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Arrested Development

arrested_akkuzaYou cannot really laugh when you read stories like this. The institutions on the European mainland are constantly besieged by protests of all kinds against their decisions – and it is right that it should be so. Farmers from France have been known to drive up to Brussels and dump truckloads of manure to protest decisions by the EU institutions that they disagree with. For as long as I can remember London visits always included an episode where you come across a protester in the street, complete with tents, placards and whatnot monitored from a distance by a bobby or two – but still allowed to continue with his/their protest without being too bovvered by the long arm of the law.

Not in Malta 2014 though. Ignatius Busuttil was arrested for obstructing traffic (in a day and age when traffic is brought to a standstill by the needs of the latest Festa without so much as a by your leave) and for disobeying the police (who were ordering him to stop a peaceful protest). Worse still the newspaper report taken directly from the official statement we read that the police query goes into the questioning of Busuttil’s motives to protest : as though your very motives to complain about the government’s management of affairs require some sanctioning. Yes, it is facile to use the adjective Kafkesque but calling spades spades is sometimes the most simple of explanations.

“In the official statement given to the police and signed by Mr Busuttil, he was asked why he wanted to speak to Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, what he intended to say to Dr Muscat and what his grievances with MEPA are. The police asked him whether he had ever tried to make a formal appointment with Dr Muscat or any other government officials. The police then asked Mr Busuttil whether he has any mental problems.” (The Malta Independent)

It get worse too. The police are apparently hot on psychology now and they will delve into a lovely conundrum taken straight out of Joseph Heller’s leaf.  They have taken Catch-22 and turned it on its head.

“Sure there is a catch,” Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, that specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of the clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. 
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed. 

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka replied.

Much to Ignatius Busuttil’s chagrin the police have come up with their own version of Catch 22. It goes something like this:

1. You’ve got to be crazy to be protesting against this government.

2. Crazy people should not be allowed to protest. They should be in a mental institution.

3. Off to Mount Carmel.

Simple isn’t it? Joseph Muscat’s law is looking more and more like Joseph Heller’s. And it’s all the more a loss for our democracy.


Employing the statistics

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employ_akkuzaAt 11:52 this morning Joseph Muscat tweeted (as we do nowadays) that employment was up by 3.6% in March. I had been waiting for some new NSO figures for some time now ever since a blog reader had flagged a few inconsistencies in the recent unemployment figures.  Something felt not quite right when you saw the sudden bounce in unemployment that was tantamount to 2,000 less unemployed people over the last year or so. Where had all these persons been employed?

You’d think we’re doing great and that this government has a fantastic plan that stimulates the economy to such an extent as to encourage growth and employment. You’d hope so. The impression that Muscat wants to give is just that in fact – we have created new jobs.

Well, it turns out that the suspicion our readers had when they read this paragraph in a MaltaToday report on the increase in deficit (up by 24 million euros in the first half of 2014) was rather grounded:

In addition, personal emoluments and contributions to government entities increased by €24.6 million and €21.2 million respectively. Operational and Maintenance Expenditure went up by €5.8 million.

Since then we had been trying to find out whether there was any relation between the increase in employment (or decrease in unemployment – whatever tickles your fancy) and the 24.6 million increase in government emoluments. We needed to find out whether there was an increase in public service employment in the last year. To put you into the perspective, the much maligned GonziPN government had succeeded in shrinking the size (and correspondent expenses) of the public service. Less public service employees, less wages. Stands to reason.

Here’s how that trend was described in a the National Employment Policy published by this government in 2014:

In Malta, the public sector remains one of the biggest employers. According to Eurostat statistics, Malta’s public sector administration is the third largest in size in Europe as a ratio of total population. Still, from figure 2.3 it transpires that during the past decade the public sector shrank in size by almost 6,000 employees, from 46,700 in 2004 to 40,900 in 2012 (NSO, 2012; 2013). 

So we know for certain that under the dastardly GonziPN the public sector shrank in size by 6,000 employees. More savings, less expenditure for the government. So was this trend confirmed under MuscatPL? Well not really. IN today’s NSO news release we read how the public sector contributed mostly to the increase in employment. And here are the magical numbers that we get from Table 2 of the same news release:

Public Sec 2012 avg 40,893

Public Sec 2013 avg 41,918

Public Sec Mar 2014 43,386

Oops. So all this strutting about claiming an increase in employment is just borne on a wave of bullshit. What has happened is that Muscat PL – Taghna Lkoll has bucked a positive trend of a shrinking public sector that had been going on for a decade. Essentially all these ‘positive’ bites regarding decreasing unemployment, rising employment etc are all the result of Labour reopening wide the gates of government employment. Little wonder then that a large part of the increase in deficit is attributable to government emoluments.

 


The Maltese Race

malteser race _akkuzaIt’s almost eleven o’clock on Sunday morning. In my church going days this was the time for the infamous Sunday mass ritual complete with sermon, parade and chit chat on the church parvis just before heading off to Sunday lunch. For a long time through my childhood and adolescence we counted the mores and values of the Catholic Church as our own. Those days are long gone and it is no longer a question of pointing your finger at the Bishops and their flock whenever you feel that the moral compass has gone haywire. To be honest it has become harder and harder to identify the source of our common values in a nation that has discovered a plurality of divisions that go beyond the traditional good and evil fault lines that have always aided us to paint a chiaroscuro picture.

I remember Marsalforn’s priest (known to the flock as il-Kappillan) promoting numerous missionary efforts during the months of summer when his church would be full to the brim with the sudden influx of ‘Maltin’ who had come over to Gozo to spend their summer vacation. To the kids the idea of a mission was a remote place where the poor underprivileged, unlucky and pagan souls would be nourished with food for the spirit and for the flesh thanks to the intervention of intrepid missionaries. They might have been a reality but it was a reality that was far away. The sense of remoteness would only be breached when the first shipload of Albanians would reach our shores in the early nineties.

We grew up with a cushioned mentality of what brotherly love and concern is about. At school I heard first of the La Sallian Freres around the world spreading the word through education. Then I learnt about the not too lightweight methods of Jesuits like Francis Xavier and their trips to preach to foreigners all the way to the Orient. I came across the Freres again recently when watching a documentary about the history of what was once the Belgian Congo. Their schools have survived the upheavals since independence and they now include history teachers teaching young Congo residents the path that the Congo had to take towards eventual freedom and self-determination. Congo’s first short-lived president Patrice Lumumba had for long preached a Congo where “the blacks would be white and the whites would be black”.

But I digress. Our concept of “foreigner” were forged in colonial times and then continued to be moulded in post-independence Malta that probably had not shed its colonial mentality. For long the foreigner was a tourist with all the idiosyncrasies he could bring. He was a tourist to be charged according to the hidden prices on the menu (still is) and someone who could leave a penny or two on this young republic’s soil. Politically with the arrival of Mintoffian principles combining fabricated nationalism and aggressive participation on international fronts, the foreigner became a “barrani” – an outsider – a concept that is encapsulated in very similar terms to “not local”. We had to choose with whom to deal with and who would be our friend in times of need.

There is no doubt that the politically expedient mechanism was absorbed into our way of thinking. The irony is not lost when you see that this kind of political tool culminated in a legislation on “foreign (outsider) interference”. Setting aside the political undertones, it says much about the lilliputian element in the mentality. “We are Maltese and no outsider will tell us what to do”. Inevitably such a narrative required a fleshing out of the myth of the ‘Maltese Race’ – for which we came up with a word that is only used in one other circumstance  ie. the United Nations or Gnus Maghquda. By 1979 we had Gensna (technically “Our Nation” but giving off serious whiffs of “Our Race”). The language of “us and them” had been packaged roughly and served its purpose well. It probably was here to stay.

Fast forward to the nineties where we began an uncomfortable rapprochement to the continent to our north. We may have made giant strides towards the “Europeanisation” of our nation structurally but come the referendum on EU membership the “us and them” mentality showed that it was going nowhere. “Them” in this case was the Europeans. We had the derisory, ridiculous, statements of parts of the opposition to membership regarding AIDS, Sicilian workers et al but they were there and I am not too sure that they were easily dismissed. Without making a value judgement on EU membership itself, I believe that it is safe to say that Malta might have politically and economically joined a wider club of peers but a substantial part of its population was still torn about the need to have anything to do (or depend on) the outsiders.

An uneasy membership had begun and it would not be long before we would have a government pouncing upon the uneasiness of a  large swathe of our population with the concept of “the others”. It could have been any party mind you – so long as it is one that relies on substantial doses of populism there would always be a vein to be tapped – a vein that dislikes the outsider, snobs the foreigner and demonstrates all the makings of an intolerant mentality.

The Albanian ships had just been a forewarning. Soon we would have an ever increasing wave of refugee seekers escaping the turmoils of the Dark Continent. We would also absorb a large amount of people escaping the ugly reality of the Balkan break up. Later on (more like recently) we would add to those the East European (non-EU) diaspora looking for a better life. The Gens Malti suddenly found itself knee deep in barranin. Would it cope? Could it cope?

In this year’s address to the Luxembourg population on Duke’s Day, Prime Minister Xavier Bettel surprised the non-Luxembourgish community in Luxembourg (the country, not the city, has 48% of non-Luxembourgers in its population in 2014) by addressing them specifically. He switched to French from Luxembourgish to do so (already an immense concession) and proceeded to tell the “foreign” community of how they are welcome in Luxembourg. “You may seem to be a problem at the start but I see you as a challenge, a positive challenge and an opportunity”. I paraphrase the sense of his speech but that was Bettel’s attitude in a nutshell. Luxembourg would make the most of the presence of non-natives – not complain about them. (see Luxembourg’s score on the Migration Policy Index here).

It’s not all about Migration though. It’s about a general attitude to anything conceived as non-Maltese i.e. foreign. Trying to understand this obsession with the Maltese Race is not simply restricted to the dangerous gibberish spouted by Imperium Europa followers. It means trying to understand how it is that we form our ideas about who and what is non-Maltese. It is also about trying to understand why we have selective bursts of what cannot but be termed racist/intolerant conceptions when talking about events unfolding in Malta and close to it. The overwhelming majority surely has no wish to think in terms of the brotherhood of man.

That is why it is worrying but not surprising that an idiot on Facebook expresses his wish that MEP Roberta Metsola gets gang raped by a group of immigrants when he sees her efforts being made towards integration and assistance. That is why it is worrying but not surprising that our government’s envoy to the World Tourism Authority deems it fit to use the word “rapist” when talking about ADITUS chairman’s efforts in assisting refugees and immigrants in integration. That is why it is worrying but not surprising that our nurses complain about (specifically) Libyan patients being brought to hospital as though hospitals are only equipped to combat Maltese illnesses and bacteria (and to think that part of our great historical narrative includes a period when Malta was the hospital of the Mediterranean receiving wounded from the First Crimean War for example).

Sliema and Saint Julian’s are under threat. There is hooded gang doing the rounds with some kind of master key and burgling homes. It seems to make a difference that these criminals are Eastern European, probably Serb apparently. We have got used to situations where the defining factor is not a crime but the nationality of the person committing it – as though this in itself is an aggravation or proves some statistical point.

All this points to a continued uneasiness with the concept of non-Maltese in 2014. This is not a pretentious rant but an attempt to identify the source of the mentality and the problem. Nations like Luxembourg have taken up the challenge and are seeing the potential in seconding this new wave into the very struggles of their own nation. Malta on the other hand seems to have gone down the path of refusal and denial. Efforts at integration and commonality are either not evident or non-existent. What is clear is that we are very weak policy-wise when it comes to thinking about how to work on this reality. So long as those entrusted to govern prefer to pick and mix with a populistic enthusiasm we can expect little or no positive input from their part.

Meanwhile the Maltese Race continues…. to the bottom.

 

 


Words of Abduction

abduction_akkuzaWhat is predicted to be Malta’s hottest August for years has begun under the sign of Martin Galea and the images of his post-abduction and freedom interview. The story of the abduction itself  should have turned out to be quite a straightforward one of abduction and rescue yet Muscat’s government have managed to turn this into another web of fishy explanations, hidden motives and bungled communications – to say the least.

Context

Context, a lot of it, is required. This is Libya following the rekindling of  what Western media describe as tribal rivalries. Not too long before the conflagration the government of Malta was busy signing Memoranda of Understanding with whoever was sitting in the shaky seat of power in Tripoli at the time. Any suggestion to the government of Malta that the Libyan situation was not at all safe and that it was about to explode once again into the warring factions we had seen in the post-Colonel scenario would be shot down with the usual arrogant panache that has become such a trademark Labour method in the domain of communications.

In mid-July Malta’s foreign Minister insisted that the situation in Libya was “not very serious” and that there was no need to evacuate Maltese citizens. It would soon become evident that notwithstanding our proximity to the Libyan realities and all the talk of our common history and heritage and friendship (all is well when you are signing an agreement for cheaper fuel) we apparently had no bloody clue what was going on. While other states withdrew their embassies (by July 27 even the US evacuated its Tripoli embassy) we were busy playing musical chairs with out politically appointed ambassador (aren’t they all) to-ing and fro-ing like a headless chicken on crack.

It is important to follow the trail of government speak in this story – especially when weighing who its real interlocutor is. When the government does seem to want to address the media (not only the selected media as on the China trip), it seems to have a second interlocutor in mind – one to whom it is intent on delivering a pleasant message.

Step back again to the days prior to the return to battle on Libyan territory. A few other incidents stick out like a sore thumb. First we had the mysterious Libyan being provided Malta state security in a Saint Paul’s Bay flat. Following some probing prompted by early questions raised on Caruana Galizia’s blog, the government was forced to comment on whether or not a Libyan national was being provided with state-funded security. It turned out that Libya’s former Deputy PM Sadiq Abdulkarim had fled to Malta. No confirmation was forthcoming from the government as to whether or not this was the same person being provided security. They had this to say:

Libya’s Deputy Prime Minister Sadiq Abdulkarim is living in Malta, this newspaper has learnt.A government spokesman would not confirm or deny it, simply saying it “would not comment on matters of national security”.Mr Abdulkarim, who was also Libya’s deputy PM while Ali Zeidan was prime minister, is living under heavily armed guard on the island. [...]

Over the weekend, the government was quick to deny media speculation that Mr Zeidan was living in Malta. Government spokesman Carmelo Abela reiterated during a press conference on Tuesday that the man seen under heavy escort in St Paul’s Bay was not the former Libyan premier but said he could not give further details because of national security.

Eight days after the above quoted report, the Times of Malta reported that Zeidan and Abdulkarim had returned to Libya (June 20th). Mr Zeidan returned to the city of Beida where he “made an attempt to reclaim his premiership”. It was Garibaldi all over again. A short rest in Malta before returning to retake the country – or so they thought. As for the Maltese government it stood by its “national security” dictate.

A second interesting development before the fighting began again in Libya was the accusation that Malta or some Maltese were involved in the smuggling of fuel from Libya.Tellingly this allegation surfaced on June 18th in the Maltese press – following its first appearance in a Reuters report. Here’s the Times:

Meetings are being held between senior security personnel in Malta and Libya to verify allegations of fuel smuggling from Libya to Malta and take all decisions necessary to curb such activities, the Foreign Ministry said.

It said the latest developments would also be discussed between Minister George Vella and his Libyan counterpart later today.

The ministry was reacting to a Reuters report that large amounts of fuel were being smuggled from Libya to Malta – even as angry motorists queued in Tripoli and the state oil firm struggled to deliver due to a lack of security at petrol stations

“This phenomena is a threat to Libya and affects national security,” the government said in a statement after Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni met Malta’s ambassador.

This time it was Libya’s government ranting away about “national security”. Curiously these events take place on June 18th, two days before Zeidan and Abdulkarim leave Malta to “reclaim the premiership”. On June 20th we have Libyan PM Abdullah Al-Thinni meeting the Maltese ambassador to voice his concerns while Foreign Minister George Vella met his counterpart in Al-Thinni’s government. There is something very confusing about the Maltese government’s dealing with Libya as a whole. On the one hand it is presumably (strong evidence backs this presumption) providing safe harbour to the deputy of the claimant to the “throne” in Tripoli but on the other hand it is also negotiating with (and therefore clearly recognising) the man occupying the coveted “throne”. 

Of course you are entitled to think that in this way the Maltese government is on “friendly terms” with all sides in the fractious break up of Libya. There is a high probability that the Maltese government is hedging its bets and hoping that whichever side is victorious then it can quickly cosy up and resume its agreements regarding oil procurement and immigration problem solving. Aside from the moral implications of this kind of foreign policy, one question remains to be answered? What weight does the Maltese government carry when push comes to shove in Libyan matters?

There’s one final piece of the context puzzle before moving on. This time we go back to May 2014 – a month before the events began to precipitate. Consul Maria Farrugia is called back to Malta on allegations of VISA fraud. Another piece of the network of foreign representatives being replaced by Taghna Lkoll Government appointees crumbles. This time, rather than simply recalling the diplomat we have charges of VISA fraud. Whether such allegations turn out to be substantiated or not is another story – what is important here is that our man in Tripoli is another political appointee who, as it turns out, becomes useless in the moment of need. Farrugia would be recalled at the time of Galea’s abduction and – if you were to take the abductees word for it – would be fundamental for his release.

This is not an abduction

So there you have it. This is the context in which we can better see the news behind the abduction of Martin Galea. Galea was abducted on Thursday July 17th while working for private company NAGECO as a health and Safety advisor. The government of Malta had to wait for his release, his return to Malta, his medical examination and finally for the incontrovertible truth explained in a TMI video interview before it finally conceded that this was an abduction. From the 17th of July till the end of the month, the governments’ handling of the issue begs more questions than it provides answers. With the above context in mind the questions that can and should be asked are the following:

Once the government was apprised of the fact that Martin Galea was missing and possibly abducted how was this information processed and prioritised? We are told that the government was informed of the abduction on Sunday 20th (Joseph Muscat statement in Parliament) and that it started working with the police and diplomatic service to contact the abductors. As late as July 30th statements by Civil Service head Martin Cutajar still insisted that the government never used the word “abduction” – adding that “it was the media who called it an abduction.

It was not just Cutajar, OPM Communications Head Kurt Farrugia also added that “the exact sequence of events was never clear, and the government never had direct contact with whoever was holding Mr Galea”.  In an interview with MaltaToday, a Libyan militia leader (Ayman Al Madani) also denied that Mr Galea was ever abducted. Saying that he played a role in securing Galea’s release he insisted that the Maltese national was not abducted, but taken in by a Warshafana militia when fighting broke out on the road he was travelling on.

Al Maydani has a Libyan contact in Malta – Khaled Ebrahim Ben Nasan who had asked him to enquire about Galea’s disappearance. Ben Nasan seems to have been brought into the picture by Malta’s ambassador to Libya Mannie Galea who, according to the MT interview ” asked him to intervene in the rescue of Galea on midnight of Saturday 26 July, the day after news broke that Galea had disappeared.” This last statement is interesting because it shows a lapse of 6 days between when the government knew of the abduction (20th July) and when Ambassador Mannie Galea contacted possible intermediaries. Did Ambassador Mannie Galea only get to know on the 26th July? It does not sound reasonable.

Also, what is all this concern about toning down the “abduction” and describing it as a case of being secluded for his own security? Which counterparts in Libya are being accomodated by this version of events? Does this in any way have anything to do with the hedging of bets with the internal situation in Libya? If a militia had indeed abducted Martin Galea was somebody making sure that no toes were stepped upon and no feathers were ruffled in case this militia transforms into a “government counterpart”? Whose security was being given priority?

Much has also been made of Ambassador Galea’s absence from the scene – he was nowhere to be seen at the victorious set-up at Luqa Airport upon Martin Galea’s return to Malta. Instead we heard Martin Galea say that he owed his life to Marisa Farrugia, the supposedly disgraced consul who had been whipped back in action by the government to bring back the person who had (according to the official line) not been abducted by one of the militias vying for power in civil war torn Libya. Complicated?

There are other questions of course. The government, through its spokesman Cutajar, insisted as late as the 30th of July that “‘competent authorities’ are still putting together the circumstances of what happened to oil worker Martin Galea who was held by Libyan militias for 12 days and brought back to Malta on Monday evening.” Cutajar also stated that Martin Galea “was given different versions of who the group who took him were”. Meanwhile Kurt Farrugia confirmed Cutajar’s statement adding:

“the government never said it was an abduction. “We chose our words carefully to protect Galea’s life especially when we didn’t have the full picture of the situation. We were still evaluating the situation, and the word ‘abduction’ was used by the media. We always made it clear that the government never had direct contact with whoever took him”. (MaltaToday, 30 July)

As I mentioned earlier it would take Martin Galea’s Independent interviews to get the government to ‘admit’ that it was an abduction. There are more telling points in Farrugia’s statements. There is the admission that the government was rarely on top of the situation. Notwithstanding that this was a country with whom an MOU had been signed earlier that month and that this was country where there was ‘no reason to worry’, the government proved to be rather inept at reacting properly on the ground.

Why not use the term abduction? For whose safety exactly? How exactly does an abduction get worse by calling it an abduction? One possible explanation is that the government wanted to ‘legitimise’ the abductors. A line similar to that sold by militia leader Al Madani would explain this. Theirs was not an abduction but Galea was simply kept aside for his own security. Of course none of this makes sense once you hear about Galea’s ordeal but for a government that puts much weight in the power of persuasion through words, not calling an abduction an abduction must have made a lot of sense.

Also, on the 30th July, the OPM Communications Chief confirms that “the government never made contact with whoever took him (Galea)”. Interesting. So essentially we have clear evidence that notwithstanding all the fanfare with Muscat and Manuel Mallia at Luqa airport, the government had little or no say in negotiating the release of the abductee Galea. So how and why was he released? How are we to interpret his words that it is to Marisa Farrugia that he owes his life?

Were there parallel efforts by different entities all doing their damned best to liberate a person who for all official intents and purposes had not really been abducted? There is evidently much that we are not being told. Muscat’s government has tried to minimise the escalation of troubles in Libya and it is evident that it has much at stake (as a party as much as a government) in the outcome of the troubles. Galea’s abduction was a major inconvenience for the official line that had hitherto attempted to understate the extent of upheaval happening to the south of our Republic.

A network of interests, dues and counter-dues somehow keeps trying to surface while Muscat’s government seems more and more inept and unprepared to take a clear line vis-a-vis Libya. More importantly it becomes more and more evident that the main interest for Muscat’s government when dealing with Libya is not the much vaunted “national interest” but rather a web of party and individual commitments and investments.

One last evident victim that comes out battered from such an experience (notwithstanding what increasingly seems to be the fortuitous liberation of Galea) is the whole branch of the foreign ministry and network of diplomats. When push comes to shove the real damage of privileging political appointments over meritocratic and technocratic employment of trained personnel is dangerously exposed in such situations.

In such situations, Muscat’s hypnotic hold over popular thought using his “Magritte technique” and calling something what it is not (or denying something is what it is) begins to show huge cracks and signs of breaking.

Ceci n’est pas un enlèvement!

(This is not an abduction).

 

 

 

 


Smart savings ?

smart_akkuzaHow big a pinch in government spending is €175,000 per annum? That is the figure that Education Minister Evarist Bartolo claims to be saving the public purse by removing the smart card system and transforming that portion of money into a grant going directly into the students’ purses.

There seem to be murmurs of new controls (checks and balances) on how such money is spent by students – such controls seem to have the nihil obstat of the KSU president who suggested a system of providing receipts for purchases. Sadly no one has yet mentioned how much said systems of checks and balances would cost, consequently we do not even know whether the new cost will be cheaper than the above mentioned administrative expenses that are needed to keep the smart card system in place.

Beyond the petty accounting from a government that increased the annual emoluments to its appointees by €25,000,000 last year (had to put the zeroes to give you a sense of perspective), the move to remove the smart card may have been packaged in the attractive (but deceptive) wrapping of a money saving exercise but it belies a hapless approach to the very reason of the existence of stipends (and maintenance grants, and ring-fenced expenses).

As was argued a good 16 years ago by KSU (and yes, I did form part of that KSU) every time you discuss stipends you have to be aware of why they exist. 16 years ago it was convincingly argued by the KSU before the Galdes Commission that stipends were still a necessary incentive to keep thousands of students out of the work market and in the tertiary level of education. The report we produced in 1998 is too long to summarise here but you can get a read on this link.

Now this government does not seem to be questioning the need for maintaining a system of stipends and grants. The changes were simply cosmetic based on spurious economic justifications. It is rather ironic that the KSU should be in favour of the switch away from smart cards while the GRTU expresses its disappointment. Well, not so ironic given that the main flaw of the outgoing system seems to have been the abuses by retailers who were never intended to be part of such a scheme. The idea behind smart cards was to ensure that the expenses strictly related to educational requirements of the students could be controlled. Money intended for books and stationery would not end up spent on vodka and Easter weekends in Gozo.

Nanny state? Maybe. But this was intrinsically linked with the basic policy of why stipends existed. It is easy to take the Daily Mail approach to stipends and start off your average newspaper column with a whinge about how students have it so easy and that it is about time that stipends are removed. Thatt does not mean that you have the bigger picture in mind. it just means that you are willing to ride the wave of public sentiment that is always so popular in Malta.

The truth is that stipends should form part of a wider set of targets and policies that not only effect the educational levels of our nation but also employment and development policy. Bartolo’s lame excuse of saving the equivalent of one-third of the spending on a Joseph Calleja concert is ridiculous when seen from this wider perspective. As things stand, a specific measure designed to ensure that a substantial part of the monies allocated to subsidising student autonomy in tertiary education is used for the purpose for which it was intended has been shot down with no effective replacement in sight.

Sure, the system was being abused – but rather than create a better check and punish abusers the government has chosen an easy way out that utterly compromises the whole idea of ring-fencing the student subsidy system. By saving €176,000 on an imperfect system of checks and balances, the government has now opted for no checks and balances – at least until we are told whether any new system is in place and what it entails (and how much that one will cost).

As for the KSU, they might be applauding this move enthusiastically but policy wise they should be seeing this as a heavy burden to carry next time a new debate comes up as to the necessity of stipends in this day and age. By discarding any possibility of restricting the spending to educational purposes they have also discarded one of the most convincing elements in favour of Malta’s very specific approach to tertiary education subsistence.

From MaltaToday:

The Education Minister added that students were already spending their grant in non-related educational expenses and, in this way, student would learn how to be responsible with their money.

KSU President Gayle Lynn Callus welcomed the reform but called on government to ensure checks and balances are in place on how the students spend their grant.

Also: The KSU 1999 Stipends Survey documents are available here.

 


Institutes of Confusion

confucius_akkuzaChina Today. It’s all about China isn’t it? The latest very superficial Memorandum of Understanding to be signed with what Saviour Balzan in his infinite wisdom terms a “former communist giant” was the subject of discussion in parliament tonight. The opposition raised some valid questions about a number of matters mentioned in the Memorandum – o as the case may be, about a number of matters not mentioned in the memorandum. One matter that both parties seem to be warm about is the benefits of cultural exchange with the global behemoth – in particular the setting up of the Confucius Institutes. Many seem to labour under the impression that this kind of centre of cultural enlightment has the same value as, say, the Alliance Francaise or the Istituto Culturale Italiano. Only it doesn’t does it?

Confucius Institutes have been set up the world over by China in an effort, true, to spread its cultural enlightenment to the world. These institutes though are not totally bereft of controversy and this mainly because of the very nature of their backer. Alas Chinese culture includes a dark void in such subjects as democracy and human rights. Don’t expect the institutes to be a shining example or learning center where these subjects are concerned. Last year a number of Canadian Universities were up in arms and sought to eliminate all ties to their Confucius Institutes precisely because of behaviour that was not fitting for liberal democracies:

Here’s The Times’ educational supplement (no not the Times that accepted the trip to be part of the Potemkin group selected by Muscat – the real Times):

The most recent controversy over the Confucius Institutes has flared up in Canada, where one university is shutting down the programme on its campus because of a human rights complaint and two more have declined to serve as hosts.

McMaster University in Hamilton, near Toronto, will close its Confucius Institute when the current term ends this summer, citing the institute’s requirement that its instructors have no affiliation to organisations that the Chinese government has banned, including the spiritual movement Falun Gong.

In the past few years, too, the University of Manitoba and the University of British Columbia have turned down proposals for Confucius Institutes to open on their campuses.

The Confucius Institutes are under the control of Hanban, a branch of China’s Ministry of Education. They supply money, teachers and Chinese- language instruction to universities.

The network has grown from one campus in Seoul in 2004 to more than 400 today, including 11 in Canada, 70 in the US and 11 in the UK. According to reports in the Chinese media on 11 March, the head of the Confucius Institutes, Xu Lin, has said the institute plans to expand to 500 branches worldwide by 2020. (Link)

There’s more in this article in the New York Times also highlighting all the strings that are attached to setting up a China funded institute within a Western University. In the article the difference between Confucius Institutes and the Alliance Francaise is stressed:

The British Council currently operates in more than 100 countries; the Alliance Française and the Goethe Institute, in Germany, all run on similar lines. And though the United States Information Agency library program has wound down considerably with the end of the Cold War, the State Department still makes an effort to promote American culture overseas.

However, none of these programs are based on university campuses. And according to Mr. Davidson, none adopt the same homogenous approach to their native cultures found in Confucius Institutes. “No one would regard Zadie Smith or Grayson Perry as someone controlled by the British Council,” he said.

“The Chinese are very clear on what they are trying to achieve,” said Mr. Davidson. “They want to change the perception of China — to combat negative propaganda with positive propaganda. And they use the word ‘propaganda’ in Chinese. But I doubt they have to say, ‘We’ll only give you this money if you never criticize China.’ The danger is more of self-censorship — which is a very subtle thing,” Mr. Davidson said.

Wikipedia, the site censored in the People’s Republic, has an article dedicated solely to Criticism of Confucius Institutes - such is the extent of controversy surrounding these units of Chinese propaganda abroad.  Academics find the idea of the institutes abhorrent because they symbolise the stifling of academic freedom – and they insist on being intrinsically linked to university campuses. Their use as a tool of propaganda while censoring controversial parts of the Chinese story (the three T’s are blacked out: Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan) makes them stick out like ugly warts within the Western concept of liberal seats of learning that is supposed to underlie the very basis of academic development.

On March 28, 2012, the United States House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing on “The Price of Public Diplomacy with China,” focusing upon Chinese propaganda efforts in the U.S., including Confucius Institutes on university campuses. Representative Dana Rohrabacher said, “The two pillars of America’s status as an open society are freedom of the press and academic freedom. Communist China, which does not believe in or allow the practice of either type of freedom, is exploiting the opportunities offered by America to penetrate both private media and public education to spread its state propaganda.”Steven W. Mosher testified, “there have been allegations of Confucius Institutes undermining academic freedom at host universities, engaging in industrial and military espionage, monitoring the activities of Chinese students abroad, and attempting to advance the Chinese Party-State’s political agenda on such issues as the Dalai Lama and Tibet, Taiwan independence, the pro-democracy movement abroad, and dissent within China itself.”Responding to Mosher’s testimony, Rohrabacher argued, “It appears as though Beijing is able to expand its campaign against academic freedom from China to America when U.S. universities value Chinese favors and money more than truth and integrity.

That’s it really. It’s not just the US universities. Dealing with China means that sacrifices have to be made and reaching ugly value conclusions. Dealing with China brings in Chinese favors and money but the ultimate result is that what suffers are truth and integrity.

The object of the superior man is the truth. – Confucius


Our missionary position

missionary_akkuzaThis is a guest post sent in by a J’accuse reader. 

While everyone this side of the Great Wall is falling over themselves to figure out how much of our taxes are being used to remunerate “our” emissary in the Far East, one simple fact from the horse’s mouth seems to have been missed.

I, for one, could not care less if the salary Hon. Mizzi’s wife is supposedly on is €3,000, €13,000 or €130,000 per month if it means the overall economic boost to our nation’s coffers results in a net gain from this promotional mission. However, what is most striking, is that for all the hard work she is meant to have done in the past year, all she has to show for it is interest from a ‘top digital company’ to come to Malta and set up a ‘free trade zone centre’.

Sai Mizzi’s quote to Times of Malta reporter Ariadne Massa:

“This company is looking to set up a showcase for all Chinese products in Malta so that European countries will not need to travel to China to see their goods but they can just go to Malta, which is on their doorstep”

That sounds like top work to me, but only if your remit was to bring China and Chinese products to the EU. Does Ms Mizzi not know which side of her bread is being buttered? Apart from saving a little airfare for our EU brethren I fail to identify any benefit that this may bring to our economy. Even the trade zone centre is “free”!

A Nonny Moose


(All that) Bull in a China shop

allbull_akkuzaThis must be the year of the bull. I know it isn’t (it’s the year of the horse and there’s no bull in the Chinese zodiac) but there’s so much bull in the year that it’s hard to miss it. Only the other day Malta’s ex-Commissioner to the EU now turned “I’ll never bend over to the Europeans” repeatedly referred to a Dr BS in one of his apologias to the world. Must be the summer sun.

Anyways. Today’s Times of Malta reports a government spokesman as saying that Malta’s newly signed medium-term cooperation agreement with China has “sparked interest from other European countries seeking to tap similar deals”.

Malta will be the first EU country to sign a medium-term cooperation agreement with China when the Prime Minister flies to Beijing on Tuesday. According to the government, the five-year memorandum of understanding announced on Thursday has already sparked interest from other European countries seeking to tap similar deals. “We have been approached by four other European countries asking what this deal will entail to see how they can follow suit,” a government spokesman said when contacted. (Times of Malta)

The ambiguity of the phrase regarding interest is such as to raise a couple of questions. First of all, the minor detail, I believe that it is safe to assume that for once the government’s spokesman remembered we are part of Europe and therefore the “other” in that phrase means “other than Malta” (the alternative interpretation would be a sad condemnation on government spokesman’s geographical proficiency).

The second bit of ambiguity concerns the deal that is being asked about. Are other European countries interested in the same kind of agreement with Malta? Or are they genuinely asking Konrad Mizzi and co. for advice on how to deal with China? Both alternatives stink of stercus taurinum. The first alternative (European countries inquiring about a possible cooperation agreement with Malta) tends to ignore the fact that we are currently very strongly partnered with 27 member states of the European Union. Are these extra-EU European states? All four of them? Highly unlikely.

So chances are that the government spokesman was actually referring to the second option, namely that Malta’s government was being asked for advice on how to clinch great deals with the Chinese. Which is interesting and also stinks of bovine excrement. The statement implies that the poor European states (all four of them) are living in a sort of Martian isolation from the rest of the world and had hitherto never made contact with the Chinese empire beyond the cave. In this day and age when the Republic of Ghana has the remnimbi in circulation alongside the national currency it is hard to believe that there are European countries (presumably members of the European Union) that need the Labour government’s assistance in establishing ties with China.

Or maybe (just maybe, as Louis CK would say) they need to find out how Labour pulled off a very particular kind of relationship with the Chinese. The kind of agreement that makes use of the public good in order to pay off an inordinate amount of IOUs and commitments that were made BEFORE it was even a government. THAT kind of understanding where the contents of agreements are rarely public but where you can smell certain beneficiaries from a mile away. Who knows there may be Energy Ministers in European countries who have woken up and smelled the coffee and are planning a posting for their companions in far off Shanghai (remunerated by the public purse).

In the end it’s not the deals with China that are a problem. Sure, the whole world is currently rushing to benefit from China’s huge reserves that are waiting to be spent and invested in every corner of the planet. What remains a problem are the clouds hanging on the not too fine line of distinction between Labour as a party (and its favourites) on the one hand and the public assets that are entrusted in the hands of the executive for a good administration in the best interests of us all.

In that department at least I strongly doubt whether Labour has any good lessons to impart to any other nation, let alone European partners.


The ghosts of politics past

ghosts_akkuzaThe French news world was rocked this morning with the news that former President Nicolas Sarkozy was placed under “garde a vue” pending investigations into possible “trading in influence” that he might have engaged in during his presidency. Those more familiar with Italian political jargon would call a garde a vue an avviso di garanzia (indictment). What it means is that the person receiving the order is deprived of his freedom pending investigation by a judiciary authority.

European politicians (at least European politicans) would do well to look closely at the events leading to this state of affairs. Investigations had originally concentrated on Sarkozy’s 2007 electoral campaign – yes, the original Flimkien kollox possibbli or as the French would have it Ensemble tout est possible.  Sarkozy and his electoral team were suspected to have received funding from – of all people – Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi in return for future favours and considerations from and for Libya’s government. While listening in into conversations related to this investigation, the investigators noticed that Sarkozy kept a secret phone registered under a false name.

It later transpired that this second phone was being used to “trade influence” with judicial authorities in order to favour Sarkozy’s situation in another hot affair – known in France as the Bettencourt Affair (another case of trading in influence and corruption). Sarkozy would allegedly use his network to get important information about investigations into the Bettencourt Affair – particularly any information that would draw him into the case. This network involved high-end magistrates and police officers, or as Le Monde puts it: “ les enquêteurs pensent avoir mis au jour un « réseau » d’informateurs, au sein de la police et de la justice, susceptible de renseigner les proches de l’ancien président de la République dans les procédures judiciaires pouvant le menacer.” (the investigators have uncovered a network of informers at the heart of the police and the justice system that might have informed persons close to the former president with regards to judicial procedures that could be threatening to him). 

Quite a network there. From electoral funds and favours linking Sarkozy to a dictatorial regime to meddling in the judicial and police system in order to protect ones own interests. This is a strong warning signal to politicians – given a functioning system of checks and balances there will always come a time when past mistakes and abuses will come back to haunt you. Such events also highlight the importance of the rule of law and of institutions of review that allow for independent monitoring of the political elite.

Simon Busuttil at the helm of the PN’s storm tossed ship is surely aware of the dangers of the errors of the past committed by others coming back to haunt him. It makes his task of changing the direction of the ship and shedding that image all the more difficult. Sadly the people’s habit of thinking in terms of guilt by association – so often milked by past PN administrations and its sympathisers will not help this particular ghost vanish too quickly.

Joseph Muscat on the other hand is currently running the show of government without making too much of an effort to hide not so tenuous links with authoritarian governments. His main political moves during the first year of his legislature were obviously dictated by and dependent upon agreements with such governments or their people; three obvious cases spring to mind: (1) the Chinese influence on the power station; (2) the huge question marks hanging around the process of attribution of Malta’s passport scheme and those who would ultimately benefit from it; (3) the hopelessly short-sighted dealings with transient Libyan governments over the provision of petrol (and subsequent use of Maltese resources to provide “security” to unknown persons).

Add to all that the bumbling interventions in the army, the sorry state of affairs of the police, the current spats with the Ombudsman, the hideous conniving to postpone a judge’s impeachment – and you begin to see a ghost in the making for Muscat’s band of politicians.

En garde à vous!


Triton’s Sons

triton_akkuzaYet another tragedy has occurred in the Mediterranean. The Italian Marina Militare have found a fishing boat with around 600 people on board. 30 of these persons were dead in the hold – dead of asphyxia. As the mayor of Pozzallo decried the lack of space where to put the corpses, it is rumoured that (Commission Head Designate) Jean-Claude Juncker is mulling the idea of an ad hoc Commissioner for immigration.

Greek mythology has it that when Jason and the Argonauts were stranded on a Libyan lake (what could now be Xatt el Djerid near Carthage), Triton promised to assist them out of their predicament in exchange of a tripod that was in Jason’s possession. As Herodotus explains, Triton helped Jason and his Argonauts out of the lake and into the Mediterranean sea. History (and mythology that is an ancient way of “explaining” history) has a weird way of repeating itself.

Weird that Triton would come to the fore by assisting a pilgrim out of the Libyan deserts (Libya for the Greeks stretched from the Nile to the Atlantic) and into the Mediterranean. Weird that the deity inhabiting the Libyan cities would project such immigrants northwards, out of the dryness of the desert. Weirder still that this deity would be Triton who would command the seas with his conch and would be able to multiply into many Tritones – demons (daimones, dimonji) of the sea.

“carried him out of his course to the coast of Libya; where, before he discovered the land, he got among the shallows of Lake Tritonis. As he was turning it in his mind how he should find his way out, Triton (they say) appeared to him, and offered to show him the channel, and secure him a safe retreat, if he would give him the tripod. Jason complying, was shown by Triton the passage through the shallows; after which the god took the tripod, and, carrying it to his own temple, seated himself upon it, and, filled with prophetic fury, delivered to Jason and his companions a long prediction. “When a descendant,” he said, “of one of the Argo’s crew should seize and carry off the brazen tripod, then by inevitable fate would a hundred Grecian cities be built around Lake Tritonis.” The Libyans of that region, when they heard the words of this prophecy, took away the tripod and hid it. ” – Herodotus, Histories