Friday, 19 December 2008

A godsend in disguise

Quite apart from Dr Borg Olivier’s fate as a consequence of his fumbling at the keyboard, his infamous e-mail offers us all a splendid opportunity we are very likely to miss altogether, a stimulus to fundamental reforms that would allow us to make several democratic and economic leaps forward.

Only the irremediably naïve can express surprise at the content of the e-mail: an institutional and unconstitutional melding of party and government. We all had good reason to suspect it. Many of us had the proof in pre-electoral missives specifically addressed to us on the basis of our professions and occupations, data legitimately available only to the government. Only the self-inflicted blindness of the true partisan can prevent anyone from seeing the constitutional depravity of this system within a system.

Once we have been blessed with Dr Borg Olivier’s blunder, a veritable X-ray of the unavowed, we are challenged to decide where we stand. Before the proof stood before us in all its awful ugliness, we could have avoided the issue, now we cannot. The party and the government have melded into one. The e-mail reveals a complete fusion in the minds of the author and of the intended recipients.

A meeting of key employees of various ministries with the Secretary General of the Nationalist Party at the PN headquarters to discuss the systematic, joint, PN-Government processing of complaints and requests to government by private citizens, speaks volumes about the background political culture. None of the participants appears to have objected or raised the issue of propriety. It did not seem to have occurred to anyone.

The idea of an impermeable barrier between government and party, the government being at great pains not to appear to give its own party any unfair advantage, seems never to have crossed anybody’s mind. The contrary does not register as a venial sin in Maltese political culture. Dr Borg Olivier will not resign because of his misdirection of an e-mail, nor for orchestrating an unconstitutional complaints processing setup explicitly intended as part of a five year PN re-election campaign. This is the apotheosis of the client/patron system combined with totalized government. It is the medieval Siculo-Arab heritage we share with the mafia. It is definitely ours, it is us.

The question is: do we like it this way? Are we merely resigned to it or do we actively promote it? Do we take it for granted and assume its immortality calmly settling down to our learned helplessness, or do we sneer at idealists for even thinking of opposing it, our talents lying in its dexterous exploitation?

Power to the party, necessarily to the party in government whichever it happens to be, means that the one recognized virtue in our society is loyalty to the party. Nothing else really matters. All the talk of meritocracy, of productivity and competitiveness being achieved through education and personal development is not all nonsense, just most of it. If you strongly believe otherwise, strongly oppose the government, show a chink in your unquestioning loyalty at a crucial moment and then tell me about your equal opportunities. If your philosophy is invisibility, living below the political horizon and seeing to No 1, you are not innocent. You have acclimatized to feudal subservience and powerfully sustain the status quo. You have denied yourself the freedom to speak out while you harbour contempt for those who fight for theirs. You are the unmovable mass, most of the problem.

If you are politically labeled, and it may have happened to you for the best of reasons at the worst of times, then your freedom to choose your government is all but lost. All the political arguments you get into are just a smokescreen for the fact that you cannot afford to lose. Once labeled, you have every reason to expect to be discriminated against for at least a decade if your party loses. It does little to allow you a clear mind on your way to the polls. Further government/party melding will only add to your hysteria.

Do we want to live like this forever? Or do we want to say out loud that the content of the Borg Olivier e-mail is profoundly shocking to EU citizens with high aspirations for their future?

I want to believe that there are serious politicians in every political party. Can they admit together that this sort of constitutional confusion has gone far enough? Can they make of Dr Borg Olivier’s fiasco a monumental watershed in our democratic development? Can they make of this most fortunate accident a catalyst for profound, lasting and critical reform?

Friday, 12 December 2008

Never mind

Malta, along with all other EU member states, is a signatory to a draft political declaration to be brought by France before the General Assemby of the United Nations calling for the depenalization of homosexuality worldwide. Even if adopted by the General Assembly such a declaration, on which no vote will be taken, will bind only its signatories. Still, it is a laudable global publication of the stance taken by these countries. Well done Malta.
Decades ago, homosexuality stopped being a criminal offence in Malta. The matter was and remains a taboo for the vast majority but few would have the police investigate anybody’s sexual preferences and much less haul them before a magistrate for it.
Even today the annual Gay Pride event is poorly attended and to a great extent by liberal heterosexuals. Decriminalisation and all, the taboo is alive and well. Fear of discrimination rationalised in various ways, still keeps most gays away from their own celebration. More significantly, it is still the cause of unnecessary personal trauma, family crises and, greatest taboo of all, suicides.
Despite our new status as an ostentatiously liberal nation, thanks to participation in the proposed UN declaration, our first gay and out candidate in a National Election contesting with Alternattiva Demokratika, Ing. Patrick Attard, made history as recently as last March. We are still far from being comfortable with LGBT reality.
What may cause our governent more than the usual discomfort is the contrast with the position taken by the Vatican on the proposed declaration. Its permanent observer at the UN, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, has achieved global notoriety for his stance opposing the declaration. The gay and liberal worlds are up in arms.
In a comment to the French news agency I.Media, Archbishop Migliore premised that all that is done in favour of the respect and protection of individuals is part of our human and spiritual heritage; that the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that every unjust form of discrimination against homosexuals must be avoided. However he went on to add that “such a declaration would require states and international structures applying and monitoring human rights to add new categories requiring protection against discrimination without taking account of the fact that if adopted this would create new and terrible discriminations. For example states which do not recognise same sex unions as marriage would be pilloried and come under pressure.”
All this puts our government in a very peculiar position. Malta is one of the states that does not recognise same sex unions. Does our government see any danger of being pilloried or pressured in future because it opposes the persecution of gays wherever it may take place? Clearly not. Malta is one of the proponents of the controverted declaration.
The sensation caused by the Vatican’s response is due to the inescapable fact that the Vatican, in order not to allow even the remotest possibility of gay marriage appearing over the horizon some time in the future, is prepared to ignore the actual and very real persecution of gays in many countries of the world where they are punished by beatings and even capital punishment. The most barbaric of public executions still take place today.
For Malta the matter is a little more complicated. A government monopolized by a party that traditionally monopolises the catholic faith is in direct collision course with the Vatican. For many Maltese catholics, as for catholics around the world, the matter is one of dismay if not bewilderment. How can we defend or make our own the position taken by Archbishop Migliore? Can any of us witness a beheading or a hanging of a gay person because he is gay, even on television or through the internet and remain unmoved? Even if we may be averse to the recognition of same sex unions, we could not fail to condemn such persecution when asked to do so.
As a proponent with no fear of the consequences, the Maltese government, having the responsibility for a country more catholic than the Vatican, should be able to make a very good case for a Vatican change of heart. If the Vatican’s misgivings about gay marriage are allayed, it must live up to its words in favour of human dignity.
However it is far more probable that Malta will lie low, ignore the contradictions, miss the opportunity to shine and hope that it will all blow over soon. Ironically it will be the same attitude as that of those Maltese gays who experience the same mild irritation as they decline the invitation to the annual Gay Pride march. Doing nothing changes nothing and remains the easiest way out. Never mind the killings. Never mind the suicides.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Renzo Piano’s challenge

Removing parliament to the site of the former Royal Opera House may be more appropriate than many people may think. Politics does provide us with endless entertainment. It has become an indigenous art form, a true cultural expression deserving the prominence of location as one enters our capital city.

Where else in the world would you expect to have our most prominent European politician, laying the ground for his European Parliament election campaign on the amazing discovery that Malta is dusty.

With their featherdusters in hand, Dr Busuttil’s fans must have been utterly charmed by his dashing defence of air quality in the final months of his tenure as MEP. In the company of all interested stakeholders whether NGOs, construction lobbies and health experts he discovered that Malta had been shockingly lax in living up to EU accession expectations. The fan club must have tut tutted in unison.

He reported in Wednesday’s Times that the amount of dust in the air is 37 times the amount permitted under EU rules. He seemed horrified. My heart began to bleed when he noted the human cost: chronic respiratory illness, educational deficit, long term productivity effects. It is all true.

The thing is that it has all been true for as long as anybody can remember. Dust pollution in Malta did not come into being since we joined the EU nor has there been any need for new legislation to suppress it. The legislation was in place long before Dr Busuttil was born. What has always been missing has been the will to do something about it. EU membership has made it possible to document the situation and to quantify the pollution level, that’s all. The political will to act and enforce was and is still missing.

The superb theatre, the uniquely Maltese political genre of theatre, comes to light in the bold championing of outraged health and ecological values by none other than Simon Busuttil. Since we are not all batty old crows, we have to ask ourselves a few questions. Was this not the same Dr Busuttil who in 2004 performed the Berlusconian transformation from Head of MIC and honest broker in the EU accession process to PN star candidate in the EP elections? Is he not still the PN’s main foothold in the European Parliament?

His political birth in 2004 may be a rather recent affair but even he must have noticed that the PN have been in government with only the slightest interruption since 1987. EU rules or no EU rules the dust has billowed unimpeded for decades under his party’s rule. Every government for the past 50 years has had the power and authority to suppress the pollution and has failed miserably. In fact no attempt has ever been made.

For the past 21 years or so the Dr Busuttil’s PN government colleagues have had every opportunity to begin to do something about the familiar outrage. They have done absolutely nothing to address the issue. On the contrary they have actively promoted the causes of dust pollution and strenuously denied the evidence. Does anybody recall then Environment Minister, Dr Francis Zammit Dimech, announcing that the dust was brown not grey and that we had no cause for concern? I do.

Mabel Strickland’s White Dust Case in Lija dating from the 1960s remains an all time classic. The cause and the pollution are still there today. Dust from building sites clogs culverts all over the country causing havoc at the first rains and annual expenses in damage to waterlogged roads and clean-up operations. Every hardstone quarry in the country is visible from space because of the long white plume of dust covering vast areas downwind of each site determined by the prevailing westerlies. Check it out on GoogleEarth. Did we need Dr Busuttil to tell us that the situation is nothing short of bizarre? And of all people, Dr Busuttil, a major divinity in the pantheon of champions of the status quo?

Political U-turns are performed everywhere. In Malta we have developed the technique to be able to do S-bends as we have on the divorce issue where we are here, there and everywhere at once. More than this, we have exceeded all competition by achieving simultaneous two-way travel. Dr Busuttil is devastating the reputation of his own party while taking credit for salutary change and bagging it as a political advantage to the same political party. Now that’s entertainment.

Renzo Piano has once more been given the irresistible challenge of expressing all this: a show of leading edge democracy and delight in the wealth of diversity as members of the EU balanced against a reality in which what is essentially a one-party state generates and digests internal dissidence while ignoring all else. Can he perform as well as our politicians?

Thursday, 27 November 2008

More guts than brains

Announced on the eve of a batch of local council elections the Smart City project caught all opposition off balance. To criticize the promise of 5000 new jobs would have been politically suicidal. Once the opposition had sidestepped the initial assault, it had no choice but to acquiesce in all that followed. It rode the bandwagon on Smart City in an attempt to share in Minister Gatt’s aura of innovation and futuristic vision. The construction industry which finances both parties in parliament would not have it any other way.

What have I to criticize about Smart City? Nothing in particular except that it is a real estate deal disguised as a technological renaissance. The five thousand jobs made to seem as though they were all already feeding families are a guesstimate over the next decade and there is no guarantee that they will fall to anybody Maltese if and when they become available.

Far be it from me to be against Smart City or any other such project. I just want them to be sold with less hype and for our government not to make nonsense of our laws to make them happen. The 2006 Local Plans for the area explicitly stated that there were no rules governing the area and that each project would be considered separately. The plan was no planning.

Having succeeded with Smart City, Minister Gatt must have convinced himself that he had found the holy grail of government without rules. If the timing is right and enough energy is committed, a Minister can become a sultan. He probably regrets the Prime Minister’s U-turn on the Xaghra l-Hamra golf course. There should be villas and greens now where a national park has come into being.

The charge of the light brigade over electricity tariffs is well known to us all. With industry to the right of him and unions to the left, Minister Gatt pointlessly charged the canons of common sense, humiliated regulators and consultative bodies to take the country into such a crisis that unions spoke with one voice probably for the first time in history. The greatest casualty of all was our government’s reliability with foreign investors. We have become unpredictable.

His latest project is a road from nowhere to nowhere at great expense and at horrendous damage. No, not to the environment. Who ever worried about damage to the environment? In this Minister Gatt turns ecologist. He is proposing the new motorway in Mellieha because he cares so profoundly for the sand dunes.

No, the damage was done as he swept past in his cavalcade through decency and common courtesy. In response to concerns expressed by the Mellieha Holiday Complex he is reported to have quipped that if the operators don’t like the idea of his road running past the most secluded part of their Danish Village, they can sell out at any time. Had Minister Gatt been a common or garden ignoramus it would not have done much harm. Unfortunately he is a Minister of the Government of Malta.

None of us has any business to expect any Dane or indeed any foreigner to make any distinction between politicians of any colour in this matter. Dr Gatt simply becomes Malta, you and I, as the resounding insult reaches the ears of its remote victims. The developers and operators of this complex have the unique merit of having taken over a devastated barrack complex and turned it into Malta’s best landscaped touristic development.

By operating it as a holiday venue for union members they have been able to maintain a constant flow of visitors from a country otherwise far removed from us through good seasons and bad and very, very bad and for several decades. Telling them that they can jigger off just because Minster Gatt wants his road to go through is outrageous.

Only political prejudice and ideological blindness has kept us from seeking to have a dozen Danish Villages. All over Europe but particularly in the North, unions and pensioner associations, invest in similar operations in the warmer south. Two Danish Villages in Gozo would break the back of the seasonality monster which leaves many Gozitans without a job in winter. Such projects give stability through recession and financial turmoil without the spectacle of high rises and vast glass walls. They are our softspoken support especially when things become tough.

Minister Gatt should not apologise for his unforgiveable arrogance. He should resign. He has shown himself to be worse than unpredictable. He is a menace to economic security and at a time when caution and prudence are mandatory. Never mind the road. Never mind the electricity rates. His methods and his manners are an extravagance we cannot afford.

Friday, 14 November 2008

The maggots at work

The customary budget ritual is in full swing. Bombast by the Minister of Finance, followed by denouncements of irresponsibility by the Leader of the Opposition and then a barrage of scorn by the Prime Minister. In an atmosphere of the deaf shouting at the deaf, I feel not in the least inclined to discuss it.

What is the point of making even the most constructive criticism if at the outset it is clear that the government will decide everything alone, smacking down every critic and never giving credit to those who make valuable contributions even as they are plagiarized? Having humiliated the MCESD over the hike in energy tariffs, the government is rushing ahead with its plan as though it ruled the country only for the most rabid of its partisans.

For those who were persuaded that Greens in government would have been a threat to stability and (long ugly word) governability, this is a moment when they could feel justified. Greens could not participate in a government like this. Their presence would have made this behaviour impossible. By keeping them out of parliament and out of office, voters have secured the perpetuation of Mintoffian style government sometimes by the PN and sometimes by the MLP.

Chances are that a significant segment of the electorate likes it this way. Still in the Dark Ages of democratic development, they perceive Dr Austin Gatt’s swashbuckling exploits as spot on. Not everybody.

Some of us voted for EU membership precisely to end this nonsense. The vast, if shallow and rapid, stakeholder consultation exercise in the EU accession process whetted our appetite for inclusive government. It was a first experience of the wealth of possible contributions ordinary citizens could make of their professional and sectoral experience and expertise.

Since 2003 it has been one long betrayal of all such hopes. To participate in MEUSAC or MCESD has become complicity in sustaining a façade of consultation while the pre-EU membership sultanate ruled untrammeled. In 2008 the last shreds of justification on the basis of better-a-façade-than-nothing-at-all have all been blown clean away.

The government has provoked the unimaginable: first a joint statement criticizing the government by all civil society bodies and now an all-union demonstration. The unions’ principal demand is authentic consultation. Ironically what is essentially a conservative part of society in so far as it has an interest in resisting change in the interest of its membership, is currently the principal driving force seeking the attainment of the EU Dream method and style of government.

In smashing all the mirrors and tearing down all the veils, Minister Gatt has revealed our political reality in all its awesome ugliness. With far less spectacle, Minister Fenech has helped him along in an aside in which he revealed that the Malta Resources Authority was deliberately left on the sidelines twiddling its thumbs on the issue of electricity tariff revolution. Our most crucial regulators can be disabled at the flick of a political switch. In Strasbourg MEP Simon Busuttil has been active in a venetian blinds exercise over the Ramla Bay petition to the Petitions Committee of the European Parliament. Another regulator has fallen victim to political expedience, in this case: MEPA.

In its fifth term since 1987, the PN in government is displaying all the symptoms of fear and insecurity of a minority government too long in office. It seeks total control. Exclusion has become its hallmark, advisory institutions are mocked and regulators disabled. Overhabituation with being the government has shorn it of all the profoundly democratic values gained in its years in exile in the 1980s. The post 1987 years of reconciliation are long gone. The wisdom which suppressed retaliation and sought to bridge the unbridgeable divide in its first term, is lost.

This government through its acolytes and apologists is banking on a propaganda campaign unearthing the horrors of the 1980s to smear the brand new Leader of the Opposition. Nothing better to rely on? No insight to the jarring anachronism? Which PN guru has determined that the party’s last salvation lies in scaremongering and exclusion at the cost of its avowed democratic and European values?

The final cruel irony is that the MLP’s failure to seek EU membership left it to the PN to achieve it and now the PN is in a far better position to eat the heart out of the values EU membership should represent from the inside. The hopes of better quality politics in mutual respect and widespread participation allowing a careful consideration of the issues with full information at hand are all but dead. The PN has smothered those hopes in their infancy. It may take generations before we can entertain them again.

Dr Vassallo is a Member of the Committee of the European Green Party

Friday, 7 November 2008

Improbable hope

Barack Obama brings hope to the United States and to the world at a time when gloom and uncertainty seem to be taking over. The infectious euphoria of his victory is a mild inebriation we should all allow ourselves to enjoy, a welcome break in the clouds of gloom that still promise us tough times ahead.

Perhaps Barack Obama’s greatest burden is just that: not to disappoint us all. Black America and much more is overjoyed but Obama inherits an economy $480 trillion in debt and facing the world’s worst financial crisis for generations. To what extent can he change the lot of the underprivileged in the US?

Can he pull the US out of Iraq without provoking disaster across the Middle East? Can he bring Russia back to fruitful dialogue mode? How will his presidency affect the range of allies, puppets and opportunist friends collated by the US in the Bush era? The UK and Kazakhstan? Have we heard the last of Axes of Evil and Rogue States?

Will he be able to take the US from major cause of climate change per head to principal solution and crucial driving force? His potential for benign change in Africa is immense? Will he use it? Will he walk the talk or rely on his unquestionable showmanship to make us all believe that he has done much when effectively little or nothing is changed?

America is dreaming again and that is already heartening but it will take more than talk to keep it going. We have every reason to expect a New Deal from Obama. He is being touted as the Messiah who will put an end to the era which started with the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House. Can he pull that one off? Or will he seem to have made a change while preserving and indeed consolidating the fundamentals? We all live in hope even when we can agree that it is an improbable hope.

A new team and a different political culture, suppressed and denied for almost a decade, now takes up positions of decision-making. These are the people who will be calling the shots, the new incumbents. Will they set out the new rules of the game or will the lobbyists hold them down to the old ones? Who does call the shots, Barack Obama, his entourage or those who hold the purse strings? How much room to manoeuvre does a US president really have?

Will Barack Obama want to change the system that brought him to power? Closing down Guantanamo Bay and repealing the Patriot Act will earn him easy kudos from liberals but will he even dream of addressing the ludicrous electoral systems which exclude all minority parties from representation in Congress? If he is trapped in the cliché of the US being the cradle of democracy, he may never acknowledge that an infancy extended from 1787 to the present day may be a little too long.

Having become the darling of the free press, will he have any interest in revisiting its failure to function in the wake of 9/11? This bulwark of democracy, this fourth estate, evaporated as President Bush went to War on Terror. How free is the free press? What access does it allow minorities? Who owns it? Will Barack Obama dare to ask?

Eliminating the threat of an extension of the Bush/Reagan era through a McCain/Palin victory has been an achievement which earns Obama gratitude worldwide. Ironically it may serve to obscure the fact that the US is the basic resource of all those who want to reduce politics to bi-polar confrontation, a minority political culture among developed democracies but a growing and menacing trend in Italy and Poland as in Malta and Albania. Relief at getting rid of George W. Bush and his aliases may make us forget about the system that produces them.

A black US president, with family in Kenya and a Muslim education in Indonesia is himself a beacon of hope for tolerance and dialogue in a very troubled world. He becomes a disappointment once he rules over the “Best democracy money can buy” without acknowledging the dissonance.

Barack Obama already has his hands full dealing with a full agenda of massive challenges. He may be forgiven for directing his energies at these first and leaving the root issues for later. Still, it would be a severe disappointment if a president so well endowed to change America keeps himself too busy to take a shot at it. The time is right and he is the best man for it. There could be no better way to tell the rest of us that he truly means business. For him to be effective, to exorcise the Bush era, he must persuade the world that a post-Obama US will still bear his mark. That may be the greatest challenge of all.

Dr Vassallo is a Member of the Committee of the European Green Party