The fragility of democracy

The events on Capitol Hill in Washington last Wednesday clearly show the fragility of democracy. We should never take it for granted.

The storming of Capitol Hill by Trump’s mob has damaged American democracy, which damage will be felt for many years to come. Damage which will take considerable time to heal.

Instigating and making use of violence for political ends, to instill fear and condition political opponents is nothing new. It has been used in countries and by politicians of dubious democratic credentials since time immemorial. On these islands we have had more than our fair share of this throughout the years.

In my younger days I used to live in Valletta, one block away from Parliament. We were used to having “spontaneous demonstrations” whenever Parliament had some hot item on its agenda, or whenever the political climate was tense, which was quite often. An orgy of violence many a time was the anticipated conclusion of such “spontaneous demonstrations” as the business community can confirm.  This is what incited crowds do: they transform themselves into deadly weapons used unscrupulously by those who pull the strings to silence or try to condition their political opponents.

Whenever the mob was let loose it left a trail of damage, not just physical damage, but more importantly reputational damage which takes quite a time to heal and repair.

Some of you may remember when a bull was let loose in the streets of Paola in September 1976 as part of the then election victory celebrations. After being force-fed a whole bottle of whisky it ended being directed towards the local PN club where it destroyed everything in its path.

The setting on fire of The Times in Valletta and the subsequent orgy of violence of the 15 October 1979 is another instance when instigation directed at highly charged political-mobs ends destroying everything in sight. The reputational damage is the most serious in such circumstances.

The objective, in such instances is always the retention, buttressing and consolidation of raw political power. Fortunately, this is history now, but it still lingers on in the collective memory, the cause of occasional collective nightmares.

The international media has rightly reacted sharply to the developments down Pennsylvania Avenue. In a couple of hours, in addition to the loss of four lives, injury to at least 14 police officers and damage to property, the Trump mob has inflicted lasting damage to American democracy.

Do not just blame Donald Trump for the chaos at Capitol Hill on Wednesday. His enablers have a sizeable share of the blame. The agitators were not just those in the streets in hoodies and army fatigues. They were also in suits, products of Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Princeton Universities sitting in front of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence, participating in the joint session of the US Congress.

Both Trump as well as his enablers have blood on their hands.

The rule of law and the respect of democratic institutions are not just for export! The United States of America needs to practice what it preaches in order to start restoring its credibility.

As a result of the election of Joe Biden, described as “sleepy Joe” by Donald Trump throughout the electoral campaign, the US could slowly start the difficult uphill path to reconciliation. Having the support of influential minorities will undoubtedly be an asset in achieving this objective. The successful mobilisation by the Biden campaign of the black vote throughout the United States was pivotal in achieving its electoral success, the latest being the election for the first time in the last thirty years of two Georgian Democratic Senators. One must now look ahead towards the future to reconstruct the social and democratic infrastructure dismantled in the recent past.

Democracy is very fragile. It is easily damaged and takes quite a time to heal. We should never take democracy for granted. It is continuously under threat and should be defended assiduously every day.

Published on The Malta Independent on Sunday: 10 January 2021

Loyalty and integrity

“Without a fundamental commitment to the truth – especially in our public institutions and those who lead them – we are lost. As a legal principle, if people don’t tell the truth, our justice system cannot function and a society based on the rule of law begins to dissolve.”

This was written by James Comey in 2018 in his book A Higher Loyalty. Truth, Lies and Leadership.

Comey, was fired as FBI director by Donald Trump. At a bizarre dinner at the White House, Trump had demanded Comey’s personal loyalty, putting aside his duties as FBI Director. Trump pressured Comey to let go of Michael Flynn – his National Security Advisor for 22 days – then under investigation by the FBI. Comey reflects on Trump’s demands for personal loyalty and emphasises that there is a higher loyalty in all of our lives “………….. not to a person, not to a party not to a group. The higher loyalty is to lasting values, most important the truth.”

All this came to mind when reading through Ivan Martin’s encounter with Yorgen Fenech’s lawyer earlier this week. Unfortunately, some know the price of everything but they do not have an inkling on the value of anything.

When the chips are down, our true values emerge. If the real values have been carefully camouflaged, the impact when they emerge in such circumstances may be shocking. What has been carefully hidden from view, all of a sudden emerges in full public view.

Offering money to an investigative journalist to “remunerate him for his services” has switched on many red lights. The attempt at bribing the journalist is bad enough. It also raises the inevitable suspicions that bundles of €500 notes could also possibly be used to influence the judicial process. Only time will tell whether the possible becomes a probable.  Most of us would remember when, in 2002, the then Chief Justice together with another Judge, were bribed to reduce a prison sentence at appeal stage. The then accused who directed the bribery of the judiciary had insignificant wealth when compared to today’s accused.

We must be vigilant. It has happened and it can happen once more.

There is a common thread running through most of the bits of information forming the developing jigsaw puzzle linking all those mentioned in the Caruana Galizia assassination: money and loads of it. It is becoming clearer that Daphne Caruana Galizia’s investigation of the corrupt power station contracts is what led to her assassination. Tainted money was used to purchase access to influence and people that matter. The indications arising are too numerous to be ignored. This is nothing new, however, in the present scenario it is of the utmost significance.

Kudos to Ivan Martin who had the presence of mind not to accept a wad of €500 banknotes. His loyalty to his values as an investigative journalist was automatic. He did not pause to consider whether it was worth sticking his neck out. All of us should be proud of him.

Ivan’s integrity will be remembered for many years to come. His loyalty to his values will undoubtedly reinforce Maltese journalism in these testing times.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 8 November 2020

Luigi Di Maio’s threat

US President Donald Trump, over breakfast with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, unleashed a blistering criticism of Angela Merkel’s government for being too supportive of Russia’s natural gas pipeline, which provides natural gas to various European states. Germany is too dependent on Russian natural gas, said Donald Trump. Is it appropriate for Angela Merkel’s Germany to do away with energy sovereignty and security in this manner? Being too dependent on Putin’s Russia is not on, he suggested.

Malta also may have its energy sovereignty and security hanging by a string.

Only last month we were reminded by Italian Deputy Prime Minister, Luigi di Maio that Malta’s electricity interconnector supply is plugged in at Ragusa on the Sicilian mainland. The comment was made in the context of the savage debate that developed over the rescue operations involving drowning immigrants picked up from the Mediterranean Sea by NGO operated sea vessels.

The Cinque Stelle politician considered it appropriate to use the Ragusa plug-in for political leverage in the same manner that Vladimir Putin makes use of his Russian gas supply, in relation not just to Angela Merkel’s Germany, but to most of the European mainland.

The fact that Malta is at times too dependent on the Ragusa electricity supply makes matters worse. We have undoubtedly lost count over the last months regarding the number of times we have been subjected to an electricity black-out in Malta: the standard explanation being that there was some technical hitch on either side of the Sicilian Channel which was being taken care of.

Malta will shortly have another Sicilian plug-in, this time a gas pipeline most probably at Gela.

Like the electricity interconnector plugged in at Ragusa the gas-pipeline plugged in at Gela will be another commercial undertaking. Malta will be paying for its gas, just as much as it is paying for its electricity.

Luigi Di Maio’s thinly veiled threat was obviously that the existing electricity plug-in at Ragusa was there at the Italian government’s pleasure which could reverse any commitment entered into so far if the Maltese government persists in irritating it.

It is not known whether there was any follow-up to Di Maio’s declaration, accept that the Maltese government closed all ports to NGO-operated vessels and that criminal proceedings were initiated against the MV Lifeline captain on flimsy sea-vessel registration charges.

This is unfortunately in-line with the Di Maio/Salvini philosophy that good Samaritans have to be treated suspiciously.

At the time of writing, another sea vessel with 450 migrants on board is sailing through Malta’s search and rescue area towards Sicily with Matteo Salvini, Minister for the Interior, insisting that Italy’s ports are closed for such vessels.

What next?

Potentially, as a result of the closure of Maltese and Italian ports, this is another developing tragedy. Di Maio’s veiled threat, maybe, has been taken seriously by the Maltese government.

Such incidents send one clear message: the foundations of solidarity as a value have heavily eroded. It has been transformed into a slogan. Solidarity is one of the basic values of the European Union – it is not limited to the EU’s border states. Successive Maltese governments have tried to nudge other EU member states to shoulder this collective responsibility which is currently shouldered disproportionately by the border states. The response from nine members states when the MV Lifeline debacle came to the fore was encouraging, but it is certainly not enough.

Faced with racist and xenophobic overreactions, opting for solidarity is not an easy choice. It would be certainly helpful if more EU states put solidarity into practice. The problem is that not all of them are convinced that this is the only ethical way forward.

published in the Malta Independent on Sunday – 15 July 2018

For sale : access to the decision-taking process

 

 

The Lowenbrau saga has raised another issue as to the extent that revolving door recruitment should be regulated. By revolving door recruitment I am referring to the movement from government service to private sector lobbying and vice-versa of holders of political office as well as of senior civil servants. As a result of such recruitment, an investment is being made in the access to the decision-taking process which is purchased or offered for sale.

Last Sunday, The Malta Independent on Sunday understandably raised the issue with reference to former Minister John Dalli in the article Revolving doors: John Dalli denies conflict of interest in Lowenbrau deal  (TMIS 22 January). However, the issue is much wider. It is a matter which is of concern in respect of the manner of operation of lobbying which in this country is largely unregulated. It has already happened not just in Mr Dalli’s recruitment with the Marsovin Group but also when the Corinthia Group recruited both Mr Dalli as well as current EU Commissioner Karmenu Vella.

It concerns both holders of political office as well as senior civil servants, including senior officers of authorities exercising executive authority.

There is much to learn from foreign jurisdictions as to the manner in which such recruitment should be regulated. A recent example which made the international headlines was the recruitment by Goldman Sachs of Josè Manuel Barroso, former President of the European Commission.  An ethics panel had described Mr Barroso’s behaviour as morally reprehensible even though it concluded that he was not in breach of the EU Integrity code.

Corporate Europe Observatory had then commented that the Barroso recruitment had “catapulted the EU’s revolving door problem onto the political agenda, causing widespread jaw-dropping and reactions of disbelief, making it a symbol of excessive corporate influence at the highest levels of the EU.”  Corporate Europe Observatory had also referred to the recruitment of other former European Commissioners by various corporations and emphasised that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that as a result of this behaviour European politicians are seen to be acting for private interests over the public interest.

This is the real significance of revolving door recruitment:  it needs to be ascertained that the potential abuse by holders of political office of milking public office for private gain is regulated. It is not just another layer of regulation or unnecessary bureaucracy.

The issue is however more complex than the recruitment of holders of political office at the end of their political appointment. It is also of relevance even when such holders of political office are appointed to such office from the private sector as can be ascertained through the current hearings by the US Senate of the Trump administration nominees. It is also applicable to senior civil servants from the wider public sector.

Parliament is currently debating a Standards in Public Life Bill, which at this point in time is pending examination at Committee stage. Unfortunately, revolving door recruitment as well as lobbying have not been considered by the legislator!   Revolving door recruitment is an exercise in selling and purchasing access to the decision-taking process. It is high time that it is placed under a continuous spotlight.

published in The Malta Independent: Wednesday 25 January 2017

Trump environmental policies causing concern

Clean air and water and a healthy environment shouldn’t be partisan issues, environmentalists say, but they also acknowledge that’s more a wish than reality following the election of Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump promised a raft of major environmental policy changes during his presidential campaign —  abolishing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ending environmental regulation, bringing back the coal industry, selling off public lands and tearing up the Paris climate accord to name a few — and post-election indications are he’s getting ready to move aggressively on many of those.

One signal of that is Mr. Trump’s appointment of Myron Ebell, a lobbyist and vocal climate change denier, as head of the EPA transition team. Another is the report that he is considering Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor who supports drilling in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge and the aerial hunting of wolves and bears, as Interior Department secretary.

Environmentalists are girding for a long battle on those global and national issues, with the outcomes having a ripple effect on the environments and economies of states, including Pennsylvania.

“Trump’s election will be devastating to climate change control efforts and the future of the planet,” said Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director, at a Wednesday teleconference held by five environmental groups in Washington, D.C. The groups collectively spent $100 million to support Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.

Mr. Brune said Mr. Trump will become the only major nation head of state to reject climate change as real and man-made, a outlier position that “is already causing international blowback.”

“He said he’ll cancel Paris, but whether he can is a question,” Mr. Brune said. “Trump must chose wisely, otherwise I can guarantee him the hardest fight of his political life.”

Sky Gallegos, executive vice president of political strategy for NextGen Climate Action, called Mr. Trump’s election “a surprise and a disappointment,” and vowed a strong defense of “bedrock environmental laws.” Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said he’s confident the 46 Democratic U.S. senators can “erect a firewall” against the worst of the regulatory rollbacks Mr. Trump campaigned on.

In Pennsylvania, state legislators and former regulatory officials differ in assessing the the biggest impacts of Mr. Trump’s election on the state’s air, water, land and public health, or if they’ll be good or bad.

Most say a Trump administration likely will kill the federal Clean Power Plan, which sought to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from coal-burning power plants. Federal environmental budget cuts also could end tax credits for renewable energy programs.

“I think on the federal level we’re looking at the possibility of a major reversal of environmental protections and climate initiatives, and that will be both environmentally and economically damaging to the state,” said John Quigley, who was Gov. Tom Wolf’s first DEP director in 20015-2016.

“Going back to the glory days of coal and oil is counter productive and really not achievable,” Mr. Quigley said. “Trump’s emphasis on fossil fuels misses the boat economically and environmentally.”

“Trump’s success in the election was based on playing to the fears and prejudices, both economic and otherwise,” he said. “But the world is different than what he portrayed it, and he’s eventually going to crash into that reality.”

State Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky, D-Delaware County, said she has grave concerns about how Trump administration environmental policies will affect environmental health in Pennsylvania.

“He supports fossil fuel development, denies global warming and won’t regulate gas drilling and methane leaks which affect people like me who have asthma,” said Ms. Krueger-Braneky, who is on a PennFuture panel of present and former state officials who will discuss the impact of Trump administration environmental policies on the state next Thursday in Philadelphia.

“I hope in Pennsylvania that governor Wolf will continue to fight for common-sense environmental regulations even though he’ll be doing it without support from the federal government,” she said.

State Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Marshall and House speaker, though not available to answer questions, issued a statement predicting the new administration’s policies will benefit the state’s energy suppliers and “lead America to energy independence and a resurgence in manufacturing.”

The statement continued: “This will lead to a vibrant expansion of good family-sustaining jobs in our state. We look forward to working with the new president on a pro-energy, pro-jobs approach.”

David Hess, DEP secretary from 2001 to 2003 under Gov. Tom Ridge, said he’s taking more of a wait-and-see attitude about what Mr. Trump’s policies will mean to Pennsylvania, but the biggest impacts could come from cutbacks to the EPA’s budget in future federal budgets, which could cause a cascade effect in states that rely on that money to fund air, water, waste and mining program permitting, oversight and enforcement programs. He said the state DEP is already dealing with budget reductions that total almost 40 percent over the last 13 years, resulting in a 20 percent staffing reduction..

Although Mr. Trump’s campaign rhetoric has raised real concerns about the eventual direction of his environmental policies, he said, his ability to change things too much is limited by legal constraints, which should prevent him from disbanding the EPA.

But Mr. Hess said Mr. Trump’s victory, plus Republican gains in the state Senate and House, also could embolden state legislators to reduce regulations. In October, the state Senate passed legislation aimed at identifying all state environmental laws more stringent than federal regulations, with the idea to roll those back.

But the movement away from environmental regulation at the federal level may be short-lived and limited by political realities more complex than Mr. Trump’s campaign rhetoric and election success.

The election day surprise may have been huge, but Mr. Trump’s mandate is not, said John Hanger, who was president of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, a statewide environmental advocacy organization before becoming Department of Environmental Protection secretary from 2008 to 2011.

“If he was smart he’d be conciliatory and cautious, but initial reports are that he will be anything but that,” Mr. Hanger said. “I think he will overreach and the people around him will overreach. That might work when you win 60 percent of the popular vote but not when 53 percent of the public voted for someone else.”

Has the Paris agreement been Trumped?

trump-global-warming

In December last year, on the outskirts of Paris, representatives of 196 countries signed an agreement setting out ambitious goals to limit the increase in the global warming. They also agreed to hold governments to account. What is known as “The Paris agreement” came into effect on 4 November 2016.

The agreement was skilfully drafted in such a way that it would not require the approval of the Congress of the United States of America. If such an approval had been required, it would have been rejected outright by the Republican- dominated Congress. Instead, it was implemented by Presidential decrees thereby making it possible for the USA to join the civilised world in combating global warming and, consequently, climate change.

As from 20 January, in addition to Congress, Republicans will have Donald Trump in the White House. On the basis of Trump’s statements during the Presidential electoral campaign, as well as a result of his nominee dealing with environmental matters in the Presidential transition team, there will most probably be a shutting down of the Environmental Protection Agency and a huge bonfire of environmental regulations in Washington, sometime after January 2017.

Trump holds that climate change is fiction, created by the Chinese in order to ensure that the United States is not competitive as a result of being tied up by agreements and regulations.

While President-elect Trump has pledged to dismantle climate change action programmes, the state of California is exercising significant leadership and embracing the clean energy industry, a magnet for new investment and job creation. Other US states are following in the footsteps of California: Texas and North Carolina are embracing the clean energy industries resulting in massive investments and new job opportunities.

The head of Donald Trump’s environment transition team is Myron Ebell, Director of the Centre of Energy and Environment of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Ebell also chairs the Cooler Heads Coalition, comprising over two dozen non-profit organisations that question global warming. Myron Ebell has been described as “an oil industry mouthpiece” – a description  which sums it off in just four words.

The Clean Power Plan, through which President Obama  had sought to implement the conclusions of the Paris Agreement, appears to be for the chop. This plan had established the first ever national carbon emission standards for power plants, the largest  source of carbon emissions in the United States. The aim was that, by 2030, these emissions would be reduced by 32 per cent from those in 2005 consequently preventing thousands of premature deaths and tens of thousands of childhood asthma attacks. In addition, it addressed the fuel economy of passenger vehicles, sought commitment of US industry to reduce carbon emissions, boosted clean energy programmes and increased low-carbon investment. It further developed a strategy to reduce methane emissions, partnered with agriculture producers and set aggressive goals for the reduction of the Federal Government’s  greenhouse gas emissions.

Going by Trump’s statements all this may be reversed in the coming weeks.

This will undoubtedly have an impact on, and influence decisions to be taken by, other countries and may well end up with the newly emerging economies taking a stronger lead in climate change diplomacy.

The Paris agreement was only the starting point. At Marrakesh in the coming days the international community was planning to improve the Paris agreement by focusing more on the importance of adaptation to climate change, including adaptation finance. However, it is now expected that US financial pledges made by President Obama will not be honoured by the new administration. This will inevitably lead to a derailing of plans aimed at ensuring the safety of the global environment.

Some are still hoping that Trump’s rhetoric will not be translated into action. Unfortunately, the first days of the transition of the new presidency do not give much cause for optimism in this respect.

 

Published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 13 November 2016