The Malta Independent 17 October 2019, Thursday

Environmentalism, LGBTIQ and social class

Michael Briguglio Thursday, 19 September 2019, 09:25 Last update: about 28 days ago

Helena Dalli's nomination for the post of European Commissioner for Equality is significant in various aspects. She is the first Maltese woman to be nominated for such a post, her background is in sociology, and she was the Minister responsible for Malta's shift from European laggard to world leader in LGBTIQ legislation. Hence, Dalli represents a shift from various identities that have traditionally been dominant in Maltese politics.

Indeed, Malta's progress in LGBTIQ legislation is truly impressive. I remember when I first lectured about this area in my Theories of Social Policy course within the Sociology Department at the University of Malta back in 2004. It was as if I was speaking about some subterranean subject, far detached from the 'official' version of Maltese society. Today, the topic is as mainstream as it gets, at least in academia and politics. Still, there are various social challenges that need to be tackled, as aptly articulated by the editorial of The Malta Independent on 14 September.

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The political impacts of Malta's LGBTIQ movement are significant indeed. Starting off through MGRM in 1999, the movement now boasts different colours, emphases and networks within the unified rainbow.

When I was Chairperson of Alternattiva Demokratika - The Green Party between 2009 and 2013, I was the first politician in Malta to publicly support MGRM's position for same-sex marriage. This led to the party adopting an official position on the matter through an internal debate and democratic vote, and we helped strengthen MGRM's cause within the public sphere.

In the run-up to the 2013 general election, the Nationalist Party was experiencing detachment from various political identities, for example through its lack of support for introduction of divorce. Labour, on the other hand, was depicting itself as an open party regarding civil rights through its politics-without-adversaries (save for PN) approach. It officially declared it was for civil unions. Even though this position was less progressive than that of the Green Party, the MGRM logically decided to unofficially support Labour, as it was obviously next in line to be in Government. Labour could therefore deliver the goods.

Fast forward eight years, and in Malta today there is near universal political consensus for a wide range of LGBTIQ rights, with some exceptions, of course.

Hence, in my reading, the main reason why Malta has advanced in LGBTIQ politics is because there was an organised movement which made efficient political calculations which, in turn, were taken up by political entrepreneurs.

Which takes me to a main question of this article: Can the environmental movement do the same? Should it?

To analyse the matter, one must investigate commonalities and differences between the two movements.

Malta's environmentalism owes its roots to the 1960s, when Din l-Art Ħelwa, Nature Trust and Birdlife were born, the last two having different names. These conservationist organisations were followed up by the youth activism in the 1980s of Żgħażagħ għall-Ambjent - which eventually became Friends of the Earth, and in the 1990s through Movement Graffitti, where I started my environmental activism. Both these organisations were more radical than their counterparts, and both were somewhat closer to Alternattiva Demokratika - which was founded in 1989.

Subsequently, further environmental NGOs were founded during the time of Malta's EU accession, most notably FAA and Ramblers, and today we can also speak about a flourishing of localised and specialised organisations respectively.

During 2006 environmentalists organised a big demonstration against the rationalisation plans - which effectively extended development zones - and in 2015 Malta's biggest environmental demonstration was held by Front Ħarsien ODZ. Being one of the organisers of the latter I believe that two main reasons for its size were the widespread anger against a specific development proposal (AUM in Żonqor) and the fact that everyone - including politicians - were welcome to attend, effectively meaning that two rival parties, the PN and AD, participated in the demonstration, as did MPs Marlene and Godfrey Farrugia.

On the other hand, the recent huge environmental demonstration held in Valletta stated clearly that politicians in general and MPs were not welcome. Whilst this signified autonomy from party machines, it also meant that there would be no political entrepreneurship for the mobilization of constituents. In the meantime, however, Members of Parliament can support the demands of the environmental movement through parliamentary initiatives. Will they?

I believe that it is commendable to have an environmental movement that is autonomous from all political parties, big or small. But it should also investigate MGRM's pre-2013 strategy, namely, to be autonomous but to recognize that it is parliament that legislates. Hence the environmentalist vote should be instrumentalized so that politicians would not be able to take it for granted. As political theorist Chantal Mouffe reminds us, social movements should not isolate themselves from poltical decision-making. To the contrary they should use their political influence for social change.

I also propose the consideration of class politics in this analysis. The LGBTIQ movement had a shrinking conservative constituency as its main political adversary. On the other hand, even though environmentalists can be comforted by the fact that environmental consciousness is increasing, the movement has a powerful class of big developers as its main adversary. And we all know that big developers have huge political and economic influence, despite Malta's party financing rules and rhetoric on good governance.

Besides, Labour conducted a vote-winning exercise in expanding the share of the construction cake for many people, including small contractors, middle/working class families who built an extra storey or two to rent out, and the commodification of agricultural land. Hence, more and more people form part of the construction sector, directly or indirectly. The PN government set this ball rolling through the rationalisation process in 2006, and the PL government milked it through legislation which effectively liberalizes construction even further.

Yet, despite its sugar rush, Government's economic route risks becoming dangerously unsustainable in various aspects. Malta's environment is being pillaged, considerable numbers of people are not affording high rents or loans, and our economy keeps being too dependent on the construction sector and its offshoots.

In sum, the politics of class shows us that the environmental movement has a tougher nut to crack than its LGBTIQ counterpart when it comes to substantive impacts. The contradictory class locations of different social groups, lobbies, political financiers and those trying to improve their families' economic situation complicates things further. This should however not stop environmentalists from flaunting the power of their vote.


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