulative impacts and mitigation measures. It should be peer-reviewed by experts, and not by partisan appointees who may not be experts in the field.
Hence, I would expect the government to justify its choice of such a massive housing project with evidence, rather than through propaganda adverts.
Beyond the immediate plans in Siġġiewi, the government can also look at good practices of social housing around the world. For example, in Vienna, around 25 per cent of the housing stock is owned by the government, and rent is comparatively lower than that of similar cities. But social housing is not restricted to low-income residents, and much ghettoisation is avoided.
This example is also followed in some other cities around the world. To the contrary, cities which segregate poor people in housing projects, such as some infamous examples in some American cities, have negative outcomes in terms of poverty and crime.
And this takes us to the government’s self-professed social conscience. Is this conscience really so strong when Malta is experiencing an increase of working poor people whose wages are simply outclassed by increasing prices in rental market? As long as demand, especially from foreign residents increases, and as long as the government keeps adopting a laissez-faire approach, the situation for such people seems bleak.
Will they apply for social housing?

Monday, September 11, 2017

Choosing the leader

Who should Nationalist Party members support in the leadership contest between Adrian Delia and Chris Said?
Before I write further, I have to highlight that I prefer Said, but I only arrived at this conclusion after a process where I met both candidates and analysed their speeches, policies and behaviour. Others may have done the same and reached different conclusions.
But perhaps there are members who are not sure who to support. I would therefore like to propose five criteria which can help in this regard. It is then up to the reader to decide accordingly.
The first criterion is charisma. Sociologist Max Weber once identified this type of authority as being characterised by “devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person”. In essence, here one is referring to one’s gravitas, one’s charm, the way one connects to people and to audiences.
Charismatic leaders can be democrats as well as dictators. Churchill and Hitler were both charismatic, but they had totally different goals. Once rules and norms start to be sidelined in favour of a leader’s charisma, democracy is in trouble. On the other hand, charisma can energise people, strengthening their sense of belonging to a cause. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is an example of a charismatic leader today.
The second criterion is experience. Here one may refer to a politician’s experience in elections, in governance, in party administration, in civil society, in political networking or volunteering. One may also refer to life experiences beyond politics, such as leadership in business or scholarly pursuits. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and current US President Donald Trump had no political experience before leading their respective parties and countries. But they had much experience in business. To the contrary, German Chancellor Merkel and former US President Obama rose through the political party ladders before leading their countries. So did Joseph Muscat, Dom Mintoff and Eddie Fenech Adami.
The third criterion is integrity. Here we are referring to character traits such as honesty, strong moral principles and ethical standards. A politician with integrity is active against corruption and favours good governance, transparency and accountability. Politicians without integrity usually face a tough time in modern liberal democracies. Integrity can result in trust and support, but the last Maltese general election has shown us that even a lack of integrity can be politically successful.
The fourth criterion is unity. Some leaders are divisive, others manage to unite different factions, interests and ideas. The former uses a more antagonistic language. The latter opts for reconciliation and compromise for the greater good. Unity does not mean that there are no political adversaries. But it values internal stability over absolutism and bickering. Above all, it prizes and respects the democratic process through give and take, procedure and transparent voting processes.
Then again, unity can be imposed through top-down military discipline. But this type of style is not usually associated with the Nationalist Party. Under Fenech Adami, the PN was united against its adversary. But it was also enrichedby different wings within its democra-tic structure.
The fifth criterion is leadership. There are many facets of good leadership. These may include how one manages to balance principles with pragmatism, authority with power and how to be respected and loved at the same time. It also has to do with how much one is a doer, a builder, a listener and a facilitator of ideas. Indeed, a leader is only as good as the people around him.
One may also opt to look at potential leaders in terms of opportunity and risk. Is it better to have a safe bet or a wide gamble? Do potential opportunities outweigh potential risks? Could known risks be managed, or do they represent a Pandora’s Box of uncertainty?
Finally, one can refer to two words being used in the leadership campaign: ‘new’ and ‘right’. Is newness necessarily better? What does it represent? Does it offer an alternative to the party in government? Is the right way politically effective, and can it be flexible? How about reconciling the right way with the new way?
This would help promote unity, help keep positive aspects of the party and renew where necessary.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

GUEST POST: What will you do with what we started?

By a Volunteer, PN 2017 Electoral Campaign

Dear Adrian and Chris, 

I've been involved in other election campaigns in the past, however the 2017 election was different. This time I was there for a cause. It was not just about electing a party into government, it was about being on the right side of things. 

My involvement started off as a minor contribution but as the events unfolded, what should have been a marketing think tank, ended up becoming the unofficial campaign group. Some of us had never been involved in the party before. Others had been there ever since. What kept us going was a strong belief that this time things had to change. 

By the end of it, we were leaving our base in the early morning hours and waking up again there. Some of us were clearly deprived of sleep. But it did not matter. The cause was much bigger. Every day we came across people who switched back. Some of these we never thought would ever do so, let alone help out and endorse PN publicly.

This really encouraged us to work harder. We turned ideas round at a speed we never imagined possible. We produced videos at a fraction of the normal production times. We were not alone in this. Our families had to be patient enough to go through it with us.

In hindsight it still remains a meaningful experience. Through it I learnt a lot.

I learnt that passion is key! The more people joined the volunteer team, the more I realized that what was common between us was the passion to prove to the world that Malta can do better and that our leaders should not be anywhere close to the allegations of corruption we have read about. (You could be legalistic about proof, or the lack of it, however I believe that it is simply lowering the standard of what an inspiring leader should be).

As a team we shared an aspiration to deliver a campaign like never before. We aimed to restore PN's reputation, as one which is closer to the people, and one which can continue shaping the lives of people as it has done in the past. We put in a lot of effort to do things in a different way...and we did. 

Behind us was the difficult experience the party had gone through in 2013. That defeat humbled the members of the party. Contrary to what some think, the party was very realistic on the prospects of it winning. We opted to not lose hope in context of an expected defeat. We banked on the supposedly undecided voter. If Simon Busuttil was courageous enough to leave his comfortable job as an MEP and do the crazy thing of trying to rebuild a party from the ground up, it would have been insulting to give up now. 

And in truth, why should we give up now? Why should you ever give up? The numbers do not do justice to the hard work that went into putting the party back on its feet. The outcome was surely not the result we worked hard for but that does not mean we were not on the right side of things.

The day after the 3rd of June we still believed we had started something meaningful, beautiful amidst the noise. We hoped that a lot of good will come out of this and that it definitely won't stop there. 

Hindsight offers a very comfortable view of what could have been done better, and rightly so. Many don't know that a week after the election result was announced, a group of volunteers started meeting regularly to prepare a list of learnings for the new administration to build on. I would say that 80% of the issues we listed came as no surprise and a set of weaknesses which probably even PL is aware of. 

Fast forward a few months later. What happened to what we started and what will you do with it if trusted to lead this party? A big chunk of us were there for the cause of what is right. Do we dismiss that a few weeks down the line simply because the vote did not come our way? What would have happened to Malta's accession in the European Union had our leaders moved away from this vision after the 1996 result?

Could it be that PN has still to learn how to be in opposition before it can get back to government. It is like changing jobs after years of working at the same company. Suddenly you have to learn new ways of doing things and you are not in your comfort zone anymore. 

To add to the complexity of the situation, in this case you did not change your job out of choice, you were made redundant and there is the hurt of tackling that as well. What do you do then? Do you dismiss the sense of purpose that made you get out of bed everyday. Wouldn't that make you like the average guy in the company and lessen your chances of making a notable difference? More importantly wouldn't that kill who you really are and bring to a halt what you started with such passion and conviction?

In the past weeks the momentum that the party had gained post election has been replaced by the hype around the leadership race. Some of the volunteers that campaigned together pre-election are now campaigning for you in one team or the other. 

This is not a sign of disunity and it highlights an important moment for the PN and for Malta. The new mindset and enthusiasm that either of you will bring along, will shape the party for the years to come. As in the case of the EU vision, it will shape what Malta will be like. 

I just hope that when the party regains the momentum (as hard as it will be), and if you ever ask me to help out again, I would have no difficulty in juggling work and family time for a meaningful cause, meaningful enough as what we started.

Monday, September 04, 2017

A University fit for our times

In a recent interview on TVM, Rector Alfred Vella made bold statements on how he would like to see the University of Malta develop.
Vella emphasised that it is not only students who are supposed to learn at University. Lecturers need to undergo training to ensure that their work is of top standard. Proposals included the training of lecturers on how to better deliver lectures, on how to communicate, on how to conduct better research and on how to access EU funds.
He also spoke about students who are not only employable but who also have generic, transferable skills that can be used and adopted in different sectors. Hence the vitality of both humanities and sciences.
Being myself a lecturer at the University of Malta, I have direct interest in Vella’s words. I am four-square behind this vision.
I couldn’t agree more with Vella’s idea that lecturers themselves should undergo training. The University does offer training courses, but these are often voluntary, save for the professional development training programmes which lecturers must undergo before being promoted to the grade of senior lecturer.
Last year I participated in this programme splendidly coordinated by John Portelli. I joined as a reluctant sceptic and left as a convert. The programme was inspiring in that we learned about different lecturing and assessment methods, we shared our experiences, and we reviewed each other’s work. Lecturers from different departments and institutes had the opportunity to network.
Going back to Vella’s vision, whyshouldn’t such a course be obligatory for all academic staff, including professors?
I also agree with Vella’s insistence on the importance of research. The inevitable question is whether this is always given the importance it deserves. Do selection boards always value research when recruiting new staff? Are teaching assistants being recruited to support lecturers with lectures and corrections so that the latter have more time for research? Do all faculties and institutes encourage and promote research?
The same questions can be applied to EU funding opportunities. Why are some University structures high-performers when compared to others? My hunch is that this depends on the commitment given by respective deans and heads.
If I may propose further reforms which the rector may wish to consider, consultation would score highly. In the recent and not so recent past some decisions were taken which could have benefited from consultation with academic staff and other stakeholders.
These include decisions on feedback reports, certain University structures and committees and so forth. The issue is not whether the University took the right decisions – for example I think that the open access policy is developing well – but whether discussion and debate could have helped academic staff feel a greater sense of recognition and belonging; as well as provide a broader spectrum of expertise.
I would also like to see more meetings within respective faculties, departments and institutes, beyond the bare minimum which is often in place.  Vision, policy, research agendas, collaboration between different faculties and departments and with other entities and outreach should be given as much importance as exam scripts and programmes of studies. Outreach and collaboration also support the struggle against territorial monopolies.
Finally, an urgent issue which needs to be addressed is the precariousness of the employment conditions being offered to many junior academics, employed - or rather - exploited, on casual and visiting basis. The teaching and academic effort of some of these exceeds that of some resident academics; while their remuneration would not exceed a third of the latter’s. Joint posts could be one solution: an academic should be expected to be loyal to his or her work and not to other considerations such as voting preferences within University structures.
We need to look beyond the sentiment that the world owes us a living. As much as I insist that universities are vital for any self-respecting society, I also hold that our academic freedom should be matched with responsibility: to adapt, to innovate, to contribute to society, to share knowledge, to be transparent and accountable, and to look beyond our comfortable shells.
The introduction of new universities – which I welcome – will only accentuate the need to reform.