Beyond Bisazza Street

Posted in 1 by Editor on June 20, 2011

The three quarters of a million euros reportedly spent to pedestrianise and make­over Bisazza Street, Sliema, have understandably caused eyebrows to be raised. Are (finite and scarce) public funds being intelligently and fairly spent? “The important thing,” wrote Lino Spiteri in his column last Monday, “is that available resources are spread equitably and used diligently.”

He added that, as far as he could see, this “has been the case with Bisazza Street”, observing that, however, “controversy hounded the project and is still going on”. I am not concerned with the purely local controversy regarding who wants what and why. I am more interested in the very complex process whereby a government defines its spending priorities, especially when the available means are not only finite but also seriously scarce.

Smart alecs will, no doubt, spring up to tell us that it’s quite simple and straightforward really. It’s just a trade-off, they will say, whereby you give something up to gain another. All you need to do, they will explain to us with the condescending tone of those for whom any mention of complexity inevitably indicates that the speaker is hopelessly incompetent, is to objectively weigh the pros and cons of your choice.

The same smart alecs will ask us if, perchance, we have never heard of “opportunity cost”.

Then, with the impatient show of patience of those who know best, they will spell out that a trade-off implies that, for a given quantum of resources, opting for a certain product means sacrificing another, the acquisition of which would have required the same quantum of resources. If an ice cream costs as much as a beer and you cannot afford to buy both, if you opt for the ice cream then you forego the beer.

A government’s spending priorities, therefore, imply trade-offs. The smart alecs will, at this point, stretch their smile from ear to ear.

All you need to do, they will now suggest as they present their business card, is hire a consultant who will objectively and apolitically weigh the pros and cons of the choice and throw in, for good measure and an unreasonable price, a slick cost-benefit analysis. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. For a government, these trade-offs ultimately translate into political choices.

A government seeking to broaden its support base will endeavour to spread available resources as equitably as possible socially and geographically. The success of such a political strategy implies that the government has sufficient resources and enough time at its disposal to implement it.

If the resources are insufficient, in the best case all will get so little that it will have, again at best, no political effect or some will get what appears to the rest to be a disproportionate lot at the expense of those that got nothing at all. Enough time, too, is crucial. If a government’s days are counted, a sudden terminal display of generosity will – in a politically mature society – work against it. It will be interpreted as extravagant, prodigal and opportunistic.

The problem is compounded by the fact that, unless a government is effectively one government, where ultimately political choices are made according to one set of political priorities, politically advantageous trade-offs become impossible to manage. Ministers will tend to sacrifice the rest of the country for the benefit of projects in their constituencies. The advantage of individual ministers becomes a disadvantage for the whole government. Ants in backbenchers’ pants become hyperactive. Pre-existent cracks in the government, in the ruling party and in the social alliances that support it widen further.

Now, Lawrence Gonzi’s government – some shrewd observers doubt that we can at all speak about such a thing as Dr Gonzi’s government today – is evidently not one “where ultimately political choices are made according to one set of political priorities”. Moreover, it is not as if it were a government that can afford to throw money at all its problems, hoping to smother them in the process. On the contrary, it is a government that says that money is a problem.

Furthermore, it is not a government with all the time in the world at its disposal. William Flynn, in his June 6 comment to this column, wrote: “Whatever the PN needs to do, it has to be done at warp speed” (see www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110606/opinion/Catching-up-with-Enlightenment.369162). Given that warp speed is somewhat difficult for anyone to achieve, one suspects that Dr Gonzi’s government does not have enough time at its disposal to do a turnaround.

Attempts to win electoral favour by spending more money than one can reasonably afford on very visible deliverables will hound whatever the project is and will, as sure as hell, boomerang politically.

Finally, there’s the European dimension to all of this. Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and all that are hardly the ideal backdrop for conspicuous public consumption.

Above I suggested that it takes a “politically mature society” to resist a government’s attempt to buy its consensus. I think that we are finally beginning to see signs of this maturity. Don’t you think?


This article appeared in Dr Mario Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on June 20, 2011. The original may be retrieved at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110620/opinion/Beyond-Bisazza-Street.371479


Catching up with the Enlightenment

Posted in 1 by Editor on June 9, 2011

The Enlightenment, Kant wrote in a popular text, is our “emergence from self-imposed nonage”. He then goes on to explain that by “nonage” (Unmündigkeit) – which some translate as “immaturity” – he means “the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance”. His definition goes on as follows: “This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,’ is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment.”

You may recall that the last time we met on this page, on the last Monday before the referendum of May 28, I shared with you what one of the intellectually sharper media personalities intimately associated with the Nationalist Party told me several months ago. The problem with Eddie Fenech Adami, he said, is that he never came to terms with the Enlightenment.

What an extraordinarily candid and profound admission from someone who, in the first 10 years or so of Dr Fenech Adami’s premiership, had worked to present the PN as the political party that was triumphantly leading Malta towards an epoch beyond “mere” modernity, to nothing less than the age of post-modernity. I have often referred to PN publications in the first half of the 1990s carrying contributions by respected Maltese academics announcing the failure of what Lyotard had over 10 years earlier characterised as the meta-narratives of modernity.

The divorce referendum campaign confirmed that not only are the leaders of the post-Borg Olivier PN not the post-modern vanguard they were presented as – in contrast to Labour leaders depicted by PN apologists in the 1990s as intellectual dinosaurs hopelessly trapped in obsolete 18th and 19th century projects – but, rather, that the PN leaders were themselves desperately defending positions that Kant had already criticised as obsolete in 1784.

The referendum campaign has confirmed that the PN’s leadership has not, as at 2011, emancipated itself from a hopelessly pre-modern and pre-Enlightenment mind-set. By “leadership” I do not refer only to its present leader and to Dr Fenech Adami – who, though no longer formally the PN’s leader, is evidently still its moral leader – but to its members of Parliament and to the majority of the members of the PN executive committee that, on February 12, voted in favour of a motion declaring the party’s position against the introduction of the right to divorce.

Having said this, it must also be said that not all those that identify themselves with the PN are as backwards as the party’s leadership as broadly defined above. There are many thinking Nationalists who are understandably bewildered and confused with what the leaders of the party they consider as their own have said and done on the issue of divorce. Not all of these “thinking Nationalists” – as I referred to them in my previous contribution to this column (www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110523/opinion/Gonzi-and-thinking-Nationalists.366724) – would make use of the right to seek divorce when the right to divorce finally becomes law.

No thinking Nationalist, however, would agree to denying this civil right to those that need it, choose it and qualify for it.

This distinction is an important one and goes beyond the PN. Let’s pause briefly on it. You can be for the passing of a divorce law on grounds that this would enable persons who need it, choose it and qualify for it, to seek it as a right and you can also – at the same time and coherently – assert your personal choice not to make use of this right. This is not a fine distinction. It is a fundamental one. Not to appreciate this distinction is not to have come to terms with the Enlightenment, 227 years after Kant (what better example of the great achievements of European thought?) published his Was ist Aufklärung? (What is Enlightenment?) and, much later, if we take the Enlightenment, as some do, to have its roots in the mid-17th century. (*)

Let us come back to the position of thinking Nationalists today. There are many very fine brains indeed among them. Many of them knew all along that the leadership of the PN was not the best of all possible leaderships. The admission by the media personality I referred to above will not have surprised many of them. Few of them, if any at all, would today – and possibly not since a number of years ago – pretend to be intellectually inspired by anyone in the PN leadership: neither by any of the older ones nor by any of the younger ones, certainly not by the likes of, say, a Fenech Adami fils.

Some will migrate to the Labour Party, most will simply continue to lose interest in Maltese politics and in Malta generally but some others will resist the temptation to despair and will attempt to drag their party to the second decade of the 21st century. Or as close to it as possible. Kant, in the essay I quoted above, also wrote: “One may postpone one’s own enlightenment but only for a limited period of time. And to give up enlightenment altogether, either for oneself or one’s descendants, is to violate and to trample upon the sacred rights of man.”

(*) Read Kant’s text on this site. Click on https://watersbroken.wordpress.com/kants-what-is-enlightenment-the-text/

This article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times of Malta on Monday, June 6, 2011 and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110606/opinion/Catching-up-with-Enlightenment.369162

Mark Anthony Falzon: Why I will be voting Yes on Saturday.

Posted in 1 by Editor on May 24, 2011

Dr. Mark-Anthony Falzon is a social anthropologist, Head of Department of Sociology at the University of Malta, and “Sunday Times” columnist.

The reasons that follow are based on and take into account the following premises:

 1. It is true that society needs to regulate for long-term kinship. This is primarily because of three things. First, kinship is associated with strong emotional bonds of attachment and commitment; second, children’s interests are best served by structures of kinship that are as transparent, stable, and long-lived as possible; and third, because of issues of property and reproduction of the domestic unit;

 2. like all generalisations, the ‘common good’ argument has its risks. It is however mostly useful. It is true that voters should take into account the long-term consequences, for ‘society’ generally and not just for themselves, of their decisions;

3. a ‘realist’ approach. By which I mean not resignation or passive acceptance of undesirable things, but rather the balanced assessment of facts and the discarding of rhetoric;

4. whether or not one agrees that this issue should have escalated into a referendum, and irrespective of one’s thoughts about the obsoleteness of the question, it is one’s responsibility to vote. Politics is not about what could/should be but rather about what is. Come Saturday, the real and current question will be whether or not one thinks that Malta should legislate for divorce;

5. a belief that a fair and forward-looking society should be based on laws and structures that seek as far as possible to include rather than exclude. Social inclusion produces emotional, economic, and many other dividends.

In view of these premises I will be voting Yes on Saturday:

1. because couples whose relationships are over will split anyway, it makes sense to have strong legal systems and other structures by which these splits are properly regulated;

2. because the ‘common good’ dictates that (1) above is especially relevant when there are children, ie. that it is in the long-term interest of children whose parents’ marriages are over that their parents should split in a responsible and regulated way;

3. because a realist approach tells me that some couples will be happy for the rest of their lives and others won’t. The idea that marital bliss can be extended to everyone, and that it is possible in principle for all marriages to work, is rhetorical nonsense;

4. because I know that all the rhetoric and vague promises of ‘strengthening families’ that we have heard in these past months will be all but forgotten by Monday morning, and that couples whose marital lives are over will be left to struggle to pick up the pieces in the absence of structures and legal frameworks, as they have been condemned to do so far;

5. because I believe that it is in the interests of society that people should not be forced to go through annulment proceedings using far-flung excuses and shifty arguments, as they have done so far. This humiliates the individual and makes a mockery of justice and institutions. Such institutionalised hypocrisy and cynicism invariably spill over into the social order broadly defined;

6. because it is patent nonsense that divorce has ruined societies ‘everywhere’. The family is still very highly prized in countries where divorce is legal, and people go to enormous lengths and expense to sustain it. The notion of ‘ruined societies’ is simply another form of the little islander’s fear and incomprehension of the outside world;

7. because the ‘stable traditional families of old’ are a myth. In fact there have always been couples, significant numbers of them, who did not fit the model. It was simply a case of ignoring or labelling them as deviants and misfits, and creating poverty and social exclusion as a direct consequence. It is absolutely essential to understand that we will not be voting to regulate for a ‘new reality’. Rather, it’s a case of a fairer approach to the age-old reality of marriage breakdown;

8. because a truly pluralist society is not about privileging one model and letting everyone else do as they please, but rather about legislating sensitively to incorporate as many realities as possible. This, and not greener roundabouts and nicer roads, is the EU I and thousands of others voted for in 2003;

9. because the notion of family and kinship should be based on responsibility and integrity. There is much more of these in owning up to a marital breakup and taking long-term responsibility for one’s failings. This is especially true when children are involved;

10. because all around me I see people who, despite a failed marriage, go to enormous lengths to sustain and love their children. I also see ex-spouses who somehow find it in their hearts to accept new situations. These people, thousands of them, do not deserve a slap in the face but rather encouragement and the proper structures to sustain kinship and respect well beyond the duration of their failed marriage.

Gonzi and thinking Nationalists

Posted in 1 by Editor on May 24, 2011

I started writing this column at the beginning of 2009. My intention then was to focus on the alliances that make governments possible. I was not new to this theme, having been researching and writing about it for over 30 years. Ever since, in the early 1970s, Jeremy Boissevain knowingly or otherwise nudged one of Fr Peter Serracino Inglott’s philosophy kids towards either sociology or social anthropology, I have been interested in how shifting social alliances impact on how this country’s economy and society ‘develop’.

My observation of how they were decisive in explaining Labour’s loss of a majority of votes at the 1981 election and the loss of government in 1987, sharpened my insights into how relatively dependent Eddie Fenech Adami’s governments themselves were on the social alliances on which they were erected. The lessons learnt indicated that in the case of Lawrence Gonzi’s governments, their dependence on alliances was total.

On January 19, 2009, I wrote: “Governments are made possible by alliances: social and political alliances, by alliances of convenience and, sometimes, of conviction, by strategic and tactical alliances, by long-term and short-term alliances. Many of the alliances that this government is built on are beginning to come apart.”

Ever in denial, online correspondents of the sort that would sooner believe what they want to believe than accept what they see with their eyes, insisted that Dr Gonzi’s government stood on solid rock. They suggested that I have “a vivid imagination”. At best, one more cautious gentleman conceded that “what we are experiencing are tiny, insignificant tremors”. See www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090119/opinion/no-quantum-of-solace.241342.

The debate on divorce – if of  ‘debate’ one may at all speak – has confirmed that Dr Gonzi’s government does not have the advantage of the classic Nationalist governments of the past. Certainly, it can no longer rely on even a semblance of cultural homogeneity among those that have so far supported it.

The University of Malta’s Centre for Family Studies asked individuals who were either married or previously married at the time of the 2005 census: “If divorce is introduced in Malta and you decide to divorce, would you consider remarrying?” The survey found, among other things, that “Educational attainment is highly related to the consideration of remarriage. Those who have a pre-primary/primary level of educational attainment are less likely to have answered positively when compared to those with a tertiary level of education”.

In other words, the researchers found that among individuals who are either married or were previously married, those with a higher level of education are more likely to consider remarrying if we had divorce in Malta. It would seem reasonable to suppose that these respondents will also vote in favour of divorce (YES).

From this alone, we cannot infer how many of those with a higher education will vote for and against divorce. Nor how those of a lower level will divide on this issue this Saturday. It would seem reasonable, however, to take this finding to suggest that those with a higher level of education are less likely to be easily influenced by the arguments of the NO campaigners than those of lower educational achievement. The survey also found that professionals, managers and senior officials are more likely to consider remarriage than respondents in other occupations. See www.um.edu.mt/news_on_campus/?a=126347.

Now, what has this to do with the shifting sands below Dr Gonzi’s feet? Consider that, traditionally, the Nationalist Party has been keen to present itself as the representative of the better educated and of those in the higher occupational categories.

The findings of the survey strongly suggest that, at least on the issue of divorce, the official views of the PN are not the views of all those in the higher levels of educational achievement and occupation.

One could, I suppose, suggest that those with a higher level education and those professionals, managers and senior officials who are not against divorce are all Labour Party supporters. If this were the case then the PN need not worry that its support base is not solidly behind the party’s stand against divorce. No joy. Everybody knows that many highly educated individuals and persons in the higher occupational categories are for divorce but are certainly not PL fans.

This strengthens my conviction that “many of the alliances that this government is built on are beginning to come apart”. Whatever happens this Saturday, Dr Gonzi will emerge weaker from it and no cohabitation law will make up for the damage, on the contrary. This campaign has distanced many thinking Nationalists from Dr Gonzi and from the “big majority of the members of the PN executive committee” that, on February 12, voted in favour of a motion declaring the party’s position against divorce (www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110212/local/promised-referendum-must-be-held-jpo-insists.349789).

The NO campaigners have certainly not helped Dr Gonzi. Many thinking Nationalists were shocked at the primitiveness of the arguments, the language and the images with which we have been bludgeoned.

A well-known media guru very close to the PN once told me that Dr Fenech Adami never came to terms with the Enlightenment and its idea of reason. I wonder what he thought – knowing his sense of irony – when driving past posters screaming out “Id-divorzju qabża kbira fid-dlam” (Divorce, [a] big leap in the dark) and “Divorzju bla raġuni” (No reason [for] divorce).

The original of this post appeared yesterday, May 23, in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times. You can access at it at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110523/opinion/Gonzi-and-thinking-Nationalists.366724

Who is afraid of Fredu Gambin?

Posted in 1 by Editor on May 10, 2011

Although the characters in Il-Gaġġa (The Cage) are fictitious, declares the late Frans Sammut in an introductory note to his novel, the cage is real. That book was first published in 1971, 40 years ago. Meanwhile the cage has undergone significant makeovers. Now, as many of you will be reading this online, I suggest you click http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/makeover  and http://www.oxfordadvancedlearnersdictionary.com/dictionary/makeover  , or any other decent online English dictionary, and check out the meaning of “makeover”.

The former will give you “a set of changes that are intended to make a person or place more attractive” and the latter, “the process of improving the appearance of a person or a place, or of changing the impression that something gives”. Makeovers, in other words, seem to have to do with essentially cosmetic, superficial change. Beneath the surface, some things stay as they are.

This is not the place to discuss the nature and the extent of what change has in fact taken place. I have done so elsewhere and my views on the subject are easily accessible to those that wish to engage them. Nor is it the place to discuss the suitability of the term “makeover” to describe the changes Maltese society has undergone in the four turbulent decades since Sammut gave us his first novel – certainly a milestone event in Maltese literature.

I would be the last to contest the importance of certain social, economic and political transformations that have taken place, although – as I have attempted to demonstrate in my contribution to Sultana and Baldacchino’s evergreen collection, Maltese Society. A Sociological Inquiry (1994) and in Cutajar and Cassar’s more recent reader Transitions in Maltese Society (2009) – they need to be shorn of the rhetoric of their narrative if they are to be critically appreciated. But the point remains that some important things have not changed. Some important features of our culture have survived these long 40 years.

The divorce issue has brought these out into the open. Let me be clear about this point. One should not be surprised that today a large proportion of the Maltese would not opt for divorce as a measure of last resort even if their marriage were irretrievably lost. Even if we stand at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century. The particular sort of Catholic traditions of this country and the specific cultural conditions under which Maltese Catholics have formed themselves, are such that it would have been surprising had a majority of Maltese Catholics declared that should they ever find themselves in the unfortunate position of being unable to make their marriage work, they would consider divorce as the lesser of evils.

That many of them will not consider this option is, in our circumstances, perfectly understandable. One can disagree with them but a democrat could never, under any circumstances, dream of denying them the right to follow their conscience. Everybody is and should be free not to seek to divorce.

What is surprising – and what shows that many important things have not changed in this country in the 40 years since the publication of Il-Gaġġa – is that anyone can claim that their personal religious belief compels them to deny the divorce option to those fellow citizens who would resort to it, responsibly, if and when they were to need it. With such a position not only can one disagree but, if modern democracy is to mean anything at all, one must disagree with it. It is nothing short of fundamentalist and fundamentally undemocratic.

The crudeness and emotional cruelty of the Kristu Iva, Divorzju Le poster along our major thoroughfares suggests that indeed many of the changes of the past 40 years have been of the “makeover” variety. The most superficial of them was (is) almost certainly the great European makeover. How can one honestly reconcile the EU’s democratic ideals – firmly rooted in the soil of the Enlightenment – with the denial of the right to seek divorce by those fellow citizens that see it as a good solution to their personal problems? Indeed, how Christian is such a position?

Fr Joe Borg in his blog on timesofmalta.com said that he “was greatly disappointed by the news of the setting up of the Kristu Iva, Divorzju Le Movement”. He goes further: “The language, symbols and imagery they use is bound to be counterproductive. It builds no bridges with all those good Catholics who favour divorce because they see it – and very well it could be for them – as a good solution to their problems. The movement builds no bridges with those good Catholics who after reflecting on Church teaching, studying the local situation and researching about the effects of divorce overseas support its introduction as the lesser of two evils”.

Fr Borg recognises their appeal for “the nostalgic Catholics (…) who were described by Archbishop Cremona as a pastoral problem for the Church”. Does this mean then the Archbishop also considers Eddie Fenech Adami – who has openly taken a fundamentalist position – a “pastoral problem for the Church”?

It is difficult, in these circumstances, not to suspect that the grandiloquent makeovers we have lived and continue to live through, are not the result of the sort of reasoning with which Tancredi convinced the Prince of Salina in Il Gattopardo: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. Swim on, Fredu Gambin, swim on.

This article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on May 9, 2011, and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110509/opinion/Who-is-afraid-of-Fredu-Gambin-.364371

Charging the electorate

Posted in 1 by Editor on April 11, 2011

On March 16, Parliament approved a motion – with a majority of 36 out of 69 members – for the holding of a consultative referendum on May 28 on the introduction of divorce. It also approved the referendum question: “Do you agree with having the option of having divorce for married couples who have been separated for four years when there is no reasonable hope for reconciliation and when adequate maintenance is guaranteed and the children are cared for”. Both sides were given a free vote.

Joseph Muscat expressed the view that the Bill should be withdrawn during this legislature if the people voted no in the referendum.

The two MPs who presented the Private Members’ Bill, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Evarist Bartolo, emphasising that the people’s voice expressed in a referendum would be heard, declared they would withdraw it if the majority voted against the introduction of divorce in a referendum.

Lawrence Gonzi, speaking after the motion was carried, said he would respect the vote of the people and would grant another free vote to the Nationalist Party.

Immediately after the motion was passed, The Sunday Times asked MPs how they would vote after the divorce referendum (March 20). Not all of them appreciated the initiative. Nationalist MP Edwin Vassallo, referring to the survey, said “this exercise can only prejudice MPs’ sincerity. This is a consultative referendum that is not binding and you cannot twist MPs’ arms when divorce was on nobody’s mandate”. Mr Vassallo, together with Dr Pullicino Orlando, is one of five PN members for the 11th district.

Out of 69 MPs, The Sunday Times succeeded to put the question to 67 of them. Of those contacted, 10 –seven PN and three Labour – did not commit themselves. In the words of the journalist, the result “shows the majority will not thwart the democratic process, even if in certain cases the result and their beliefs are intrinsically opposed”.

Let’s consider the composition of this democratic majority.

Forty-five MPs – of which 16 PN and 29 PL – declared that, whatever their personal convictions, they would vote in Parliament during this legislature in line with the will of the majority in the referendum. PL’s Carmelo Abela is a case in point. With admirable clarity, this is what he replied: “I’m against divorce but if we’re going to the people to hear what they have to say I’m morally obliged to follow the will of the majority”. The PN’s Ċensu Galea is another: “Hopefully, there will not be a conflict between my values and the outcome in the referendum result. However, we have to take note of what the people say”.

Another six – three from each side – revealed that if it comes to a conflict between their moral convictions and the referendum result, they will abstain.

Francis Zammit Dimech (PN) is an example: “I will act in such a way that will respect the people’s decision, so if the result is a win for the yes camp, I will abstain to ensure the people’s will prevails”. Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca (PL) has chosen the same path: “I will not hinder the democratic process. I will respect the people’s wishes but my convictions against divorce remain, so I will abstain from voting on the Bill in Parliament”.

And then there is a minority of 12 – of whom 11 PN and one PL – all of whom are (I presume unconditionally) against divorce, that have declared that they would vote against the Bill even if a majority at the referendum vote in favour of it. The word “even” is actually unnecessary for the simple reason that if a majority vote against divorce, then the Bill will be withdrawn by the two members that presented it and no MP would need to “thwart the democratic process”.

As uncompromising on this issue as his father, Beppe Fenech Adami (PN) is one of them. He said: “I will vote against any divorce legislation irrespective of the referendum result”. Why do I bring Eddie Fenech Adami into the picture? For the same reason that prompted Fr Renè Camilleri, on this paper on February 26, to argue that the PN – and, consequently, the opposition – would have taken a more arms-distance position had Eddie Fenech Adami not intervened so heavy-handedly. Quote: “What I believe changed the scenario at the eleventh hour was the unexpected and unwarranted pressure exerted by a former President and by a Cabinet member to bring the party in government to change direction”.

In my previous article I suggested that the former PN leader has stepped in to enable the PN to appeal, on the one hand, to its hard-line electorate and, and the other, to a more moderate, more reasonable and less conservative electorate. While Eddie Fenech Adami appeals to the PN’s traditional core constituency – with his son Beppe positioning himself to reap the personal political dividends – Lawrence Gonzi, reassured that the core is taken care of, can afford to reach out to the more modern floating fringes so crucial at the coming election.

On August 2, I argued that we should avoid emotionally aggressive crusades on this issue so as to permit individuals to make up their mind with the serenity that such a decision demands (www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100802/opinion/plea-for-sober-civilised-debate). I underestimated the appeal of crusades for those that understand that emotionally charged electorates are easier to dupe.

This article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on April 11, 2011, and may be accessed at  http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110411/opinion/charging-the-electorate

Libya: line in the sand at Ajdabiya

Posted in 1 by Editor on April 11, 2011

For daily synthetic updates, background and more,  see Watching Libya  at www.gtmalta.com

Divorce over Libya or ‘good-cop-bad-cop’ routine?

Posted in 1 by Editor on April 11, 2011

It seems only yesterday that, on January 14, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled his country. He tried to repress his angry people killing some of them in the process but that made matters worse. He tried to appease them with empty promises of reforms and elections but it was too little too late.

Already one day before Mr Ben Ali flew to Saudi Arabia, on January 13, largely unnoticed by the world, there were protests in several towns in neighbouring Libya over the late delivery of social housing.

On the night of January 15, hundreds of people broke into empty apartments in Bani Walid, about 180 kilometres to the southeast of Tripoli.

Many of them had been waiting for years to take possession of homes for which they had already paid most of the instalments. Many of them also claimed to have had to pay something on the side to corrupt local officials to be allocated a flat in the first place.

The police did not intervene. Official Libyan media did not report the incident but this did not stop it from, typically, reporting an official statement condemning the protests as “demagogy”. Also typically, the statement announced the setting up of a special committee to investigate every complaint and solve all problems. Similar protests took place in Al Bayda and Derna on the Cyrenaican coast and in Sebha in the Fezzan.

A month later, on February 15, several hundred people assembled in front of Benghazi’s police headquarters to protest against the arrest of Fathi Terbil, the Libyan lawyer representing the families of the circa 1,000 prisoners who are claimed to have been executed by security forces in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison in 1996. As the police attempted to disperse the crowd with hot water cannons, plainclothes security officers were reported to have shot at the demonstrators. The protest spread to Al Bayda to the east of Benghazi and to Az-Zintan in the Nefusa range south of Tripoli where police stations were set on fire.

If we take February 15 as the beginning of the war in Libya – for war it is – then tomorrow we enter the seventh week of hostilities. It’s been 11 days since, on March 17, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1973, authorising a no-fly zone over Libya and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians from attacks by loyalist forces. It’s been nine days since French planes fired the first shots that started the military campaign.

The war in Libya has provided one of those rare opportunities for the government and the opposition in Malta to unite in the national interest, a unity based on a common understanding of what is our national interest in such a situation. The Prime Minister stood by his government’s decision not to host military aircraft used against the Gaddafi regime. He explained that Malta only has one airport and that military bases were available only a few minutes away from Malta. In the past weeks, the Maltese government has consistently cited Malta’s constitutionally enshrined neutrality, which rules out the location of foreign military bases on the island and use of military facilities in Malta by any foreign armed force.

Lawrence Gonzi told the media his “priority as Prime Minister is the security of the country”. He also reiterated Malta’s willingness to continue to play a “pivotal role on humanitarian and evacuation issues” arising from the situation in Libya. Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition confirmed that the government and the opposition were in agreement regarding Malta’s position. Malta, he said, should continue to be prudent, serving as a humanitarian Mediterranean hub and keeping its security as the utmost priority.

Not everybody quite agrees with the government and the opposition. Take President Emeritus Eddie Fenech Adami. Speaking on March 20 at an event at Tarxien to mark the Nationalist Party club’s 25th anniversary, the former PN leader and Prime Minister is reported to have said that if coalition forces need to use Malta to carry out the UN-mandated military action against Libya, “we should accept”. He also made the legal point that Malta’s Constitution allowed it to take full part in action so long as it were sanctioned by the UN’s Security Council.

Although the newspaper report indicates he was careful (I quote what I assume are the reporter’s words) “not to criticise the government’s cautious approach so far”, he did emphasise (I quote direct speech from the report) “that if what is happening is done with the blessing of the Security Council, we are… I would not say obliged… but free to accept that decision. We should not go against the concrete resolutions of the UN”.

How to interpret Dr Fenech Adami’s words? Is it the good old good-cop-bad-cop routine? In this case, the former Nationalist Prime Minister is serving to balance Dr Gonzi’s position in the eyes of the PN’s core electorate. The subtext would be: OK, the PN government does not want Malta to be used as a military base but this has nothing to do with the neutrality bit in the Constitution because that clause is not binding in the case of UN-sanctioned military action. Further: We did it freely and not because we were forced to do so by something invented by Labour in the 1980s.

The other interpretation is more intriguing. Here goes. Perhaps the former PN leader and former Prime Minister is indicating an underlying and fundamental disagreement with his successor, Dr Gonzi. An ideological divorce as it were. The Tarxien debate was, as was inevitable, focused on the divorce issue. On that issue, Dr Fenech Adami reiterated his categorical no.

This article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on March 28, 2011, and may be accessed at  http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110328/opinion/an-ideological-divorce-on-libya

Old news and no news

Posted in 1 by Editor on March 16, 2011

It seems eons ago since Mark Antony Falzon brought to the attention of the readers of this newspaper’s Sunday sister the availability to University students of a new series of lectures on “the importance of the family in contemporary society” as part of the Degree Plus Programme (*). And, yet, it was only March 6. Perhaps it feels like ages ago because there are moments in our life when so much is happening around us that an hour seems like a week and when a day brings with it so much momentous news it might well be a year. Indeed, with all hell let loose only 45 minutes south of us, we are living one such historical moment and a very long moment it is.

Perhaps it feels like ages ago also because it was old news in the sense of déjà vu. It is not news that we do not live in a modern secular society free from state imposition of any religious belief. It is not news that, whereas some of us adopt post-modern poses, we continue to live in a culture that has so incompletely digested the enlightenment that we may well be justified in calling it pre-modern or, better, lumpen-modern.

At the last election, a slim majority of us (but a majority nevertheless) voted in a Prime Minister who is, no doubt, proud he will leave behind a pharaonic post-modernist national monument signed by one of my favourite architects, Renzo Piano. It is not news, however, that Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi has no intention of letting go of those features of our culture that make of us, frankly, Europe’s backward backwater. This is not news. Why should it be news, therefore, that the (state) University of Malta is offering an officially recognised but clearly confessional programme (confession understood as a public declaration of a faith)? It would have been news had many more of Dr Falzon’s colleagues raised their voice to query the propriety of the initiative.

It is encouraging to see that Dominic Fenech, dean of Dr Falzon’s faculty, posted an online comment declaring he is “with Mark Anthony on this all the way”. He also reminded us that “the object of Degree Plus is to open new horizons for students, not to close them”. It is discouraging to observe that Prof. Fenech’s declaration was not immediately followed by statements by all of his colleagues.

Dr Falzon went further. He asked how appropriate it is for this to happen so close to the divorce referendum, especially since some of the scheduled speakers have already taken a clear position against divorce. They are not just any speakers. They are speakers with a very loud voice. The identity of the organisers and the sales pitch are such as to leave no shadow of doubt that this lecture programme is perceived as a strong nudge to vote in a particular way.

I also agree with Dr Falzon all the way but I think we should distinguish between the evident slant of the lecture series and the issue of its official recognition by the University as a course within the Degree Plus Programme. Would the University have accepted to incorporate into the Degree Plus Programme a lecture course with the opposite slant? If the answer is not a clear and unequivocal “yes” then we have a serious problem. Actually, we have two problems, the second one being that, apparently, only a few of Dr Falzon’s colleagues are ready to state openly that they too perceive it as a problem. That they do not is a problem. But then, that’s hardly news, is it?

On December 15 of last year, Dr Gonzi spoke at the official opening of the University’s Centre for Family Studies. Among the centre’s aims, its own site lists the following: to “organise, encourage and promote research on all aspects of family life with particular reference to the Maltese cultural context”, “to offer certificate, degree and postgraduate courses including professional courses in the field of family studies” and services in the field of family-related matters to institutions assisting families, governmental and non-governmental agencies.”

How appropriate was it for Dr Gonzi to speak about the divorce issue precisely on this occasion? Did this singularly inappropriate intervention (we’ll discuss its content on another occasion) help to profile the centre as body dedicated to objective research and critical analysis in a field that indeed requires objective research and critical analysis? I think not.

More recently, Dr Gonzi was quoted as telling MPs he expected the centre to carry out an impact study on the introduction of divorce in Malta. Another newspaper titled its report Gonzi Favours May 28 Because He Wants Studies To Confirm The Negative Impact Of Divorce. I was not there and so I cannot say for certain the Prime Minister actually said “confirm the negative impact of divorce”. But I would have at least expected the University to issue a statement correcting the impression that the Centre for Family Studies was there to “confirm” anyone’s article of faith. The very thought should make any academic who values research and academic freedom wince with pain.

(*) Read Dr Mark Anthony Falzon’s article at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110306/opinion/university-can-do-without-pathetic-campaigning

This article appeared on Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on March 14, 2011. You can access the original at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110314/opinion/old-news-and-no-news

Libya: between Ajdabiya and New York

Posted in 1 by Editor on March 14, 2011

Unconfirmed reports suggest that the opposition in eastern Libya and the US, Britain and France have established channels of communication as a first step towards the belated implementation of a no-fly zone.

Meanwhile forces loyal to Muammar Gheddafy have engaged rebels in the town of Zuwarah in western Libya in what is an obvious bid to secure all the coastal area between Tripoli and the Tunisian border.

More vital for the future of the insurrection is the future of the eastern town of Ajdabiya (population c. 135,000). Gheddafy’s air force this morning struck this last significant stronghold on the way to Benghazi, the seat of the opposition’s National Council, about 160 km to the east.

Although the rebels cannot match the regime’s firepower and are almost helpless against air strikes and bombardment of their positions from the seaward side by Gheddafy’s navy, their morale appears to be high. As loyalist forces were pounding Ajdabiya, opposition units sped towards Brega in a bid to retake it.

Former Libyan regular army personnel are finally beginning to take a leading role in organising the defences of Ajdabiya and Benghazi.

Meanwhile the UN Security Council in New York is debating behind close doors whether to authorise a no-fly zone or otherwise. Resolutions need nine votes in favor and no vetoes from the five permanent members.

The game, then, is being played in Ajdabiya and New York.









… the Al Jazeera cameraman, a Qatari national,  who has been murdered in what is believed to have been an ambush near Benghazi in eastern Libya. He is believed to be the first journalist killed in covering the current crisis in Libya.