Looking back at 2021 | A new normal that shows no sign of waning

Christmas Specials • Malta’s government thrived under COVID-19, but is this growing power coming at a cost of the value of politics? The need for social security and jobs should never be underestimated, but a healthy democratic life needs better checks and balances, transparency and good governance

Children in Maltese schools have spent two academic years walking through the school-gates with their face-masks on, spending entire lessons with their mouths covered.

The workplace has had to let go of its ancient suspicion of tele-working to embrace digital practices that allowed it function seamlessly without the physical presence of workers. Personal contacts were reduced, minimum distances observed, personal-protection measures and hygiene rules followed and, where possible, face-to-face meetings replaced by digital communication. The pandemic was a strong driver for digitalisation.

The future of education itself already demands solutions that allow us to move teaching from the classroom to online seamlessly, by design: students’ location will not influence the quality of the education they receive. Knowledge and interaction, participation in discussions, will take place digitally under conditions of normality.

So will healthcare be further digitised with the use of continuous monitoring from home assistants and smartphones, allowing self-diagnosis well before going to a hospital.

The supply chain crisis – an inability from global logistics to cater for the reinvigorated global demand for intermediate goods and raw material – has now made goods shortages a daily occurrence.

And the labour supply shortage has taught a nation of migrants the value of immigrants, legal or not.

The new normal has come to stay, as the spread of the coronavirus is accompanied by its various mutations and with it, necessary public health restrictions that alter people’s way of life.

It is a kind of ‘normal’ that has already been visited upon the world previously. The 9-11 attacks produced a massive upheaval of travel security checks and government surveillance that has been with us ever since 2001. The world has not become any safer since cockpit doors were locked and small bottles of shampoo were banned from airliners... it just became more ever-changing: almost ‘liquid’.

Perhaps nothing represents better the state the world has been in the last 20 years than the archetypal challenges that define our quest for “security”: terrorism, the climate crisis, the scourge of neoliberalism and its effects on international markets, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic and its bio-politics.

None of these challenges can lack a global response. International security cooperation, carbon-neutral targets, renewable energy and the phasing-out of fossil fuels, carbon taxation and international anti-tax avoidance measures, stronger regulation, and equal access to vaccination across the globe...

But at the heart of these many concerns, one clear factor of the human condition will always reign supreme: the availability of quality jobs, social protection and insurance and a robust health system. These are the determinants of a nation’s wellbeing that cannot be divorced from the reality of the world’s challenges.

That is why the European Union is itself responding to the challenges of the future with far-reaching reforms: the Fit For 55 package of rules that will take Europe into a carbon-neural future, the financing of the economic transition through international corporate taxes – a reality that the selfish industry of financial practitioners can no longer avoid with mealy-mouthed calls for national sovereignty – and new Europe-wide rules to regulate digital giants that determine the way people act and behave in the digital sphere. If the world has to be future-proofed against the changes that crisis brings, it cannot be done without regulating the powerful, without making the wealthy finance the costly transitions that could punish the weakest and poorest members of society, and without governments ensuring a form of existential security – jobs, pensions and functioning health systems.

Indeed, the Maltese government’s committed economic management to support businesses and jobs have been key to support its COVID strategy and its high vaccination rate. But while COVID has ravaged some governments, the last two years in Malta have perhaps underlined even more the difference that strong leadership makes when prime ministers are on the front foot throughout the crisis. Perhaps, Labour’s supremacy in the polls reflects also this public support and confidence.

However, as the last decade has shown, Labour’s success in “managing” expectations, managing the purse-strings, and managing the democratic apparatus, has allowed it a rare, sustained supremacy in the polls.

The Opposition Nationalist Party finds Labour’s lead insurmountable, even with the gloss of the Muscat years thoroughly worn off, and a social consensus slowly fraying over Labour’s problematic relationship with corruption, good governance, the environment, and the after-effects of the Daphne murder.

And yet. Labour yet still thrives, by delivering a framework of social security, jobs and economic security.

So is Malta’s new normal also a reality in which power has been totally divorced from politics, separate from the art of decision-making and of winning consensus by the power of ideas and proposals?

Only a system of checks and balances can keep this gap from widening ever further.

That is why so many crucial reforms of the past year and a half have been aimed squarely at curtailing the excesses of power: the excise of the Attorney General’s prosecutorial arm; the way Malta’s judiciary is selected; the recommendations of the Daphne public inquiry; the introduction of a prisons ombudsman... all these checks and balances are crucial ingredients that underline the value of transparency and equity in decision-making, and in keeping checks on those with power.

Indeed, these are democratic values that go hand in hand with the existential requirements of jobs, social security and an efficient national health system.

In this new normal of collective action and cooperation, the need for social investment from governments remains paramount; the need to create quality jobs, to regulate the free market and provide quality public health infrastructure are crucial.

But if the prize of this State-funded social cohesion is unfettered power for the shot-callers, the risk will be a growing gap between power and politics, a situation where power grows irrespectively of the politics that underpins it. That is why Labour’s supremacy at the polls always comes with a warning of the constitutional risks that a two-thirds majority in the House could mean for Malta.

In this state of ‘normality’, the call for transparency, good governance and checks and balances that enhance our democratic life and our access to equal opportunities, has never been greater.