A proud lay state no longer

Malta has been unable to shake away the centuries-old habits which prevent it from being a proud independent state 

Two newspaper reports last Sunday have shook me to the core on a very important question: does Malta aspire to be a small but proud independent lay state? Have we not yet managed to shake away the centuries-old habits that indicate otherwise? 

The first report that shook me was in The Sunday Times: it said that the government had asked the Venice Commission for advice on a particular ‘legal change’. As has already been highlighted, we have a problem because several regulatory bodies have a right to punish persons or companies for breaching the relevant laws and regulations being monitored by the body. However such regulators are not an independent court of law in Constitutional terms, so their punishing those who are in breach of the law is unconstitutional. This is the legal change on which Zammit Lewis sought advice.

The government first tried to change the Constitution on its own, which is impossible as such a change would need two-thirds majority; and then – acting again on its own – introduced in the House of Representatives a bill to amend the Interpretation Act to give a new interpretation to the Constitution! This is doomed as it has already been indicated as unconstitutional by several legal experts.

If we are a proud democratic mature state, the minister would not have ended in this situation. He should have consulted the Opposition in the first place and tackled the issue with a bipartisan approach. It should never been allowed to develop into this stalemate.

The Opposition had indicated publicly that it would be ready to cooperate with the minister to find a legal and constitutional solution with which both sides agreed.

Instead, the government said that it was not interested in turning the matter into a partisan issue... but it cheekily noted that the Opposition had not proposed any suitable alternatives.

Instead of taking the hint and involve the Opposition in this issue, the minister preferred to ignore it and go beg the Venice Commission to get him out of the mess. This is no clever move. It is puerile and indicates that the minister is not mature enough to distinguish between issues of national importance where bipartisan agreement is vital and petty party-political issues where the two sides can disagree till the cows come home.

The minister’s request for advice made to rule of law experts places Malta in the category of an immature state that cannot resolve its own Constitutional issues and needs foreign assistance to do so.

The other story that hit me was published in this newspaper. It dealt with the ministry headed by Ian Borg requesting a planning permit for the installation of a ‘way of the cross’ along Triq ir-Ruh, Mgarr. The project consists of 14 permanent tableaux along the road ending with a statue of the Virgin Mary at a proposed roundabout at Mosta. Incidentally, the project had already been proposed in 2011 by the Mgarr Local Council and the Planning Authority had not approved it. The new proposal seeks to minimise the adverse impact that was indicated in the Planning Authority’s refusal.

Frankly, I consider the aesthetics and the size of the tableaux as a very secondary issue. My question is whether the ministry of a lay state should spend money and involve itself to this extent in a project that harks at the religiosity of some people but not of others.

It is not a project that involves transport at all and, frankly, I think it is completely outside the remit of the Transport Authority.

Hopefully for Ian Borg, this could help him garner more votes from Mgarr, as this is a blatant vote-catching exercise. This makes it worse, of course.

I would not have minded if a group of persons – or some NGO – applied for the necessary permit to install the Via Sagra, although this could also raise other issues.

But for the government itself, to apply for this permit and even pay for it from taxpayers’ money is, for me, frankly a ‘no no’.

When will we ever grow up?

The pitkali story

The predicted chaos at the Ta’ Qali Vegetable market did not in fact happen, in spite of a strike by the ‘pikala’, who are the middlemen at the market who sell local produce to greengrocers for eventual sale to consumers.

This archaic system was born in a situation where farmers were illiterate and needed someone to help them sell their produce.

In my younger days, I used to hear that the middlemen made more money than the farmers, who were getting only a small fraction of the money that the consumer pays for fresh vegetables.

Farmers realised that this was the situation and they just shrugged it off as something they cannot escape from. The only relief came from a Nationalist administration that gave farmers the right to sell their own produce directly to consumers by setting up points of sale in the roads near their fields. The same practice was then adopted for the farmers’ market.

I was glad to see that last Monday, the farmers proved that today, they hardly needed the ‘pitkala’ any more. As the Malta Youth in Agriculture Foundation (MAYA) said in a statement they averted ‘total chaos’ by sticking together and working towards the main goal – that of getting a good price for their produce. 

It is about time that the anomalous advantage that ‘pitkala’ enjoy in the vegetable market in Malta is put to rest.

Today, I am happy to say, there is a small number of young educated farmers who are dedicated to ensure that the local agricultural sector progresses. They have much more than potatoes in their blood!

Malta’s EU membership affected negatively this market as before EU accession local farmers enjoyed a monopoly which was, in fact, more often than not enjoyed more by the ‘pitkala’ than by the farmers.

The survival of the local agricultural sector now depends on a small band of literate educated young farmers who need no middlemen to sell their produce – as they have shown last Monday. They are to be given all the help and encouragement possible from the authorities.

There is no space for medieval systems in 2020s Malta.