Much harder to change a culture than a law | Helena Dalli

As the minister responsible for social equality, civil liberties and consumer affairs, Helena Dalli finds herself tasked with changing both laws and national perceptions. No prizes for guessing which part of her job is the easier

Equality minister Helena Dalli
Equality minister Helena Dalli

Almost five months after an election, it is perhaps a little late to be talking about a 'honeymoon period' for the new government.

But when it comes to portfolios which simply didn't exist in previous administrations - such as civil liberties, which makes up the bulk of Helena Dalli's ministry, alongside social equality and industrial relations - it is perhaps only fair to allow a little more time for the incoming minister to find her feet.

Yet paradoxically, the same previously non-existent ministry has been among the Labour Cabinet's most active to date. It was first off the block to introduce long-overdue reforms, such as a legal amendment to allow transsexuals the full legal rights associated with their acquired gender. It has also drawn up a bill to regulate civil partnerships for same sex couples to be presented after the summer recess; and in keeping with the same overall theme, the Social Equality Ministry will shortly be presenting a gender identity bill.

Meanwhile there are ongoing discussions - mostly focusing on precarious employment - with the Malta Council for Social and Economic Development and regular meetings with 'civil society' (to use the rather hackneyed blanket term) on a wide variety of other topics.

When I meet Helena Dalli at her Valletta ministry, she has just returned from a meeting with the National Council for the Promotion of Equality, largely on the subject of female under-representation in the workforce. And on top of all this the ministry itself is in the process of relocating to another part of Valletta, from its current abode in the very impressive 17th century palazzo on Old Bakery Street. (Later, in what could have been a scene out of an Ionesco play, someone comes in halfway through the interview and starts carting off the furniture...)

Never a dull moment, it would seem. But in-between such interruptions we get to talking about one of the main headaches faced by Dalli's ministry at the moment: Malta's apparently endemic gender imbalance across most sectors - not least politics.

In some areas, the situation has visibly improved. At 10 out of 69, female MPs now account for one seventh of the total... still a tiny minority, but a considerable improvement over all previous legislatures. And the recent by-election at the European Parliament likewise resulted in a seismic shift in Malta's EP representation, which is now half made up of women.

But on paper, Malta still falls far short of the proposed 40% that the European Commission would have imposed on Member States by means of quotas - a proposal Dalli has defended as 'a necessary evil': she cites the last commission report on the subject (dating back to 2011), which revealed that Malta's actual percentage of women appointed to government boards and authorities amounts to an almost laughable 3%.

Things have improved slightly since then, but Dalli acknowledges that a lot of work still needs to be done.

"We discussed this at an NCPE meeting just this morning. One of the ideas we are considering at the moment is to draw up a directory of professional women in Malta..." Dalli hints that many would be surprised at the sheer number of entries this directory would include when finished. "This way, people will no longer be able to use the excuse that 'we couldn't find women in this or that sector'..."

The excuse itself suggests that the idea of increasing female representation in the workforce is still encountering significant resistance in a largely male-dominated society. But there is also evidence of a new and unexpected problem involving gender.

Helena Dalli tells me how a recent MCESD meeting drew her attention to another form of gender imbalance in the country: the fact that female university graduates now outnumber males by far, and that the discrepancy appears to be widening over time.

"It was Prof. Joe Falzon [an economist representing the employers' association] who raised the issue," she explains. "It is worrying for a number of reasons: for one thing, if so many women are graduating from university... where are they all hiding? What happens to them afterwards? Why are they not getting jobs in their relevant sectors?"

She admits that in some cases the graduates themselves might not want to pursue the chosen professional path; but given the mismatch between large numbers of female graduates, and Malta's pitifully low female participation rate at board level, Dalli argues that in some cases, something might be holding these women back.

"Whatever the reason, these are among the questions we are currently discussing in MCESD. And there is another side to this issue..."

Meanwhile Prof. Falzon's observation gives rise to another question... a question Dalli dubs 'the other side of the coin'.

"What is happening to our boys?" she asks. "Why is the education sector failing these children? We must explore this problem, too..."

This brings me to one of the curiosities about what some might describe as a 'new-fangled' ministry. While the idea of a ministry for social equality and civil liberties is undeniably attractive... the fact remains that a single minister, no matter how capable, cannot possibly cope with all the relevant issues without sooner or later treading on the corns of Cabinet colleagues.

In this instance, there is an education ministry that will have to be brought on board if the issue is to be tackled properly. In other areas - such as industrial relations - there are the finance/economy and industry/small businesses ministries respectively. And similar provisos apply to other sectors, too. Doesn't this also mean that Dalli's own ministry is powerless to take the necessary action on its own?

She seems genuinely surprised by the question. "I don't see that as a problem myself. Yes, it is true that we have to work in synchronicity with each other, but... that is part of what government is all about. As a Cabinet we have to work as a team..."

Fair enough, but we all know that 'how things are meant to be' and 'how things actually are' rarely turn out to be one and the same thing. Many of former PM Lawrence Gonzi's intrinsic problems arose specifically from internal discord on his own parliamentary bench: and while I don't expect similar problems to manifest themselves so early into the Labour administration, there have already been external hints that not all is rosy between different members of the same team.

Does she encounter any kind of resistance among Cabinet colleagues when it comes to implementing some of her decisions as minister?

She shakes her head, adding that many of her ministry's accomplishments to date would have been impossible without the willing cooperation of other ministries.

"This is how it should be - and the same applies also to the whole of civil society. As a Cabinet we cannot work on our own, and then impose on others from above. This is why we are having a series of meetings with all sectors of society - not only is this indispensable if we are to find out what the real problems are; but I think if we work together we will ultimately be a more successful government." 

Hence the importance she clearly attaches to MCESD, which - as I remind her - has in the past been dismissed as a 'talking shop'. Dalli herself does not share that view, citing the ongoing discussion on precarious employment as an example.

"Where best to discuss this issue, than a venue where trade unions, employers' associations, and all other relevant bodies will be present around a table? You can call it a talking shop if you like, but it is still the most important venue to bring about meaningful change..."

Coming back to the education imbalance, Dalli points towards the fact that the education minister - independently of any input from her own ministry - has already taken steps to address the issue.

"Evarist Bartolo believes we have to work at primary school level if we are going to understand why the system is failing some children but not others..."

Interestingly enough, among the more unexpected proposals floated to date was the introduction of co-education at primary and secondary levels: an idea which touches on both education and, ultimately, social equality... hence straddling both ministries.

"I argue - and Bartolo agrees - that the same basic approach should be applied to the issue of cultural stereotyping: these issues also have to be brought into the school curriculum, ideally at a very young age..."

It remains however debatable whether our schools are actually equipped to handle such themes. The problem was in fact brought to the fore at a recent public consultation meeting (which I happened to attend). Responding to queries by members of Malta's LGBT community, Dalli acknowledged that the current educational set-up did not provide an accurate reflection of Malta's social realities to begin with.

She was particularly irked by school textbooks which, on paper, seem to encourage and perpetuate plainly outdated stereotypes: with pictures of smiling mummies staying at home with the children, while a smiling daddy drives off to work.

"This is the reality even today, because - and it's a resource problem more than anything - those textbooks are still in use and cannot be replaced overnight."

Nor can they be replaced merely because the social equality minister demands it; even though, in this instance, the education minister (who has already supported Dalli's calls for a rethink on our national approach to such matters) is unlikely to resist. Still, until such time as the resource material can be upgraded, Dalli urges teachers to adopt a more critical approach to the same texts.

"The books say what they say, but teachers can always use this to question the realities with which children are confronted. If a schoolbook portrays an ideal family as a working father and a mother who stays at home, I would ask the children if that actually conforms to the reality they know. Is it true of their own family at home? Do they know of other family models, including same sex couples, and so on?"

Dalli is confident that 'catching them young' is the best way to successfully confront issued of perception on a national level. But she has no illusions that any of this will be easy. "The easiest thing I could do is simply go to parliament and force the necessary legislation through. But that will only change the law. It is much harder to change a culture, a mindset."

This second objective is ultimately what Helena Dallli hopes to one day achieve.

"Ideally we want the next generation simply not to have any issues when it comes to accepting minorities, be they issues of race, gender, LGBT, etc..."

This is all well and good, but again there is a possibility that not all government representatives are keen on pulling the same end of the rope. On issues of race for instance, her own government appears to be sending out mixed messages: ministers like Dalli herself call for integration at all levels; but while her Prime Minister officially uses the same jargon (he likewise called for integration on a recent visit to Rome), his actions in recent weeks seem aimed at making successful integration impossible.

I ask Dalli if she is comfortable to hear her own government use words like 'crisis' and 'invasion' to describe the ongoing asylum phenomenon. Isn't this is a direct contradiction of her own view that cultural stereotypes should be challenged, not encouraged?

Dalli looks uncomfortable as she moves to defend her government's recent outbursts on immigration - arguing that the recent stand-off only represents one aspect of a much larger and more complex issue.

"As government, we have to make our point at an international level. At the end of the day we are only asking the EU to abide by its own policies... remember that the Immigration and Asylum Pact makes reference to burden sharing. They're not sharing the burden. We are within our rights to point this out..."

Oddly enough, the same pact had been heavily criticised by Joseph Muscat, then still Opposition leader, for failing to secure a 'mandatory' burden sharing agreement... How, then, can the government now insist that the EU abide by an agreement that it knows does not exist?

Dalli shrugs. "What can we do with the EU, other than insist on more fairness when it comes to this issue? All we are asking is that the European Union acknowledge this to be a European problem, not just a Maltese one..."

Meanwhile, she points towards other aspects of the same issue, arguing that her government has been very hard at work on the integration of legal migrants. "On this front we are having meetings with NGOs all the time. This Friday I will be visiting the open centre in Marsa..."

Once again Dalli expresses her conviction that education will ultimately provide the key that will unlock many of the solutions to the various problems associated with immigration.

"Again, what I would like to see is future generations not suffering from the same hang-ups. Can you imagine the impact it would have to see, for example, a black newscaster reading the news on TVM... in Maltese?"

These, she suggests, are the individual developments that will in time make a difference in popular perceptions on race issues. "We are still far away, but it's not as though we are not working towards these goals."

Meanwhile she defends her government's record since it sailed into power on the promise of a 'progressive earthquake', pointing towards the milestone developments in transgender equality, the imminent breakthroughs in civil rights, including same sex partnerships, and the elimination of other forms of discrimination.

"Once these are out of the way, we will have to ask ourselves... what will there be left to tackle?" However, she promptly answers her own question: "Obviously there will always be situations where persons or group will be discriminated against, so there will always be work to do. But we are addressing the major issues."

With due respect, the more you play the race card the more they will be rejected by the Maltese citizens who in their vast majority do not want illegal immmigrants of any color from any country in Malta. The emphasis on Black illegal immigrants is furthermore exacerbating the situation apart from being the most obvious due to their sheer numbers. The Maltese citizens do not want multiculturalism shoved down their throat and the more you persist the more they become determined to fight it.