There is one area where Muscat’s Labour will definitely not go wrong and that is recycling. Unfortunately the kind of recycling that we are talking about is less of the environmental kind and more of the Nikita Alamango pass-the-financial-times kind. The latest idea to be grafted off the international progressive menu is that of A Fair Society – a most noble and brill idea when in the right hands.
Take, for example, Andrew Sciberras’ blog post that lists what his idea of a Fair Society should entail (A Fair Society). It’s the kind of list that we could very easily back (bar my misgivings about taxing anybody’s well-earned income heavily – I’m not one who gets excited about taxing success to pay for failure). Yes, Andrew’s list merits much more than a fleeting discussion and the main reason is because it includes definite positions and proposals that you may agree with or agree to disagree with (and hopefully propose alternatives).
Not for Joseph’s progessives though to take a concrete position on any of the proposals – whether Andrew’s or let’s say Franco’s. Even less is it for Joseph’s progressives to come up with positions of their own that they could suggest as their bag of values for voters to decide upon. What we HAVE heard till now in terms of concrete proposals are the two general ideas about further education for plus sixteens and the package of suggestions for disabled persons and their entourage.
In both cases Joseph’s progressives have come up with suggestions that cannot really be translated into actual legal measures. At most you can call them “encouragements” that are similar to “tax breaks” in the commercial world. You cannot coerce parents of a disabled person to set up a trust fund. You can suggest it to them and create the mechanism. I will leave it to the better informed and specialised to comment on the pros and cons of a policy that claims to promote independent living for the disabled without actually being able to do much about it.
The same argument goes for the 16 pluses who opt out of the educational system. Mark Anthony Sammut has done a good job of deconstructing Joseph Muscat’s ideas about young people being in studying, training or employment (Joseph Muscat’s Job Guarantee). Much of what Muscat was “proposing” in this field already exists in the form of further education and training opportunities. Once again the “policy” idea turns out to be tanto fumo niente arrosto (as they say in the noble language of philosophy, politics and L’espresso magazine).
Which brings me to the furore of the grand new scheme underlying “The Fair Society”. Joseph Muscat and his progressives have discovered “social impact assessments”. Here is how the Times reported it:
The Labour Party will be committing itself to undertake a social impact assessment every time a major economic policy is to be introduced, Labour leader Joseph Muscat said this evening. Closing a policy seminar on social justice organised by the Labour Party with the theme A Fair Society, Dr Muscat said the assessment would be held to provide an overview of how the proposal would affect various sectors of society, especially vulnerable people.
Wow. Impressive. Now where have I heard that one before? Let me introduce you to a new friend: Mr. Regulatory Impact Analysis. I’ll ask Mr Wikipedia to introduce him better:
The role of an RIA is to provide a detailed and systematic appraisal of the potential impacts of a new regulation in order to assess whether the regulation is likely to achieve the desired objectives. The need for RIA arises from the fact that regulation commonly has numerous impacts and that these are often difficult to foresee without detailed study and consultation with affected parties. Economic approaches to the issue of regulation also emphasize the high risk that regulatory costs may exceed benefits. From this perspective, the central purpose of RIA is to ensure that regulation will be welfare-enhancing from the societal viewpoint – that is, that benefits will exceed costs. RIA is generally conducted in a comparative context, with different means of achieving the objective sought being analysed and the results compared.
Here’s another thing. RIA’s have been used in the European Union for the past decade having been introduced by the Commission in 2002. In 2005 and 2006 as you can read in the linked Wikipedia article – “the Commission updated its approach to include economic, social and environmental dimensions, thus moving in the direction of Sustainability Impact Assessment.” (See for more detail: Craig Robertson’s EIPA paper on RIA in Europe). The inter-institutional agreement strengthening impact assessment across the main institutions (including Parliament) was signed in 2006. Well, well… looks like somebody learnt a thing or two out of his stint sitting in the parliament of the European Union. Yep that same European Union that he advised everybody to vote against.
Now here’s the final point. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the introduction of a national system of impact assessments – whatever you choose to call them (social, regulatory, sustainability). It’s actually recommendable. It’s a lovely field of law and I know that a former colleague of mine at the Court of Justice – now a Jean Monnet Chair at HEC University in Paris – is specialised in the field. The thing about impact assessments is that they have to have policies and legal programmes to assess.
You see, Joseph Muscat was telling us that he has got nothing yet insofar as policy is concerned but WHEN HE DOES EVENTUALLY HAVE SOMETHING (and hopefully he will) he will measure it for its impact on society. He will see whether it is fair. We sincerely hope that the idea of a Social Impact Assessment will not be dropped but rather promoted. On the other hand this is no reason to bring out the trumpets and fanfares and finally announce that Labour has a policy to speak of.
Labour has simply told us that it has a new ruler/measure. And whether it opts to measure in inches or centimetres, the measure of its ruler would currently point to zero insofar as concrete policies and proposals are concerned.