In the last few months, we’ve been able to witness how the spread of internet-based technologies has facilitated the individualised expression of ideas and frustrations related to the reality unfolding before our own eyes. But using the internet as a mode of participation, although effective, does not account for the same level of involvement – especially with issues that are of national importance. One such issue is migration, and Dr George Vital Zammit, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Public Policy, thinks it merits a national forum.
Newspoint had a chat with Dr Zammit to get more insight into his ideas for this forum.
Fora are intended for dialogue, and migration is already an issue that’s on everyone’s mind. Why do you want a forum to be set up on the matter?
Dialogue is absent at the moment and a sequence of cascading events have prevented it from happening. Whilst Malta was grappling with the new reality of COVID-19, another reality was unfolding. Two separated, yet not unrelated issues, triggered a new wave of social conflict that was largely witnessed on our social media.
When borders were closed, it was an extraordinary measure to prevent contagion through imported cases, but this did not deter crossings of people from Libya. Whilst closing borders had national support, rescuing people at sea became a very controversial subject. And that is where the issue became a political football, and with all the consequences that brings.
The subject may be discussed by policy elites, or by us academics, but that is not enough. A Forum would capture a wider audience and offer a parallel platform where ideas are exchanged.
Who should be in this forum?
The Forum would be a multi-stakeholder policy lab which is not dominated by any one player. It should be an inclusive body with a wide representation of society; policy-makers, public officers, non-governmental organisations, interest and pressure groups, religions, educators from every level, army and police officers, local councils, health services, the media, migrant communities and private citizens.
The scope here is to initiate a conversation which will gradually develop into a dialogue. For something like this to succeed, agendas should be clear, but their manifestation should not be a hindrance to foster a healthy dialogue. Rather, being forthcoming about ideas is conducive towards establishing a level of trust. This has to be a place where questions are answered (where possible), thoughts spelled, concerns relayed, frustrations revealed, ideas explained, and policies proposed.
Being a multi-faceted issue, migration comprises of many pressing matters. Where should we start?
The most pressing matter is fear. Fear stokes insecurity, resentment and anger. It fuels emotional sentiments that defy logic and rationality – and migration is a case in point. Fear is based on information heard or sought, and if you factor in false truths, disinformation and spins, you are left with only a few sources of information that can actually be verified.
That fear is also based on valid concerns. What happened during the COVID-19 pandemic is the perfect example. As I explained earlier on, people were fully entitled to feel concerned. Whilst we stayed in our homes, we were all glued to our TV networks, absorbing the advice to stay inside and keep safe. So people landing in our country in droves, after our borders were closed, would have weakened the reassurance we desperately need.
Migration as you say, is a multi-faceted issue. The complexity is further compounded by the zealousness showed by opposing camps. A middle ground seems so hard to find, let alone reconcile. Can we try to address this?
You call for a political consensus on migration. From what history has taught us, is the idea of politics without strife a fantasy or a realistic thing?
Politics is about the exchange of ideas, and history has been forged by episodes of strife and upheaval. The absence of strife resembles more a totalitarian environment where a ruling party, has a dominating role and order is imposed by coercion. While democracy has its many shortcomings, it remains to date, the most inclusive form of government.
Migration is no recent phenomenon, but for a few years it receded from our national policy arena due to a drastic drop in migrant arrivals. This lull contributed to a new norm, even though no clear explanation was ever forthcoming on the change of trend. As soon as the numbers started surging again, we experienced a shock to the system. In public policy theory, we refer to this as punctuated equilibrium, or rather, situations of stability that are interrupted by periods of radical change. These intense periods of attention may prompt new ways to frame and solve old policy problems.
What do you make out of the perception that policy makers are disconnected from reality?
If by disconnection, we mean detachment from society, divorced from the reality experienced by the average citizen, then the claim is incorrect – at least in a small country like Malta. But if we mean denial of pressing concerns related to the common good, then the claim is more than fitting. A number of issues picked up by means of current or aspiring politicians being in close proximity with their electorate, and may eventually end up in political party manifestos.
How is the Department of Public Policy contributing to improving this perceived disconnection?
We place a huge premium on debate and discussion, and I am sure that other Departments teaching social sciences do the same. What we notice is that students keep coming to us, and most remark that the years spent at the Department were not only fulfilling, but also empowering. In this sense I think that pedagogy plays a very important role in forming a critical mind. As the Aristotelian adage goes ‘educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all’.
What is your view on students not being well-informed on issues of national importance?
Students are more informed than we think; it’s the level of engagement that varies. It depends on us educators as to the extent to which we want them to engage. Issues like environmental sustainability, living spaces, corruption and meritocracy, are all themes that strike a chord with a generation that is apprehensive towards the world they are inheriting. Rather than being passive bystanders of history, these students are choosing to be catalysts for change.