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Eight proposals for the Opposition (any opposition) in 2018

Looking at 2018 | Could these proposals be a blueprint for an Opposition with a radical response to Labour?

matthew_vella
Matthew Vella
2 January 2018, 9:01am
Nationalisation of the public transport service

Malta’s experience with public transport soured when a momentous decision was taken to liberalise a bus network that was run by a cooperative of bus owner-drivers and uncouth employees. Millions were spent to get rid of over 500 creaky bangers that ran the routes, some as early as the 1960s, for a fleet of cleaner Euro-V engines. The idea was to revise the bus routes and lower operational costs, and by extension, state subsidies. But in a bid to make the new routes profitable, less buses, the addition of the maligned bendy-bus and longer routes were devised to pick up more passengers.

The Arriva disaster was taxing on the nation: a 40c trip had now become a €1.50 trip that took ages to arrive at its destination, prompting the prime minister to create a task force to manage the chaos. Not only that: state subsidies increased from €10 million in 2010, to €26.7 million in 2016. Nationalisation can be unpopular for an electorate that in the 1990s was trained to detest state-owned corporatism. But for public services and goods like Maltese public transport, turning a profit can be hard (not all routes are patronised as much as the commuter and tourism-heavy ‘Sliema-Valletta’ routes). So if millions are paid by taxpayers to subsidise a profit-making service, why not make it the State’s business to run it in the first place?

in a bid to make the new routes profitable, less buses, the addition of the maligned bendy-bus and longer routes were devised to pick up more passengers
in a bid to make the new routes profitable, less buses, the addition of the maligned bendy-bus and longer routes were devised to pick up more passengers
 

Referenda on local plans and scheduling

Labour was elected to power in 2013 with an unclear stand on the environment and planning, except for its dedicated pro-business mantra. That mantra clashed with Malta’s delicate environmental balance. Lawrence Gonzi read the gripes of the electorate in 2008 and vowed to keep outside development zones free of any development, and reformed the Malta Environment and Planning Authority. Labour charged ahead with the subtlety of a chainsaw: it unleashed a series of regulations to open the floodgates to rural construction for agri-tourism holdings, high-rise projects, and massive fuel stations outside development zones. It then de-merged MEPA’s planning and environment arms, rendering the Environment and Resources Authority a toothless appendage, and the Planning Authority an instrument directed from the highest political authority.

To battle the PA’s control on policy-making, more decentralisation has to occur. It should be local councils and their electorates that determine how Maltese towns and villages should look, allowing them a decisive hand on what local plans can and cannot allow, to limit developments and conserve urban cores and keep rural areas free of construction, and even to propose the scheduling of houses to retain Malta’s streetscapes.

 

A moratorium on ODZ and high-rise

Malta’s virulent pro-business drive is clearly short-sighted. Quality of life cannot be bought with money. The Planning Authority has yet to formalise a national master plan for high-rise buildings, but policies have already been issued and in the case of the Paceville masterplan, land allocated for that purpose before the master plan was even finalised.  Already we are on familiar territory: businesses busy churning out proposals for high-rise and land reclamation, at a time when a national policy has yet to be formulated. The primary consideration here is the “monetisation” of the coastline for speculative purposes. The Labour government seems to be treating Malta’s scarcest resource – its land – as a ‘salotto buono’: it is catering for the whims of Malta’s most ambitious businessmen, who are being gifted public land for their own private investments.

For an opposition that can truly capture the anger provoked by the pro-construction drive from the Labour government, it must be able to shift the emphasis to the environment, and abide by an ODZ-is-ODZ rule to safeguard Malta’s countryside.

 

Full-time MPs and scrutiny of top posts

In 2014, Joseph Muscat used the State’s coffers to keep backbenchers happy with additional salaries for jobs apart from their normal ‘part-time’ parliamentarian attendance in the House from Monday to Wednesday. Apart from their salary of €20,604 for their part-time parliamentary work, an unprecedented number of backbenchers were given political appointments – chairman of this quango, CEO of that agency – and a hefty wage increase.

Backbenchers are not normally given political appointments; however, Lawrence Gonzi had appointed nine parliamentary assistants in 2012 in a bid to appease the rebels within his party. This move had come at the height of internal strife within the PN which threatened Gonzi’s razor-thin one-seat majority (the then Labour opposition had lambasted the appointments which cost the taxpayer €175,119 in 2012 alone).

The pitfalls of the part-time MPs are obvious when, apart from retaining their private practices, they are given additional token positions serving the government to bolster their incomes. Only a full-time MP free of any conflicts arising from personal professional and pecuniary interest can carry out the duty without fear or favour. In turn, they can render a greater service by being entrusted with committee hearings of political appointees on State entities, heads of departments and government companies and agencies, and other commissioners or State appointees – a rolling scrutiny of top decision-makers and executives that could go far in establishing a better degree of accountability.

The pitfalls of the part-time MPs are obvious when, apart from retaining their private practices, they are given additional token positions serving the government to bolster their incomes.
The pitfalls of the part-time MPs are obvious when, apart from retaining their private practices, they are given additional token positions serving the government to bolster their incomes.
 

Full information on property prices

In ‘perfect competition’ where firms are selling an identical product, buyers must have complete information on the product being sold and the prices charged by each firm. In the tourism market, transparent pricing and online technology are indispensable aids to the low-cost travel industry. What if similar tactics were employed in Malta’s property market to slow down the growth of prices?

The real estate broker is still an important middleman aiding buyers and sellers to come closer to a negotiated price that reflects the true value of a property being sold and the expectations of the prospective buyer. But real estate agencies are there to profit handsomely from higher asking prices. What if buyers knew the complete history of the house they are seeking to buy? This information already exists in the form of notarial records that are consulted after buyers place a security for the purchase of a home. But it is not readily available by way of a searchable database that can be tagged to the houses mapped on Google maps.

Such technology can allow for a more granular assessment of real estate market patterns, allowing homeowners and buyers to track transactions, leases and values through real-time information. An accessible land registry system would force agents to act professionally and slow down the speculative growth in prices on houses by giving buyers the true value of land and buildings. A market regulator could use this information recommended the values per square metre to be charged in different zoning areas, again allowing tenants to pay honest prices for rent.

What if buyers knew the complete history of the house they are seeking to buy?
What if buyers knew the complete history of the house they are seeking to buy?
 

Tax refunds to use cars less

The government has already moved fast in this area with grants aimed at encouraging the sale of pedelecs, but Malta’s dependence on the car is the number one problem its road infrastructure faces. In the coming seven years, the Labour government is pledging a €700 million upgrade to Malta’s roads, and although there is a vague commitment to replace Malta’s car fleet with electric vehicles by 2040, car importation in Malta keeps growing.

Reducing car usage on a daily basis would instantly alleviate the traffic on Maltese roads, but the carrot and stick need to be instantly identifiable, beneficial as well as punitive. Offering a system of tax refunds could be the fastest way of getting people to not use cars, but this requires the use of IT that tracks people usage of alternative modes of transport.

Starting from the public sector, workers who car-pool on a daily basis could sign up to a register that binds them to car-pool for a period of 12 months. In the USA, carpooling can be a qualified fringe benefit under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, allowing a tax deduction of up to $245 per month from taxable income for carpooling expenses.

 

More urban parks and better social housing

Malta’s population growth, in part informed by a foreign influx of service economy workers, has inflated rental prices and also led to congestion in urban cores that attract most of these workers. On two fronts, the problem has led to Maltese taxpayers being unable to afford rents in certain towns, as well as a burgeoning impact on infrastructure, roads, and the deleterious corollary of waste generation. If the State does not want to regulate rental prices through price guides or zoning limits, it should intervene to buy up old stock that can be regenerated into social housing or lease-buy agreements.

But this kind of intervention should be also be connected to urban regeneration in town spaces were old houses are unused or lie undeveloped, to create urban, green parks and open spaces that can provide a place of respite and activity, enhance city life, and provide calm. Activity benefits bodies and reduces stress and helps combat the effects of our increasingly sedentary lifestyle and obesity. Physical access to and proximity to parks can have a corresponding health-risk reduction for that community.

 

Tougher laws on organised crime and predicate offences

Malta’s economic growth has also attracted the interest of criminal organisations which seek new channels for the laundering of ill-gotten gains through financial services, property and gaming industries. In such a delicate phase of growth, the island cannot risk allowing a free-for-all where businesses are easily set up by organised criminal gangs as was the case with the ‘Ndrangheta’s gaming interest in Malta.

Police investigators should be granted wider powers to crack down on organised crime, with tougher provisions for repeat offenders whose activity is proven to be part of an “enterprise” – similar to American racketeering crimes in RICO. The success of a RICO-styled law is that indictments can also be brought against individuals who take action against witnesses or victims, through anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) laws that curb attempts to use the law courts as a weapon to retaliate against whistleblowers, victims, or to silence another’s speech.

Malta also needs to step up its fight against tax avoidance and money laundering, and as the experience of the Panama Papers showed us, we need an independent prosecution service and more powers to magistrates to carry out their own investigations. An independent and autonomous State Prosecution Service would devolve from the Attorney General, currently occupying the mutually incompatible roles of government advisor and State prosecutor.

matthew_vella
Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.