Sociologist from Malta

Monday, May 28, 2018

Mind your language - Michael Briguglio

Times of Malta, 28th May 2018

In the crossfire of debates within the public sphere, it is common practice to indulge in aggressive remarks against the political adversary without being reflexive or careful about the quality of one’s own discourse.

There are obvious examples of this. For example, it is crystal clear that an army of online trolls is being mobilised against critics of the government. In reply to critical Facebook posts, they often resort to offensive language to vilify the messenger rather than the message. This may intimidate some people into succumbing to social media silence, but I am not sure that Labour is scoring political points otherwise.

At the same time, I think that self-reflexive political and civil society actors who do not resort to trollish tactics should themselves verify if and whether their own message is hitting home.

Indeed, sometimes I get the feeling that many of us are too busy to justify our cause to have time to carry out sober self-examination. The 2017 electoral result and the quasi-exclusive anti-corruption demographic are two clear cases in point.

Indeed, I often get the feeling that the capturing of media attention for the sake of it is sometimes preferred to the longer road of substantive impacts for social change. Yet the media is itself a social bubble, and trust in this institution has declined in recent years.

While I think that this is a very worrying trend, I also believe that media actors should resort to self-examination. If we think that people’s consciousness is simply a result of media reports, we are only fooling ourselves.

The same holds for likes, shares, re-tweets and other tools that inflate egos within the social media. Do we ever realise that algorithms tend to focus our posts to like-minded readers within ‘ghetto bubbles’? Do we realise that very often we are talking to narrow audiences within Facebook?
The same holds for the demographic of people – including myself – who attend protests on matters such as good governance. As a sociologist, I immediately sense that though this constituency is significant, it is not representative of Maltese society as a whole.

Besides, the basic fact that certain protagonists never use the Maltese language to communicate immediately isolates them from many audiences. I am also wary of doomsday prophecies that assume that Malta is facing imminent collapse. It is true that the sustainability of Malta’s economy deserves tough questioning, but inflated comments can ultimately implode and unwittingly do a favour to one’s adversary.

It would also be very easy to label people who vote Labour or who do not attend anti-corruption protests as being stupid, egoistic, and partisan, but I think such an analysis is very limited. To begin with, a sizeable amount of such voters voted otherwise in previous elections and referenda, and they were not considered to be deficient back then.

Besides, different voters may have different motivations, and not all of them have to do with negative factors such as corruption. It could well be that in certain instances the anti-corruption forces are not convincing despite being active for the right cause.

Hence even though I believe that Labour managed to seduce a significant number of voters to support it in return for favours and corruption, the Labour majority cannot be reduced to this singular factor.

If the Nationalist Party wants to be in government, it must also win voters for whom good governance is not the be-all-end-all of politics. This does not mean that it should become a photocopy of Labour: and there is no indication that this is the case anyway.

The PN should form a national coalition of its core voters, the good governance constituency but also floaters whose ultimate voting choice is more flexible.

In this regard it is imperative to articulate inclusive, non-patronising discourse that focuses on the myriad of everyday issues which people experience and which are in synch with Nationalist core beliefs such as solidarity, dignity and subsidiarity. 

Amid the online frenzy, I appeal to voices of goodwill, whatever their political orientation, not to be dragged down to a level that resorts to exaggerations, alternative facts, fake news and insults. Self-righteous pontification should also be avoided. Truthful news is imperative, but so is the way it is communicated.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Il-pensjoni sservi? – Michael Briguglio

M’huwiex sigriet li hafna pensjonanti f’Malta qed ikollhom diffikultajiet kbar biex ilaħħqu ma’ l-għoli tal-hajja.

F’dan ir-rigward tajjeb li wieħed jirreferi għall-pension adequacy report 2018 li ppublikat il-Kummissjoni Ewropea. Dan ir-rapport, li joħroġ kull tliet snin, jgħid li Malta’s pensions protect against absolute poverty, but they do not constitute an adequate income replacement and as such pensioners are currently facing difficulties in making ends meet’.  

Ir-rapport ikopri l-perjodu 2008-2016 u jirreferi għal riformi li saru specjalment fl-2014. Jgħid li filwaqt li dawn għenu biex is-sistema ssir iktar sostenibbli, għad hemm sfida kbira dwar kemm il-pensjonijiet huma adegwati. Personalment nemmen li anke is-sostentibilita’ għandha tiġi evalwata, iżda ser nagħmel dan f’artiklu sussegwenti.

Qabel ma nkompli, ta’ min infakkar li s-sistema tal-pensjoni f’Malta hija maqsuma f’zewg skemi: waħda kontributorja ibbażata fuq il-ħlas tal-bolol meta wieħed ikun impjegat u waħda mhux kontributorja għal dawk li m’humiex koperti b’dik ta’ l-ewwel.

Is-sistema preżenti tippermetti li pensjonanti jibqgħu jaħdmu sa l-eta’ ta’ 65, li jħallsu l-bolol tul dawn is-snin żejda iżda li ma jgawdux minn beneficcji ta’ pensjonijiet minn dawn il-ħlasijiet.

Malta tippermetti ukoll pensjonijiet privati u volontarji. Izda r-rapport tal-Kummissjoni Ewropea tgħid ukoll li illum eluf ta’ ħaddiema ma jaffordjawx jinvestu f’din it-tip ta’ pensjoni.

Ta’ min jgħid li dawn kienu fis-seħħ ukoll qabel ma ġew mgħaksa mill-Gvern ta’ Mintoff fis-sebgħinijiet, u din waslet ghal sitwazzjoni diskriminatorja għal pensjonanti illum.  Il-pjan ta’ Mintoff kien li jiddiskrimina favur dawk intitolati għal pensjoni baxxa, iżda li ġara kien li l-pensjoni b’saqaf u  taż-żewġ terzi ma baqghetx tirrifletti pensjoni relatata mad-dhul, b’riżultat li ħafna nies raw il-livell ta’ l-għixien tagħhom tmur lura malli jidħlu fl-eta’ pensjonabbli.

Ir-rapport tal-Kummissjoni Ewropea jgħid li d-dħul relattiv ta’ l-anzjani qed imur lura u li t-tkabbir ekonomiku wassal għal prezzijiet għola ta’ servizzi u prodotti bhal dawk medicinali, kera u komunikazzjoni.

Għalhekk, ir-rapport juri li f’Malta wieħed ma jistax jissopravivi b’pensjoni. Nisa ta’ 65 sena jew ikbar huma ġeneralment f’sitwazzjoni agħar mill-irġiel ta’ l-istess eta’ , u differenza bejn is-sessi hi waħda mill-għola fl-UE. Ir-riskju tal-faqar jew esklużjoni socjali għal persuni ta’ eta’ ikbar żdiedet, specjalment għal min għandu 75 sena jew iktar, anke jekk kien hemm titjib fir-relative poverty gap fost persuni ta’ 65 sena jew iktar.

Dan ir-rapport jagħmel numru ta’ proposti għal pensjonijiet adekwati f’Malta. Dawn jinkludu mekkaniżmu li jiżgura li l-kontribuzzjoni ta’ bolol wara l-eta’ ta’ irtirar ikun rifless fil-pensjoni, li l-pensjoni tiżdied permezz ta’ formula li tirrifletti 50 fil-mija inflazzjoni tal-pagi u 50 fil-mija inflazzjoni tal-prezzijiet, kif ukoll il-possibilita’ li min irid ikollu pensjoni privata minflok dik ta’ l-istat.

Huwa car li hafna pensjonanti mhux qed jgħixu l-aqwa żmien u li jiddependu minn dħul ieħor, assistenza jew sagrificcji personali biex ilaħħqu ma’ l-għoli tal-ħajja. Jeħtieg kunsens nazzjonali fil-politika tal-pensjonijiet. Is-solidarjeta’ bejn il-generazzjonijiet hi pilastru ewlieni ta’ socjeta li tadher.

Dan l-artiklu deher fil-Mument, 27 ta' Mejju 2018

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The poverty of pensions - Michael Briguglio

Times of Malta, 21 May 2018

In my article entitled ‘The pensions myopia’ (April 30) I argued that the government may be over-optimistic in its projections regarding the sustainability of state pensions in the coming years. I also proposed a national consensus on the matter in the interest of future pensioners.

In this article I would like to discuss the current pensions system and the way it is affecting today’s pensioners. It is no secret that many pensioners are facing hard times in trying to make ends meet.

The 2018 pension adequacy report published by the European Commission provides a very good insight in this regard. In short, this three-yearly report says that: “Malta’s pensions protect against absolute poverty, but they do not constitute an adequate income replacement and as such pensioners are currently facing difficulties in making ends meet.”

It adds that reforms in the Maltese pension system, the most important of which were introduced in 2014, have made the system more sustainable, but adequacy remains a challenge. Whether it is adequately sustainable is another matter.

For those who are not well versed in the pension scheme in question, it is important to note that it is divided in two streams: a contributory scheme based on national insurance contributions during one’s years in employment and a means-tested non-contributory scheme for those not covered by the contributory scheme.

The current pensions system also enables current pensioners to keep working till age 65, to pay national insurance in the process, but not to reap pensionable benefits out of this.

As I pointed out in my previous article, Malta does not have a secondary pillar pension, and to date there is no system of occupational pensions. On the other hand, Malta has a voluntary optional pension scheme (third pillar pensions), and it had something similar before they were suppressed by Mintoff’s government in the 1970s, thus resulting in a discriminatory situation for pensioners today.

The adequacy report notes that investment in private pensions is not affordable “for thousands of workers who earn low wages”.

The Mintoff plan was to discriminate in favour of those entitled to the lowest pensions, but a few years later what actually happened was that the capped two-thirds pension no longer reflected earnings-related pensions, thus resulting in a decline in the standard of living of many people who enter pensionable age. 
As the European Commission puts it, “the salaried persons who were almost ‘forced’ to give up their private pensions when the two-thirds pension was introduced are now finding themselves with very low pensions, and the gap between their earnings prior to retirement does not allow them to maintain their previous standard of living”.

Indeed, the adequacy report notes that the relative incomes of older people have been experiencing negative trends in the period under review (2008-2016), and that the economy’s growth has resulted in higher prices for services and products such as medical services, rent and communication.

The report therefore shows that one cannot survive on a pension in Malta. In its words, women aged 65 or older are worse off than men in the same age group, and the gender gap is one of the highest in the EU.

The at-risk-of-poverty or social exclusion rate for older people has increased, especially for those aged 75 and over, even though the relative poverty gap for persons aged 65 or over showed a marked improvement.

Finally, the adequacy report makes a number of proposals for more adequate pensions in Malta. These include the introduction of a mechanism that ensures that national insurance contributions after their retirement are reflected in their pensions, that pensions are increased through a formula that reflects 50 per cent wage inflation and 50 per cent retail price inflation as well as the possibility for persons to create their own pensions schemes instead of the state-run one.

Many pensioners are clearly passing through hard times and require other sources of income, assistance or personal sacrifices to make ends meet. Surely, this is not the best of times that is propagated by government-friendly media.

Again, I am putting forward my proposal for national consensus on pensions policy. Cross-generational solidarity is an essential pillar of a caring society.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Watch: Two weights, two measures at V18

In my fortnightly vlog in the Malta Independent I discuss free speech and the politics of V18. Its chairman Jason Micallef can say whatever he likes but its artists and curators are not allowed to speak on matters pertaining to V18.

You can watch the vlog here:

Passing the buck - Michael Briguglio

Image result for konrad mizzi 2013 energy press conference

Times of Malta, 14th May 2018

If there ever was a case of putting party before country, this was when Joseph Muscat disallowed Konrad Mizzi from being Labour deputy leader but deemed him fit to remain a minister despite the Panama Papers scandal. The Maltese citizen had to accept what the Labour Party rejected.

Mizzi was protected by Muscat in subsequent controversies involving controversial privatisation deals in which the former was directly involved. Indeed, they were subsequently handed over to other ministers who had to face public scrutiny: Chris Fearne in the case of the sale of public hospitals to Vitals and Joe Mizzi in the case of the ARMS energy bills controversy.

In reality, ARMS is a state-owned company, however, its operations are directly related to Enemalta, which has been privatised and which buys its energy supply from Azerbaijan.

Consumers are realising that they are incurring high rates because of the billing system by ARMS. There is even a court case about this. Actual bills are being issued every two months and ARMS is rationing the quota, thus resulting in higher bills.

In practice, this means that if, for example, one uses a heater or an air conditioner in certain months but does not use them in subsequent months during a year, the lower consumption in certain months does not compensate for the higher consumption in others.

During a two-month period one easily runs out of quotas and cheap rates, which have been apportioned by ARMS: if your consumption exceeds the quota in two months you will incur very high rates but if you under-consume your quota in the subsequent two months you will lose it. I never heard Mizzi promise this system.

The public was therefore given a false political promise. Instead of cheaper utility bills, many are experiencing lack of price clarity and price hikes in certain months. In turn, this is resulting in illicit revenues for a state monopoly.

The matter gets worse. The Daphne Project has confirmed what was written by Maltese journalists in the past years, namely that Malta is subsidising Azerbaijan in the consumption of gas, which fuels the new Electrogas power station.

The Labour government had signed a €1 billion, 10-year deal to import all liquefied natural gas (LNG) needed to supply the power station from Azerbaijan’s state-owned Socar company.

Between 2015 and March 2018, Malta paid at least €131 million for the gas – almost double the price of open market rates. Hardly surprising, when a monopoly owned by a government facing corruption allegations buys energy from a company owned by another government also accused of corruption.

In the first year of the deal, Socar paid Shell, from which it buys the gas, $40 million less than what it had charged Malta for the same fuel. Baku enjoyed this bargain at the expense of energy consumers in Malta who are now wondering why the energy bills are not as cheap as promised.

In practice, therefore, Enemalta is passing the buck of higher energy costs to Maltese consumers and Mizzi has passed the political buck of this controversy to a new energy minister. The latter looked bewildered when asked by the press about this and he has the unenviable position of dealing with a mess concocted by the triumvirate in power.

Fearne is in a similar situation with regard to the hospital privatisation mess.

Who will the buck be passed on to if Mizzi creates another mess at Air Malta?

Let us break this down in pieces. In Malta, the purchase, distribution and sale of energy are dominated by state monopolies. The lack of transparency on energy bills indicates abuse of monopolistic position to the detriment of consumers.

By now, many consumers are noticing that their energy bills are a far cry from what was promised by Mizzi prior to the 2013 and 2017 general elections.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Diskors - Kunsill Generali PN - Michael Briguglio

Sinjura President, Kap, Kunsilliera

Grazzi talli lqajtuni fostkom.

Qieghed hawn ghax nemmen li l-politika ghandha tkun dinjituza u gusta, u mhux wahda li lesta li tbiegh jew tikkorrompi kollox.

Minghajr principji, gvern jisfa bla ruh, 'a soulless state', bhal m'hu l-Gvern Laburista. Gvern li lest li jbiegh kollox l-aqwa li jirbah il-voti: ic-cittadinanza, l-ambjent, l-ODZ, l-isptarijiet pubblici,  gisem il-mara, il-wirt komuni, 'you name it'.

Ghandna Gvern li jippremja lill-korrotti u li jipprova jisseduci lill-votanti biex isiru korrotti ukoll.

Ghandna Gvern li ma jinteressahx mil-konsegwenzi socjali, ambjentali u ekonomici ta' politika ta' xejn m'hu xejn.

Jekk fil-politika ma jkollkox principji, tkun bhal dak li ghamel patt max-xitan u eventwalment spicca hazin. Ghax min hu korrott ikun irid iktar korruzzjoni, f’bir bla qiegh li jhallas ghalih il-poplu. 

Fl-istess hin il-principji m’ghandhomx ikunu xi domma tat-taleban. Ghandhom ikunu valuri li jiggwidawna u li ghandhom jigu aggornati ma' zminijietna.

Fost ohrajn dawn jinkludu d-dinjita' umana. Il-bniedem ghandu jkun ic-centru tal-politika, u mhux ikun oggett, numru ghall-akwist tal-voti. Id-dicenza u l-onesta' ghandhom jigu qabel id-dahk fil-wicc. 

Ghandna nkunu ggwidati ukoll mis-solidarjeta'. Dan ifisser li minflok ma nipprovaw nisseducu l-votanti biex jippartecipaw fil-korruzzjoni u minflok ma nippremjaw l-isfruttar tan-nies, ghandna nkunu l-vuci ta' min qed jghix il-prekarjat, is-solitudni, l-ingustizzja, u min jixtieq jghix f'socjeta' li tivvalorizza l-gid komuni.

Ghandna nkunu l-vuci ta' l-integrazzjoni socjali, u mhux ta' l-egoizmu u gratifikazzjoni instantja.

Ejja nkunu bhal genitur li jaghti l-ahjar ezempju lit-tfal tieghu, u mhux bhall-genitur sakranazz li ma jghallem l-ebda sens ta' etika lit-tfal. 

Gvern alternattiv ghandu jshahhah is-sussidjarjeta'. Prezentament il-Gvern Laburista qed izarma l-kunsilli lokali u s-socjeta' civili u qed jiccentralizza l-poter f'idejn il-Ministri u l-klikkek taghhom.

Il-Labour iridna nsiru tallaba tal-Ministri. Il-Labour irid a big government, and a small society'. Ahna rridu 'small government and big society'.

Ghall kuntrarju, ahna ghandna nafdaw iktar poter f'idejn ic-cittadin, f'idejn il-kunsilli lokali u l-volontarjat. Ahna rridu partecipazzjoni dinjituza tac-cittadin fid-demokrazija, fejn nirrispettaw id-diversita’ u mhux naraw il-persuna bhala numru.  

U ghandna nkunu kburin li ahna cittadini Ewropej u li nitkellmu fil-fora Ewropej li ahna vvutajna biex nissiehbu fihom. 

Principju iehor hu dak tas-sostenibilita'. Il-Gvern Laburista sar dipendenti fuq il-bejgh tal-passaporti. Minghajr sens ta' dinjita', qed jorbot is-social housing mal-bejgh tac-cittadinanza taghna.

Qed jaghti permessi bl-addocc sahansitra fuq art ODZ, l-aqwa li jikseb il-voti ghall-elezzjoni ta' wara.  U biex igawdu l-ftit ser igib rovina ambjentali u ekonomika ghal kulhadd.  Ghax veru sirna l-aqwa fl-ewropa, izda l-aqwa fil-korruzzjoni u t-tniggiz.

Ghall-kuntrarju, politika sosentibbli tiddiversifika l-ekonomija bhal ma ghamlu Gvernijiet Nazzjonalisti fil-passat anke meta kien hemm il-maltemp ekonomiku. Tpoggi l-gid komuni fuq l-agenda nazzjonali. U tinvesti fl-edukazzjoni.

Ghax ha nghiduha kif inhi, l-edukazzjoni tiswa l-flus, izda l-injoranza tiswa ferm iktar.

Ghalhekk nappella biex inkunu tim wiehed maqghud ghar-rebhiet elettorali. 

Il-fatt li l-Partit Nazzjonalista qed jinkoragixxi d-dibitattu intern ifisser li jirrispetta l-intelligenza tan-nies. Mhux bhal Partit Laburista li jipprova jaghlaq halq is-socjeta’ civili u l-artisti tal-V18.

Tajjeb li fil-Partit Nazzjonalista hemm l-ghaqda fid-diversita'. Tajjeb li l-politika tigi ibbazata fuq l-evidenza u studji professjonali. Fuq kollox, tajjeb li l-partit ikun vicin in-nies u mhux maghluq f'xi torri ta' l-ivorju.

Tajjeb li jkun hemm politika tal-perzwazzjoni, u mhux it-tisbit u x-xiri tal-voti.

 Ghax hbieb tieghi, l-uniku pjan ta' Joseph  Muscat hu kif jirbah il-voti biex il-klikka tieghu issir miljunarja

Il-pjan taghna huwa li ntejbu l-kwalita' tal-hajja ta' kulhadd: taghna u tat-tfal taghna.

Jien qieghed hawn biex nikkontribwixxi ghal partit maghqud u gvern alternattiv. Lest li nikkontribwixxi fit-tim li qed ifassal futur flimkien.

Ghalhekk, ejja nkomplu nirrigeneraw irwiehna, nikkonvincu iktar nies u nkunu preparati ghall-Gvern meta jasal il-mument.

Kunsill Generali - Infasslu l-Futur Flimkien - Partit Nazzjonalista, 13 ta' Mejju 2018