The Malta Independent 21 September 2021, Tuesday

Everybody wants change

Mark A. Sammut Sassi Sunday, 12 September 2021, 10:00 Last update: about 8 days ago

All political parties - be they large or negligible in size - want change. The question is: do you want change? But before answering that question, I think we should answer another question: what kind of change are we talking about?

Labour's change

It seems to me fascinating that Labour is mostly intent on changes in the criminal law. There seems to be within the Labour fold a morbid interest for criminality and the extent of the criminal law's reach, and a proclivity for broadening or narrowing that reach.


Consider, as an example of the former, the recent increase (from €2 to €500 and imprisonment) in the punishment for not sending children to school. What was once hailed as a right - the right of (free) education for all - has now been morphed into an obligation, backed by criminal sanction. It's now a crime punishable by imprisonment not to send one's children to school. What's the "valuable thing", the "good", being protected here?

It's difficult for me - but, of course, it's my opinion - to understand how not sending one's children to school can be a crime. I think it's nothing less than defective analytical thinking. I presume - but I stand to be corrected - that parents don't send their children to school either because of ignorance of the benefits of schooling or because of other, psychological reasons.

If it's a matter of not seeing the benefits of schooling, then it means that the State has failed properly to educate the parents, and they shouldn't be made to pay for the State's shortcomings. If it's a matter of psychological, unconscious causes, then it's inhumane to punish people who actually require help.

Then again, it might be that parents want to keep their children away from school because they want them to work. In this case, if it's a matter of poverty, then we should be revising social services rather than criminalising the poor. If it's a matter of greed, then we're back to underlying psychological causes that require professional help.

All in all, I cannot see one single reason why the State should envisage gaol for not benefitting from something that started off as a right but morphed into an obligation along the way.

In its barest conception, criminal law should protect life, liberty, and property, and, essentially, public interest. How not sending one's children to school can fall under any of these categories is difficult to comprehend. But things get more complicated when one considers that at the same time there are vociferous elements that argue in favour of the decriminalisation of abortion. So it seems that, according to some, parents can decide to terminate their unborn children's life and go unpunished but will then be punished if they don't send their born children to school.

Be that as it may. Labour is also interested in the narrowing of the reach of the criminal law, as manifested by its drive to "secularise" the criminal law. I use inverted commas because I'm sort of abusing the word "secularisation". In its proper meaning, "secularisation" refers to a supposed need to extricate the criminal law (in this case) from the talons of religion.

Sin and crime were indeed intertwined in the past, but mostly in the Calvinist countries. In countries with a Catholic tradition, it was different. But it seems Maltese liberals get their cue from countries with a strong Calvinist tradition and, seriously lacking sophistication, they fail to see that they're importers and wholesalers of other peoples' histories.

Labour seems intent on tinkering with our criminal laws in diverse sectors, ushering in a New Age of Freedom, in pot smoking, euthanasia, prostitution, and possibly - if they give in to the whining and nagging coming from Malta Today - abortion.

The Nationalists' change

The Nationalists seem more intent on changing how we deal with environmental challenges.

They seem to be focussing on the need to change if we want to survive. I use the word "survive" on purpose, not because I want to switch to hyperbole but because, all said and done, it's really a matter of survival.

Climate change, say, but also the wanton destruction of the ecosystem and the environment (urban and rural) will eventually lead to our being physically wiped out. So, no, the use of "survival" is not hyperbolic.

Then again, we have heard so many warnings from the environmentalists that we now seem immune to prophets of doom. Which is silly, actually, because it seems quite self-evident that if we don't change our ways and put a stop to environmental abuse, we're going to end up with an irreversible disaster. But, alas, people seldom believe prophets.

This is one main reason why the Nationalists seem unable to convince the electorate to trust them with the administration of the country. What the Nationalists are forecasting - irreversible environmental disaster - is realistic but deceitfully portrayed by their political foes as "negativity".

In the war between the Environment and the Economy, the majority of the electorate favours the latter. This is short-sighted, needless to say. But claiming that those who don't get your message are short-sighted gets you nowhere. To succeed in politics you need to find a convergence of interests.

The general elections are possibly only a few short weeks away. There's little time to find that convergence. But still, intelligent people are called to choose between Labour's foolish infatuation with the criminal law and the Nationalists' works-in-progress project to save the country from long-term ruin.

Why Malta is over-built

Public discussion on overdevelopment in this country consistently ignores international competition. Living on an island far away from everything else - a sort of Hawai'i in the Mediterranean - we tend to look at our problems in an insular fashion, instead of analysing them from a wider perspective.

What I mean is that despite the messy, shabby, run-down environment, Malta is highly attractive to those who want real estate in the Central Mediterranean. Sicily is gorgeous but underdeveloped (consider the recent story of the family that got stranded there because their young daughter tested positive to COVID-19 who couldn't even order food because of an inefficient food delivery system). Our North African neighbours have serious problems with political stability and legal systems. Malta, on the other hand, has a good (though still far from perfect) land-registration system and, all in all, despite the shabbiness, above-average health care system, entertainment industry and culture scene, educational infrastructure, judicial machinery, and overall business approach.

The attractiveness of Malta puts a lot of stress and strain on its infrastructure. Being the only decently-developed territory in the Central Mediterranean rakes in money but also depletes natural resources. We could actually be victims of our own successes.

World Suicide Prevention Day

It seems natural - since I'm almost talking of avoiding national suicide - to spend a few words on World Suicide Prevention Day, that falls on the 10th of September.

There's an app, called Kriżi, that can be downloaded if one is trying to survive tough times. One can also call the free 24/7 crisis line 9933 9966 for help if one is troubled by certain thoughts.

Whatever happens, nothing justifies giving up. If you're reading this, and you're thinking of turning out the light for good, please don't. Call the number above, or download the app, or speak to somebody who can help.

You might not realise it, but there are people who care whether you're still here or not.

Cry if you must, let somebody hug you. But don't switch off the light.

Traffic nightmare

Malta has two huge problems associated with increasing rates of car ownership and use: traffic and parking.

Minister Ian Borg is trying to solve the former by widening roads and removing trees.

About the latter, a suggestion has been recently made to introduce parking meters. This is not a novel idea - I think something similar had been mentioned in relation to Valletta some twenty years ago.

Needless to say, parking meters would also imply parking permits for residents, in the sense that residents would not be bound to pay if they want to park next to their residence.

But the road-widening strategy is foolhardy, short-sighted and bound to fail, and the parking meter system would only partially solve the problem.

What Malta needs, in my opinion, is less cars on the roads. However, free public transportation (buses and underground, say) would not achieve the desired objective. For many reasons. The lack of privacy and possibility of meeting people you'd rather avoid, the extra time spent in longer routes when compared to do-it-yourself itineraries, the hassle of having to work out connections - all these factors, and others, militate against the feasibility of public transportation as ultimate solution.

Free taxis could be an interesting alternative, provided either taxi drivers are trained not to disturb passengers with useless, tiresomely inquisitive small talk or a glass screen is placed between front and back seats to avoid similar unnecessary distractions.

A more attractive solution could be making working from home a permanent feature of our production system.

Getting people to go to work in one place was a management idea that revolutionised the production system. There was a time, in the past, when the textile industry depended on people - women mostly - who spun at home in their free time. This however, created a number of problems for industrialists, as they could not supervise the women's work leading to missed deadlines and inferior quality. The solution was moving those women to factories - centralised places of production where the industrialist could supervise the worker to assure quality and ensure respect for deadlines, and production quotas.

This revolution was then transposed to the office.

The COVID-19 pandemic has perhaps demonstrated that it could be possible to turn back the clock and give workers the dignity of being treated like adults and the freedom to work without direct supervision and possibly micro-management.

The solution to the traffic nightmare might indeed be found not in Ian Borg's frenzy to convert Malta into one big tarmac-covered, tree-less wasteland, but in a new approach to human resource management.

My Personal Video Library (21)

Battle of the Sexes was a 1959 movie, starring Peter Sellers, that purportedly dealt with the subject declared in its title but in reality shed light on how the spinning of wool was moved out of crofts on Scottish isles to factories on the mainland.

The story promised in the title - a strong-willed woman who tries to impose herself on a timid man and loses the battle - is trite, even though it can deliver good, old-fashioned comedy.

But the undeclared story of the industrial revolution that serves as backdrop to the battle of the sexes is more important, and instructive. For that alone, the film, though dated, is worth watching.


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