Friday, 25 June 2010

Times: Diversity, difference, democracy

Friday, 25th June 2010 by Michael Briguglio

Over 50 years ago, back in 1959, heavyweight sociologist Ralph Dahrendorf said that "the pluralism of free societies... is based on recognition and acceptance of social conflict. In a free society, conflict may have lost much of its intensity and violence but it is still there and it is there to stay. For freedom in society means, above all, that we recognise the justice and the creativity of diversity, difference and conflict".

More recently, contemporary social theorist Chantal Mouffe emphasises that opposing political projects can never be reconciled. As she puts it, democratic politics is, by necessity, adversarial. She therefore criticises those who reduce politics to a set of "supposedly technical moves and neutral procedures". Hence, there is no such thing as one monolithic or true identity.

Can this be applied to Malta? We are surely a democratic society. Yet, are diversity and difference recognised by Malta's political actors and state institutions? Some recent examples will shed light on this.

Take the case of Forum - the Forum of Trade Unions. This organisation is made up of trade unions that represent thousands of workers, such as University academics, teachers, bankers, engineers, architects, nurses, Air Malta pilots and cabin crew, employees of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority and other professional workers. One would expect such a huge interest group to be represented in Malta's Council for Economic and Social Development alongside other representatives of employers and workers. Yet, the government and others keep refusing to include them. As things stand, employers have five representatives within the MCESD while workers' unions have four.

Another example which is surely not in synch with the pluralism of free societies is the arraignment of Mark Camilleri and Alex Vella Gera for their respective roles as editor and author of an explicit article in the radical newspaper Realtà. It is unacceptable that in a democratic European society authors are persecuted for their work. Using this logic, the next step would be to start emptying bookshelves at our libraries for literature not deemed fit by the authorities. This attitude is reminiscent of authoritarian and confessional societies.

Diversity and difference are surely not key actions in Malta's official social policy, although lip service is often paid to them. Indeed, our social policy is mostly based around the idea of the traditional two-parent family at the exclusion of all other family forms. The absence of rights such as divorce and LGBT rights (such as recognition of same-sex civil partnerships) is a clear example in this regard. An inclusive social policy should be universal in scope while being inclusive of particular identities. Recognition of diversity and difference should not simply be rhetorical slogans for propaganda purposes!

When it comes to applying Prof. Dahrendorf's thoughts to political parties in Malta, one cannot ignore the Nationalist and Labour duopoly. They are busy scratching each others' backs, granting themselves excessive privileges and power while doing their utmost to exclude all other political parties from Parliament. Whilst depicting themselves as "European", the PN and the PL fail to recognise the fact that all countries in Europe, including micro-states such as San Marino, have more than two parties in Parliament.

The Gonzi proposals in the 1990s for a five-per cent threshold of votes on a national basis for parliamentary representation were never put in place. To make matters worse, Malta's unique electoral system has been changed in a way that only strengthens the two-party duopoly. The cherry has now been put on the cake following Labour's infantile decision to stop participating in the parliamentary select committee which discusses electoral reform.

In the meantime, Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party has proposed a fair and responsible electoral system, which I had the opportunity to discuss in previous writings in this newspaper. Suffice to say that such a system would be similar to that of highly-developed democracies such as Germany. Given that no progress has been made on this issue, last Monday we presented a judicial protest on the matter. We also discussed the issue with the new Speaker of the House, Michael Frendo.

Malta's situation is indeed quite unique. Deep down, many of us know that having a more representative Parliament can result in more democracy and recognition of difference and diversity. Many would like to vote for the Green Party to help bring about such changes. But the PN/PL duopoly successfully transmits the message that a vote for the Greens is wasted. They are not unique in this strategy: it has also been tried in Italy and the UK. Some voters do not want a particular party in power, so they vote against it by voting for the other major party. Others feel disenchanted and do not vote at all or end up voting for a big party as they feel that the PN and the PL's hold on the political system is too massive to be changed. In the end, we are all united in mediocrity. The status quo is retained. What a paradox!

The Green paradox is such that, irrespective of the odds against the Greens, it is only by voting Green that one can hope for change towards everyday democracy, where diversity and difference are recognised as the bloodline of freedom and not stifled or ignored. It is useless hoping for the PN or the PL to actually cater for all as this is a contradiction in terms, just like Labour's "moderate" and "'progressive" oxymoron. For example, one cannot expect the PN or the PL to be truly "green" if they are hell-bent towards an ideology of endless development and are they themselves dependent on unaccountable party financing by big business interests. Similarly, Green politics cannot cater for all. But we are clear in our vision. For us sustainable development, civil rights, social justice and a healthy economy are key principles.

In short, recognition of diversity and difference do not come automatically. It is actually dangerous to brush away diversity and difference by assuming that we all have one common or true culture or identity. Political antagonism is essential for such advances. Green sells... but who's buying?

The author is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party.;

[Click on the hyperlink at the top to view the comments on the Times' website.]

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