Emergency on Planet Malta | Andre Callus

Social equality campaigner Andre Callus, of Moviment Graffitti, outlines the need for a radical culture shift to counter a social, political and environmental emergency

Andre Callus, social equality campaigner for Moviment Graffiti
Andre Callus, social equality campaigner for Moviment Graffiti

As a rule, you can always rely on left-wing activist group Moviment Graffitti to stir up the occasional polemic here and there. If its members are not busy pitching tents outside Castile to protest against environmental degradation, they will most likely be provoking angry reactions with some hard-hitting slogan at a public demonstration.

In 2011, Moviment Graffitti incurred precisely such criticism over a placard showing former PM Lawrence Gonzi embracing Libya’s erstwhile demagogue Muammar Gaddafi… and last week it invited similar reactions with the memorable slogan: ‘Same shit, different government’.

Interestingly, the offending placard now adorns the wall of Graffitti’s Valletta office almost like a trophy. Andre Callus, one of the movement’s most recognisable faces, sits directly beneath it as we settle for this interview.

I ask him if he was surprised by the hostile reactions. “First of all, you have to see where these reactions came from. There were a number of people at that protest who reacted positively to the same slogan. And this doesn’t surprise me, because in the time I’ve been alive – around 29 years – I don’t think there ever was a moment when so many people were so fed up with the two parties. They might continue to vote for them, but most people no longer support their parties with their eyes shut.

“Having said that, there were a number of Nationalist supporters who were irritated. Not many, incidentally. I honestly think they didn’t understand the message. The point behind that slogan was that things haven’t changed with the change of government. It is actually more critical of Labour: because in spite of all its promises, in spite of the 36,000 majority that voted for it, the Labour government didn’t change anything at all. It’s always the same record playing: the only thing that changes is the colour…”

This, he quickly adds, is not just an observation made in passing: the slogan also represents a long-term strategy for Moviment Graffitti.

“If there is no challenge to the dominance of the two parties… if people do not hold both parties responsible for the state we’re in… it would be too easy for them to just carry on with the same stuck record. We have to recognise the fact that both Nationalist and Labour parties are ultimately part of the same network of power that keeps the same elite in control. And I think more people are now seeing this than ever before…”

Ironically, the controversy itself also indicates just how pervasive this dominance really is.

“In the last month, I have lost count of the people who have told us, ‘you’re Labour’ or ‘you’re Nationalist’ – as if all discussion in this country can only take place in the context of the PN-PL divide. It’s as though nothing else exists outside that context… but I believe that genuine change can only come about when people realise that… yes, there is life beyond the two parties.”

Meanwhile, Callus’ impression of a tidal change in attitude towards Maltese politics is up to a point borne out by statistical evidence… not least, our own surveys, which broadly point towards growing disaffection in either camp. But why precisely now? Moviment Graffitti has been harping on this central message for at least 20 years… so what is it about this precise moment in our history that makes the argument more convincing?

“I think that the last election result clearly indicated that people were fed up to their back teeth under the Nationalists, and that many genuinely hoped a change in government would bring about the necessary changes in other spheres. Now, we have reached a stage when people have understood that most things have remained the same – some things have actually deteriorated – but the memory of the Nationalist administration is still too fresh. Many people are just not ready to trust them again so soon… and this is understandable, because the people in that party are still more or less the same. More importantly, they are no different when it comes to ideas and policies….”

As an example he cites the minimum wage: another bugbear of a movement which cites ‘social justice’ as the main pillar of its ethos.

“The minimum wage in this country is niggardly (mizera). Even before the recent Caritas report, it was abundantly clear that people just cannot survive on the minimum wage. Never mind that they cannot enjoy a decent standard of living: minimum wage earners cannot make ends meet. For all this, however, both parties have taken up a position against raising the minimum wage.

“Today, for instance, Finance Minister Edward Scicluna came out with a statement saying that the minimum wage would only go up if employers agree. What this means is that we have a government that is held to ransom by employers. Because if you say that you can only raise the minimum wage with the permission of employers, what you are effectively saying is that it is the employers who are governing the country, not you...”

Meanwhile, both the Malta Employers Association and the Chamber of Commerce have repeatedly come out against any change to the current wage structure….

Callus nods. “And yet, it is undeniable that to raise the minimum wage would be in the interest of the majority in this country. This raises a question that must be asked of both Labour and Nationalist parties. Whose interest does politics serve in Malta? Do they serve the best interests of the country, or the limited interests of only a tiny minority?”

It’s a fair question, but the issue also has a practical, logistical dimension to it. It’s all well and good to demand higher wages across the board, but these wages would have to be paid by a private sector that (by Callus’s own argument) looks only at balance sheets and the bottom line. There is a reason for this, too: if those sheets no longer balance, the company might go under… and the people who would suffer most are the employees who would be out of a job.

Even if the company remains afloat, a drastic change to its bottom line might precipitate cost-cutting elsewhere: individual employees might be paid more, but the company may have to lay off workers or stop hiring. How does someone like Callus respond to this reasoning (which incidentally forms the bulk of the MEA’s arguments, echoed by both Scicluna and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat)?

“There are a number of ways you can approach this issue. If you look at the experience of other countries – such as Germany, for instance – they raised the minimum wage without suffering this kind of negative economic domino effect. But even without any increase to the minimum wage, the fact remains that a private company will still only ever employ the minimum workforce it actually needs.

“If a company needs 10 employees to get a job done, it will still have to employ 10 people, whether or not the minimum wage goes up. As for the question, would raising the minimum wage increase the financial burden on employers? The answer is yes, but we are not talking about an exorbitant increase. The issue here is that the minimum wage should be increased to a level where earners can enjoy a decent standard of living. We’re not asking for minimum-wage earners to get rich overnight. And let us keep in mind that we are talking about companies which post substantial profits. If a company goes bankrupt because of an increase to the minimum wage, all it would mean is that the company was in a bad financial situation anyway… 

This in turn, he adds, exposes the shallowness of the government’s reasoning on the issue.

“If the economy is really doing as well as Scicluna claims, it shouldn’t be a problem to raise the minimum wage. But if we can’t do that because of the negative economic consequences, it means that the economy is not as rosy as it is made out to be. It means that our economy is based on cheap labour. There are no two ways about it; one scenario excludes the other. Either our economy is doing so well that we can afford higher wages, or else we have an economy that keeps afloat only because the wage structures are so low. This is something the government has to answer for…”

Moving beyond the minimum wage issue, Andre Callus points towards other similarities in the modus operandi of both parties.  

“At Enemalta, for instance, we saw a privatisation process that began under the Nationalists – who liberalised the gas sector – and that was carried on under Labour. Now, we have reached a stage when the country’s power generation capability is entirely in the hands of the private sector. Shanghai Electric now controls the BWSC plant, etc. This is just a basic continuation of the same policy, under different administrations. This is why I believe that Labour and Nationalists should both be held to account: for power doesn’t exert its influence only on those people we elect to govern the country. The network of power is far more widespread than that; we got an indication of how it works in the Panama papers…”

At first glance, the Panama revelations seem to dramatically underscore Callus’s earlier point regarding disillusionment under Labour. It was ultimately a combination of corruption allegations and shoddy governance that brought down the Gonzi administration…. yet only three years later, the incoming Labour government finds itself exposed to much the same charges.

“On one level we had the revelations concerning Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, who set up a trust with companies registered in Panama. Here, there is a personal political responsibility to be shouldered; it is incredible that these two people are still in their positions today. They should have resigned immediately.

“But on another level, we also saw how many people on both sides had positioned themselves at different levels within the same system. The positions were different, true, but they are still connected to the same issue. Some people invested their own money in these jurisdictions; others helped their clients to do the same. But at the end of the day, why would you want to put your money in a place like Panama… if not to evade tax, or to hide where it came from? There is no other valid reason…”

Would he put the list of legal firms acting as intermediaries in the same category as ‘politically exposed persons’ such as  Mizzi and Schembri?

“No, there is a difference. As public officials and as direct beneficiaries of trusts, Mizzi and Schembri have an enormous individual responsibility which can’t be avoided. It is an obscenity that they still haven’t shouldered this responsibility. But this doesn’t change the fact that the system itself is rotten to the core. Much as I think Mizzi and Schembri should resign, the truth is that their resignations will achieve nothing if the system remains unchanged… and, tomorrow or the day after, we find different people in the same positions, be they Labour or Nationalist. Structurally, something is clearly wrong with the system. And the political parties are part of this problem: their connections with contractors, property speculators, and various business interests run too deep. You can see this in the legislation they enact. Very often, it is legislation tailored to cater for the few at the expense of the many…’

Speaking of shared approaches and policies, the Panama issue also exposed Malta’s own questionable role as a minor player in the complex world of international tax-hopping. Our own jurisdiction might not be classed as an outright tax haven alongside Panama or the British Virgin islands… but Malta has nonetheless been criticised by other European states for tinkering with its tax rates to attract industries which shop around for the best conditions. 

This contradiction is perhaps best illustrated by a recent quote by Nationalist MP Kristy Debono, who argued that the scandal has ‘made it harder for Malta to oppose European tax harmonisation”... when harmonisation is in fact being considered as a measure to counter global tax evasion…

“This sort of hypocrisy is not limited to Malta alone. The Netherlands also plays a huge role when it comes to tax evasion: in fact, during the Greek bailout crisis, the Greek government accused the Netherlands of hypocrisy… after it turned out that many Greek companies had relocated there to avoid paying tax. This reflects a much deeper reality, which can be seen at local level too. In what direction is our economy heading? Often, governments argue that sectors such as financial services are important, ‘because the economy needs them’… as though ‘the economy’ is something that just falls from the sky. But the economy is something we create and shape ourselves: it is a direction governments choose to take. Do we want to build our economy on foundations that are very shaky? In the long term, this is not in Malta’s interest…”

At the same time, however, there are reliable indications of a robust economic performance: recent upgrades by credit ratings agencies, for instance, or statistics concerning employment…

“It is true that employment, in itself, is not a major issue at the moment. But the conditions of work here are very bad. We’ve already talked about how low the minimum age is: but there are a lot of people in Malta who earn even less. Workers who are unregistered, or in precarious employment, or exploited… many of them don’t know their rights as employees, and those who do often feel it’s simply not worth trying to fight for those rights. And again, the two parties are in agreement even when it comes to workers’ rights and conditions. Under the Nationalists, we had Tonio Fenech who took away public holidays which fell on weekends… and while Labour protested at the time, the reality is that they have been in government for three years and have done nothing about it.”

But these considerations pale somewhat, compared to the issue that has inspired Graffitti’s latest participation in another protest… this time organised by a network of different NGOs, to raise awareness about the environmental situation. 

“The initiative is called ‘Kamp Emergenza Ambjent’… because we believe that the environmental situation in this country is an emergency that is threatening our future in a very real, very direct and very physical way. In the short time I’ve been alive, all I have seen are buildings going up, and the natural landscape being eaten away at an astonishingly fast pace.

“But this is not just about green spaces… there is democracy itself at stake. It is the same rotten system that has to change. When you look at decisions taken by different administrations concerning the environment… in whose name are those decisions taken? Who benefits from the constant sacrifice of more and more land to be gobbled up by developers? It is definitely not the majority who care about the future wellbeing of the country. We believe the time has come for people to show their concern about this by taking direct action, and putting pressure on the government. It is an emergency situation, and as such it calls for immediate action.”