Politics is both a science, and an art | Mario Thomas Vassallo

University degrees in ‘Political Science’ may appear excessive, in a country where everybody already seems to be an expert anyway. But as Prof. MARIO THOMAS VASSALLO, of UoM’s Department of Public Policy, points out: ‘politics’ is about more than just an election every five years

Mario Thomas Vassallo
Mario Thomas Vassallo

The University is advertising courses to “empower students to take up leadership positions in public, private and voluntary organisations, by developing cutting-edge competences in policy-making, politics and governance.” Already it can be seen that ‘politics’ means something slightly more than its everyday use implies. But how can a subject that is so vast, even be ‘taught’ in the traditional sense at all?

First of all, politics is, as you say, a vast subject. It covers not just the political administration of the particular country – or of the international political arena as a whole: because we are now living in an interconnected ‘global village’ – but also all other aspects of public policy, and public life.

In fact, ‘politics’ and ‘policy’ mean more or less the same thing. The Maltese language nails this better than English, because – like Italian – it uses the same word, ‘politika’, for both. In Maltese we say, ‘il-politika tal-edukazzjoni’ [education policy]; or ‘tal-economija’, or ‘tas-sahha’; and so on. So it refers both to the ‘ideological’ standpoint, as well as to the ‘policy’ standpoint.

Unfortunately, however, when people think or speak about politics in more everyday terms… they tend to refer only to the ‘partisan’ sense. And this is something we are on a mission to address. We want to democratize political science; because politics is both a science, and an art.

The policy-making element, for instance, is purely scientific. There is a methodology for how to identify a socio-economic problem; then, how to formulate options to address that problem; and then you need mechanisms to identify which options offer the best results, and so on.

On top of that you also need project management, to implement the policy; evaluation techniques, to assess whether it is actually working or not… but that is all part of the scientific methodology. There is also the ‘art’ side: which consists of how to influence people; how to influence the national agenda; how to build a common vision, in a society that is becoming more and more individualistic.

So in our department, there is a lot emphasis on the sociological fabric of the society we live in – not just in Malta, but globally – and we also look at specific issues such as the political economy; the rule of law, and all the legislative aspects; and also good governance, and ethical leadership… because it’s more harmful to have graduates who know the techniques, and the science behind the techniques; but then, do not have a moral compass to decipher right from wrong. Those are the ones who can use those techniques to their own advantage, instead of for the common good.

But that’s what I meant by the question. I can understand how the purely scientific side of public policy can be taught at University. Can you really teach people to have a ‘moral compass’, though?

Yes, certainly… by debating. It is critical thinking that is most lacking here: our schooling system simply does not encourage us to debate enough, or to challenge our own precepts. People are not taught how to think outside their own box.

For example: our own approach is trans-disciplinary, so in our courses we offer some units from the Edward Debono [Lateral Thinking] Institute. It’s all about putting yourself in the shoes of others.

So when giving my students an assignment – for instance, to read a political biography – I will try to challenge them: if they are from a Nationalist background, I will ask them to read Lino Spiteri; or Anton Buttigieg; or Alfred Sant. If Labour: Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, or Guido de Marco’s ‘Politics of Persuasion’… and so many others.

And it’s a marvellous experiment, I would say: because people end up realizing how much they actually have in common. Unfortunately, however, there is a problem today. Because these technological devices [indicating his laptop] that were supposedly designed to ‘open us up to the world’, seem to be having the opposite effect. What we are seeing is that they are ‘closing our students into a world of their own’.

For example, I was recently in a class of about 50 students, and I showed them a slide of Emmanuel Macron. Out of 50 students, only around five knew who he was. So if the rest don’t even recognise Macron’s face: how can I introduce them to his politics?

That does sound shocking: but it might tell us more about their lack of interest in current affairs, than about digital technology itself…

Well… most people today get their news only from the headlines that they occasionally see on Facebook or Twitter: and even then, often without clicking the link. To be fair, however: it’s not ALL students who do that, naturally….

And it’s not JUST students, either. Part of the problem with social media – which I imagine is particularly relevant, to Maltese politics – is that your scope of vision is limited to the things you ‘like’, and therefore want to see anyway. Are you suggesting that this may be contributing to the disengagement we seem to be seeing in politics today?

It seems to be part of it: in the sense that it makes it harder, and not easier, to ‘think outside the box’; or to ‘put yourself in the shoes of others’.

But there is another problem. We are at a disadvantage, as a department, also because… we teach about public life. Essentially, public policy is about public life. And there is a lack of trust in public life, at the moment.

Ours is an individualistic society; a society that is increasingly becoming more inward-looking. We saw this especially during the election campaign. Sift through all the electoral promises, and it all roughly boils down to the same thing: ‘what’s in it for me?’

This is true not just of Malta, by the way. In fact, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Guiterres, recently spoke about the ‘trust-deficit’ in politics. So there has clearly been a general erosion of trust in public life, across the board.

Would you say that the historically low turnout in this election – 85.5% – was, in itself, a reflection of this ‘trust-deficit’? If so, what would you attribute this loss of trust to most, in Malta’s specific context?

Let me put it this way. If you add up all the people who either didn’t vote, or didn’t pick up their voting documents, or who invalidated their vote… the number is very high, by local standards. But it would have been much higher, if it wasn’t for the parties themselves – especially the Labour Party – which were ‘following up’, if not ‘pestering’, those non-voters.

I know of ordinary citizens who received a phone-call from the Prime Minister in person, at seven in the evening, to urge them to vote. That was the extent of the drive the parties went into. And I even have my doubts about that ‘mistake’ the Electoral Commission made, when announcing the 2pm turn-out [as ‘40%’ instead of ‘45%’]…

Don’t get me wrong, it’s just a hypothesis. Mistakes do, after all, happen; but let’s just say that it also served another purpose. It was an alarm-bell, or a wake-up call, for the party’s machinery to get into gear, and contact all those who had not yet gone to the polls.

But there is another problem – apart from those who refused to vote – which I think hasn’t been captured by the media so far. It’s about the number of candidates. In 2017, we had 210 candidates in total. Last Saturday, we only had 177: a decrease of around 40 candidates, in five years.

So while the Labour Party has a lot to celebrate, in this election… it also has a lot of homework to do. What happened, for example, to the LEAD programme: what was specifically intended to bolster female participation in the political process? The outcome is not positive at all.

It’s not just that the number of females candidates who got elected to Parliament – by votes, as opposed to by the gender-equality mechanism [which hasn’t happened yet] – was already a step back, in itself; but so was the number of women who chose to be candidates in the first place.

So yes, I think that this does have to do with a general erosion of trust. There are a number of structural changes that we need to make, to the political system in Malta.

Some of these issues came out directly in this election. ADPD has filed a Constitutional case over the ‘unfairness’ of the result; and we saw higher levels than usual of clientelism (or ‘power of incumbency’). On the basis of what this campaign, then: what would you say are the most pressing political issues to tackle right now?

Let’s start with ones you just mentioned. There is a certainly a lot that needs to be done within our electoral system. But before turning to the Single Transferable Vote itself – which, for all its flaws, is also a very representational system: it gives more direct control to voters, over who actually represents them – I think we have to look at the configuration of Malta today. I think Malta should be configured differently, myself.

With regard to election, it has always been a system of ‘districts’. But the Maltese political platform has been redesigned twice, in recent years: first in the 1990s, through the setting up of local councils; then in the 2000s, with the establishment of the regional levels. So in order to address the clientelism issue, for instance: I think it would make more sense, to organise our voting structures on a regional – as opposed to district – basis.

Individually, the five regions are much bigger than the 13 districts; so it would be that much harder for individual candidates to knock on each single door in his constituency; or to know all their constituents by name. And it would also address the problem that a smaller party like ADPD – which doubled its share of the vote, in this election – still ends up not winning a seat.

This is how the quota works out in today’s district system; on a much larger regional level, however – and the framework is all already there; and already functioning – it might be a different story. Certainly, I think that would be a good first step to take.

As for other issues that have come out in this election: there were a lot. But firstly – and we have been talking about this for a long time now – the issue of due diligence, at candidate approval stage.

I cannot understand, for instance, how Rosianne Cutajar was allowed to be a candidate for the Labour Party again. Thank God, the electorate made its decision, and did not choose her; even though she could still end up retaining her seat anyway, through the gender quotas mechanism.

But it shouldn’t have to come to that. There should be a proper due diligence process in place; and if it is to be significant, there should be at least one independent auditor, from outside the party system, to vet candidates.

But this becomes difficult, for the reason I already explained. If the number of candidates is also decreasing, every year… it becomes a case of ‘beggars can’t be choosers, in the end.

Again, however, it boils down to the lack of trust. That, ultimately, is what our department is concerned with: because the first step to fix Malta’s political situation, has to be to try and restore the loss of trust.

How can that be done in practice, though? And in particular, through education?

That brings us back to the other meaning of ‘politika’: public policy, and – especially – public administration.

Now: when we talk about ‘public administration’, we are talking about multi-level governance. Some of our graduates, for instance, are executive secretaries of local councils… and an ‘executive secretary’ is like a CEO: responsible for administration, and also finance.

We also have graduates who work at the national level of public administration, too. That includes the Director-General of Customs; the Police Commissioner – who did a Masters in Public Policy with us – and many others who are either directors in the public service, or rising up through the ranks from lower to middle-management; and also, a number who work with European institutions.

Because ‘multi-level governance’ means starting from local councils; and going all the way up to supra-national institutions, such as the Planning and Priorities Co-ordination Division [which administers European funding to Malta]. Many of PPPCD staff have obtained degrees in Public Administration here; as have several of the technical attaches at Dar Malta, among others.

I’m mentioning all this, to give an idea of just how vast the reach of politics really is: it’s not just a case of fixing individual problems with the system… but each department or sector must also learn to organise its own structures better. The standards of professionalism, at all these levels, can be raised through an injection of management; or through the acquisition of skills.

One other thing we want to do, is introduce ‘Politics and Governance’ at Sixth-Form level: first of all, to democratise political science; secondly, as an investment in our citizenship, rather than in our academia.

Ultimately, we want to create people who are aware that they are citizens; and that, as citizens, you have both rights, as well as obligations towards the nation state you are part of.

To get there, however, we need to work on improving our debating skills, and our critical thinking. Because like you said earlier, you can understand how the scientific elements of policy-making can be taught; because there’s a method.

But politics is all about debating; it’s all about thinking, and making sense of the chaos of the world around us; and we have to start teaching those skills, too.