Why set up Repubblika?

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2018-12-05T09:33:35+00:00Mon, 3rd Dec '18, 10:44|0 Comments

Over this weekend Repubblika held a preparatory seminar asking people who have shown interest in the project to give their insight on how Repubblika should be organised and what it should focus on.

I gave the keynote speech at the event explaining what’s behind the idea. Here’s a video of the speech and beneath, if you prefer to read it rather than hear it, is the text. Do please give your feedback.

Later today I will be uploading the introductory speech delivered by the Chairperson ad interim of Repubblika, Marion Pace Asciak.

If you want to be informed of future Repubblika events and initiatives, subscribe on Repubblika’s Facebook page.

Thank you for being here today.

As we told you when we invited you to join us, Repubblika is in its gestation stage. We have aspirations and hopes for this organisation and for the contribution we wish it to make to public discourse. And if I were to mention our first ambition, it would be that Repubblika continues to exist and continues to contribute after all of us have left it and others have replaced us.

For Repubblika to be more than a brand that packages our thoughts and our actions as individuals we need to spend some time thinking about how to give it arms and legs and how to teach it to walk and talk. It requires, quite literally, to take a life of its own.

The risk, of course, is to start thinking of a project as an end in itself: like birthing a product not because it may be useful to someone but because we wanted to leave some form of legacy. That’s what happens when you start at the end, as I have. We wish Repubblika to go on when we move on to other things in our lives, but we haven’t yet started, and we’re here for a while.

So the question to ask is why start Repubblika?

I can tell you when it was that we felt the most pressing need.

Some of those who started this project have spent decades of their lives working as activists. Mostly their focus has been on issues of environmental conservation. Their work was and is not purely ecological because you cannot separate the environment from the culture that inhabits it. Green activism is not merely concerned with the trees, the fields and the hedgerows. It’s concerned with the economic models, the power structures and the cultural fixtures that put pressure on the environment, pollute it and break it.

Activism and vibrant civil society did not start in Malta because the rest of us decided to join it. 

Of course, for many of us, the deafening silence that still haunts Bidnija Valley after Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed remains a catalyst that makes us want to — for want of a better phrase — ‘do something’.

Critics mock people who were woken from their civic stupor by the bomb that killed Daphne. They call protesters who stepped up and continue to step up “Daphne fans” or “Daphne supporters”, and they don’t mean it in a good way.

Their criticism is not entirely unjustified. I think we are all riven by guilt that someone’s complete sacrifice was necessary to move us to do more than read a blog in bed.

This past year has been a shocking realisation that we have taken our democratic life for granted. We thought our institutions could fix themselves. We believed that ultimately what public anger could not resolve, trade unions could negotiate. What protesters could not secure, courts could settle in judgement. What governments could not deal with, elections could provide for.

Until we came upon a list of questions that had been with us for a while and our country found itself ill-equipped to answer.

There are many institutional failures that we have now listed, and we all share. Our founding statement sums up our disappointment, our frustration and our anger at the utter collapse of the edifice we thought would shelter us from crime, greed and corruption.

There is one institutional failure that maybe motivates us more obviously than others: that’s the failure of our political parties to answer the questions our country asks. Tactics, rather than strategy; method, rather than policy; spin, rather than debate have now reduced political discourse to a point where it is entirely unproductive.

We see little to no thought about what life will be like in this country for our children and theirs. We have a stinging feeling political party leaderships do have a plan. But in place of ambition and aspiration, we perceive cunning and deceit.

In that emptiness, many of us sought to find ways of ‘doing something’. We felt we could no longer wait for men in suits to walk up to a camera and say something we had not already thought of and dismissed.

Some people got marching. Others got writing. Others sat down to tell leaders to their face why they were unhappy. All of that was useful and will continue to be important.

But I promised I would tell you when it was that we felt we now needed to organise this aspect of civil society in a more structured manner.

The explosion from Bidnija may have been ignored in Mosta. But it was heard from Washington to Tokyo. It wasn’t just a wake-up call to us that lived like spectators at our funeral. It was also an alarm to many around the world who expected better from Malta’s promise.

Among these were international organisations who needed to check Malta against the standards we undertook to live up to. The European Parliament, the United Nations, the Council of Europe, international free speech NGOs, the press of the world and so on: these wanted to know how things stood in Malta. 

I have in mind one international organisation that reviews its Member States every so many years about an international commitment they make in a convention. I won’t be specific because I want to share with you more than I’m allowed. The organisation has on its Rolodex one contact it calls to set up their meetings while in Malta: a senior government official that shall remain unnamed.

They asked the senior official to meet representatives of the Maltese government, and of course, he set that up. They also wanted to speak to the Opposition and the discussion there did not take them too far away from the points the Government was making.

And they asked to speak to Maltese civil society. So the official put them in touch with band clubs and sports clubs and NGOs that represent the interests of persons with disability or combat gender imbalance.

All those do essential work. They are pillars of a vibrant civil society.

But like us, they took for granted the basics of our democracy. We all took it as a given that we have separation of powers, universal access to justice, protection of fundamental rights and open government. No one thought even these building blocks needed examining.

At the next level there are many NGOs who worked and work hard to improve the lot of specific minorities: lobbies that have successfully promoted the interests of groups disadvantaged because of economic status, gender, sexual orientation and race. They all have come far, and they all have far to go.

But, we now realise, there are defects even in the ground rules. The ambition of government by the people, for the people remains just that: an ambition. Or rather a rhetorical reference point that is substantially ignored.

In the same way that civil society has organised itself to think and to argue about minority rights and environmental conservation, it is high time for civil society to work to renew our democracy.

In the same way that the desire to slow and reverse the encroachment of built-up space on nature and countryside should and can transcend partisan interests, there is no reason why the wish for government power to be restrained by constitutional rules should not also transcend partisan interests.

It is convenient for people in power to dismiss us as serving the other party. People who have identified with this movement for democracy have been branded collaborators of the other party by either party. At first, that’s shocking. Then it becomes flattering. Now it’s become tiresome.

Whoever we are, wherever we come from, whatever we may have been and whatever we may have done, the demands for the rule of law, for fairness, for constitutional restraint are entirely legitimate and are only dismissed by those who benefit from a government of delinquency that favours them above all others and allows them to move unhindered by regulations.

By all means, shoot the messenger. But in the interests of the democracy you hold dear do not hold back on supporting our call for renewal whatever reasons you may have not to like us.

Some of us are indeed retired veterans of partisan politics and we don’t ask you to like us for it. If we are late to this party and you have been here before, we thank you for showing us the way. Now let’s get this job done.

Understanding what we’d like Repubblika to be, starts with understanding what we’d want it not to become.

There is an answer to the questions ‘does Repubblika seek to replace existing civil society organisations?’ Or ‘is all this fragmentation necessary?’

We seek to replace or fragment nothing. There is scope for all the work that is ongoing, but there is scope for action that is not currently happening. 

Which of course invites everyone’s favourite question: ‘is this a political party in the making?’

Sorry to disappoint. We feel nothing but gratitude for people who enter politics for the right reasons. But political parties are not the only way to achieve the improvements we aspire to. We must talk to political parties. We must tell them what we expect of them. We must expect of them more than we have dared so far.

But if politics remains the exclusive remit of political parties we’ll be stuck in some of the uglier problems we face. Partisan solidarity requires double standards. And double standards shelter corruption. Partisan interests justify political spin. And political spin makes commonplace the idea of multiple and contradictory truths.

Partisanship — irrational, loyal, blind — justifies the race to the bottom.

It’s not just that we cannot win a race to the bottom. It’s that the bottom is not where we would like to go. It’s not where we’d want anyone to get to either. We realise we may be too late, but that’s no reason not to say so.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the current state of play remains the sale of Maltese citizenship. It is symbolic of many failures: ethical, political, even economic and strategic.

But perhaps more importantly than all those other considerations, it is a cultural failure. For a country that has been a colony for most of its existence; for a nation that is small enough to require little effort to nurture a sense of community; for a secular republic that acquired citizenship through centuries of effort … our culture is remarkably indifferent to the very nature of its identity, of the only way it can recognise itself and have others recognise it.

We realise when we see this just how tall our order is. Changing a government is a five-year job for a political party. But given the state we’re in we would never be satisfied with accomplishing that. 

I am exhausted by people who only value an initiative if it helps their short-term objective of securing a change of a government … or its retention.

We must aspire to more than the change in the face of the middle-aged man who works, wittingly or not, in the service of the faceless masters who hold the strings.

And to borrow some revolutionary rhetoric, the real job is to make people aware of their sovereignty, of their responsibility, of their rights and their duties. Ultimately, to stick to the tone, the job is to make people aware of their innate power.

That is no five-year job. Changing a culture is not an electoral program.

We seek to make up for lost time. To redefine our understanding of sovereignty when politicians bank in Panama and their masters bank in Dubai. To redefine our understanding of free press when newspapers teeter on bankruptcy and televisions are owned by political parties. To redefine our understanding of democracy when the creation of false identities, the propagation of fake news, and the demographic targeting of vulnerable audiences are legitimate practices for political parties. What does democratic life even mean today?

We seek to think our ideas through and explain them. To re-imagine our community in thoughts that are marked in hashtags and limited by a quota of 15 short words. To have a conversation with people unwilling to pause from their rapid transactions. To awaken from the cartoonish Wall Street yuppie greed of the 1980s and find today university students determined not to be distracted from their pursuit of career and profit.

We seek to protect free speech and journalism. To overcome our perplexity that so many around us consider the killing of journalists a consequence of their actions not of their killers. To counter the deceitful idea that because a Minister advertises directly on social media he can do away with the inconvenience of dealing with the questions of journalists. To create a distinction between flag waving and crowds and true political engagement and participation. 

We seek to define afresh Responsible Citizenship: to reverse indifference and promote commitment; to dampen loyalty and empower discernment; to transform disciples into leaders; to stimulate engagement even in the face of mockery.

We do not underestimate the landscape in which we work. 

Instead of outgrowing partisan polarisation, we have sunk deeper into it. People are willing to hold to ever more extreme opinions, and the ability to ignore facts in favour of demigods of one’s own making is beyond absurd and now, frankly, dangerous.

The inability of my generation to engage with people 20 years younger is no longer for a Cat Stevens record. The lack of engagement into public discourse by young people is a matter of complete bewilderment. We find conformism and compliance where we expect radicalism and revolution. Change is not bred in acquiescence. It seems we have created a world where young people feel they must agree in order to survive.

Politics is transactional. We have always had the mental picture of the greedy voter using their voting document as a currency. Entrepreneurial politicians turn that reality into an offer: a package deal. Voting with one’s own mind should make ‘switching’, as we call it, an act of principled defiance. Instead we see a herd chasing a pied piper who plays a tune that sounds like shuffling stacks of cash.

Corruption is rife. But it is also mainstream. It is legitimised by impunity and protected by a corrupt attitude to corruption. A stash in an off-shore jurisdiction is a mark of honour like a pinky-ring and a double-breasted suit on a New York wise-guy circa 1985.

Information is restricted and mainly in the control of the State. Institutions employ the majority of journalists whose first profession is propaganda couched as information. 

A culture of fear is growing. There are no cells with political prisoners, no vanishings or exiles, no horrors of classical authoritarianism. There is an understanding that you either drink at the cocktail parties of the powerful or you stay outside in the cold. Reprisals are real. They are made of exclusion, isolation and elimination. With one exception, elimination is social rather than physical. That said, it is hardly more desirable.

Inclusion is not just for employees, for contractors, for licence holders and money makers. Even NGOs work in the shadow of government power, their purse strings held by the flow of public money and their independence engorged by the constant threat of suffocation.

But this realism does not make us fatalistic.

We do not suggest there is a civic desert that scorches around us. People here have stood up for the rights of people other than themselves. There is an intuitive sense of solidarity in the very public acts of charity that we see.

That is energy we must learn to harness.

And political activism is not all partisanship. It is not all self-serving. It is not all corrupt and money-grabbing. In the suffocating stench of our time, we forget that many first got into politics because they saw it as a force for good. Not everyone is in government or seeks to be in it for their profit. Government is, in democratic theory, a force for good: a means to secure social cohesion, to spread out well being, to support everyone’s desire to live a better life.

That is energy we must learn to harness.

As we do that we fulfil some immediate needs.

Firstly, when others would seek to hide, it’s our job to try to reveal. We must be providers of information: sincere, reliable, competent and critical. We must make up for a media landscape that has become telegraphic and in many places misleading and misdirecting.

Secondly, when others would seek to hide, it’s our job to try to reveal. We must challenge corruption wherever we find it. And not being a political party we have the privilege of being equal opportunities critics. Not for us the double standards of political convenience. We want to see everyone pass the test of ethical public life. But we can’t achieve that by lowering standards.

Thirdly, when others would seek to hide, it’s our job to try to reveal. It is time to challenge the ground rules of institutional and democratic life in Malta. And that challenge must be a very public affair. We cannot abide our Constitution being debated in a smoke-filled room by architects who seem to think the house they are building is just for them to live in. We will engage in the debate on institutional reform, but we will not serve the interests of the powerful. Constitutional reform as we see it, is a tool for greater restraint of concentrated power, of greater accountability, of a more just and equitable society that protects the poor and the marginalised and restrains those who exploit them.

And then we must reach out beyond our immediate needs. Repubblika wants to take the time to contribute to the cultural transformation we should all be aspiring to, and yet we don’t yet know it.

We want to challenge the notion that a high voter turnout and tight crowds at political rallies demonstrate political engagement or active citizen participation. We know the institutions have started to perceive real citizenship participation when they act without waiting to be asked to do so. Today they are cushioned by citizen indifference. As things stand, when exceptionally someone asks institutions to get on with their job, they barely flinch.

We want to bridge the tragic disconnect between ethics and public and community life, to outgrow base notions that it’s ok if no one is hurt, that it’s okay if it’s not illegal, that it doesn’t matter if we all get to dip in.

And to top it all an even more fundamental mission. If we were a political party, we’d say we have three priorities above all others: education, education and education.

Our country faces many challenges, and some feel more overwhelming than others. But for us whose mission is to foster renewed citizenship and renewed democratic life, the greatest challenge is the renewal of our citizens.

The lack of anger at the environmental degradation of both our urban and natural landscapes is not only a product of collective greed. It is also the absence of appreciation of beauty, a marked lack of aesthetics in our culture and our shared sensibilities. Beauty and the desire to foster and nurture it, are looked upon as intellectual snobbery of people incapable of tweeting their thoughts, lost as they are in hugging forlorn trees.

The lack of anger at the apparent corruption of international money-laundering, cross-border bribery and perverse public procurement is not only a product of a corrupt culture. It is also the absence of appreciation of how banking works, how money flows, and what is proper and what is not because no, not all is fair in love, war and business.

The lack of anger at politicians caught lying, having to change their versions or not even bothering to do that when confronted with facts is not only a collapse of community values. It is also the absence of appreciation of what truth is. That there is a reality outside one’s head and facts are what they are, no matter what you’d like them to be.

This is the challenge of all challenges: a renewed vision for education that fosters responsible citizens. 

We seek to build a republic of universal women and men: who have a grasp of economics from which they learn what works and does not work; who have a grasp of sciences from which they learn to determine what is true and what is not; and who have a grasp of the humanities from which they learn what is right and what is wrong.

If we manage to become a locus for these ambitions, we would indeed become useful contributors to a better life in this country. People who want to dismiss us and would rather everyone disregards us measure us by the ambitions of old dual politics. For ourselves, we do not seek positions or rewards. But it will be a great reward if future leaders of our community grow out of civil society, equipped with the values that we uphold and we seek to impart.

We feel no shame in hoping that one day someone younger than we are, leaves Repubblika for elected office and takes with them there the mission of change we seek to drive.

We’re not going to do all that today. Nor are we going to do all that this year or maybe even in our lifetime.

But we’re going to do something that hasn’t been done properly yet. We’re going to start.

This is where you come in. Today we are not asking you to debate our vision. We know we are largely among like-minded people. We will take the time to discuss the details, but first, we must build the home from which we are going to work.

So we have some mundane questions to ask you to help us with, before we roll out a statute and a first work program for Repubblika. We know what we’d like to achieve, but we are nowhere near having a full understanding of how to do it.

We’re going to ask you to break up in four groups to discuss four sets of questions, each set for each group. We’re going to listen to your answers and use them to come back to you after Christmas with an action plan and a rule book we can all call our own.

Here are the four sets of questions we’d like you to discuss. You’ll be asked to join one of four sessions on Mobilisation, Communication, Organisation and Funding. We thank you for lettings us know your thoughts.

And thank you for listening.