Tunnel vision

Beyond the environmental arguments, there is little doubt that the Gozo-Malta tunnel will put incredible pressure on the country’s coffers, at a time of such massive deficit due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Confronted last week to express their opinion about the tunnel that former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat wanted so dearly for Gozo, the three Labour ministers from Gozo recited the same response.  They said they were all for a tunnel between Malta and Gozo.  None of course is considering how much this would cost the taxpayer and the background to this white elephant of projects.

Even though private polling of Gozitans and Maltese, data shows an overwhelming majority objection to a tunnel, and yet politicians continue to fight windmills.

Beyond the environmental arguments, there is little doubt that such a project would put incredible pressure on the country’s coffers – and at a time of such massive deficit due to the COVID-19 aid package, piling on a €1 billion in capital expenditure to connect two islands is just simply the wrong kind of priority.

And apart from the running costs of maintaining such a venture, no doubt a matter of concern for both the private operator and the public guarantor of such a project, the worst part of it is that there is no discernible financial return. That is... you are not connecting Sicily to the island and creating a motorway into Europe for our logistics industry to gain a faster and easier foothold into the continent; you are connecting, at great and irrevocable environmental expense, two small islands.

Supporters claim this is what Gozitan commuters to Maltese workplaces would want. But seldom do we stop to take seriously the need to provide those who want to work in Gozo, the proper opportunity to work on the sister island.

Yet the three ministers from Gozo – Clint Camilleri, Justyne Caruana and Anton Refalo – were rather collegial in spirit, unwilling to unsettle this mantra about the tunnel being part of the Muscat legacy that cannot be discarded.

Surely if there were allegations about the transparency of government projects when it came to such big projects, this one would have definitely raised a few eyebrows. Perhaps most of us have forgotten that one of the companies directly involved in the allegations of graft linking the former Muscat administration to Maltese and Chinese businessmen and government-owned companies was one Macbridge – an offshore company that stands for Malta & China Bridge. God know what the design was for some incredible disbursement of state funding in this crazy project. It happened to be round about late 2015, coincidentally right about the time Macbridge was being set up in Panama, that Joseph Muscat was telling Labour supporters of a study from economic Gordon Cordina that the Gozo tunnel ‘made financial sense’.

Certainly, the whole motivation behind the Gozo tunnel must be revisited. Macbridge, linked to the Accenture consultant Chen Cheng and his family, planned to pay up to $2 million to Panama firms controlled by Mizzi and Schembri, having been listed as a target client alongside 17 Black, which was revealed to be owned by Yorgen Fenech. 17 Black paid €1 million into another company owned by Chen – Dow’s Media – in 2015, right before the Mossack Fonseca hack.

Anyone in his right senses would scrap the Gozo tunnel plans. More so when today we have three ferry services working round the clock. More so when we do not know the real story, the story that would link all these projects to a political master. No surprises that when the tunnel project was announced, China Communications Construction Co. Ltd, a state-owned Chinese engineering and construction company which in 2013 financed a study to determine the feasibility of a bridge connecting Malta and Gozo, also expressed interest in leading a consortium of engineers to take this project. Knowing how so many major projects inside the Muscat administration always came with a particular ‘kicker’, perhaps this one requires some close scrutiny.

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There is an unspoken threat to Malta’s environment, and they are the quarries. Right now there is immense pressure upon environment minister Aaron Farrugia to issue permits to quarry owners to allow them to extend their footprint. The government has resisted, until now.

To show their firepower the Malta Developer’s Association have ordered quarry owners not to accept any dumping of material waste in their quarries, and that includes waste from contractors and home-owners. By closing down the quarries to take in inert waste, or by raising the price for such dumping, quarry owners can force projects to a halt; mounds of inert waste gets collected on stalled construction sites to the detriment of communities; and unless the government accepts the terms of the quarry-owners, it is them who call the shots.

So there is a raging battle behind the scenes, and surprisingly not a word has been said, not even a press release from the Planning Authority – unusual considering the PA has of recent even issue statements on some rather innocuous cases of no environmental import.

If Farrugia buckles and gives in to the bullying of these quarry owners he would have effectively sentenced more precious Maltese and Gozitan land to be permanently lost forever. For decades quarry owners have defaced our country. turning it into a pitiful sight.

Farrugia must hold ground and if need be use his draconian powers – a modicum of courage at the least – to circumvent the quarry owners and force them to open.