Let he who is without greed, cast the first stone…

Can’t wait to see what Clyde Caruana will actually unveil, in that imminent budget of his, that will “offer alternatives to construction as a means of kick-starting the economy”, and all that…

Remember that running gag from the TV show ‘Little Britain’, in which a motormouth teenager named Vicky Pollard – played, if I’m not mistaken, by Matt Lucas – answers every question with:

“Yeah… but no… but yeah… but no… but… (what really happened was)…”?

Well, I’m beginning to think Lucas might have got that idea while on holiday here in Malta… quite possibly, during election time, too. Because that is EXACTLY how all Maltese politicians always answer every single question, when in campaign mode: and very often, in almost those very same words.

Take, for instance, the one question that is on practically everybody’s lips at the moment (and which I am fairly certain will soon be asked directly to the candidates themselves, during all those house visits they will soon be doing…)

‘Do you agree that there is simply too much construction going on at the moment?’

There: something of a ‘no-brainer’, isn’t it? Because as far as I can see, there can only ever be two possible answers – ‘yeah’, or ‘no’ – and the choice itself is obviously going to boil down to the respondent’s particular point of view.

From the perspective of those who – like myself, right now – struggle to even hear themselves think, above the incessant racket of nearby jack-hammers and bulldozers…

…or who live in constant fear for their own lives and safety, as a result of ‘excavations’ going on next door…

…or even from the much wider perspective of people who just feel genuinely distressed, at the violent destruction of so much that they themselves once held dear: their townscapes; the places where they used to play as children; the collective memories of their entire community…

… the answer is very clearly going to be a resounding: “YEAH! (and no darn ‘buts’ about it)…”

Ah, but ask the same question to, say, the Malta Developers’ Association; or the thousands of ordinary people who have invested in all the land made available by the 2006 ODZ extensions…. or heck, even the construction workers themselves (at least, the ones who don’t get unceremoniously dumped on a roadside, after a near-fatal accident on a building site…)

And, well, you get the idea. To some people out there – many more than we probably think - there can never be ‘too much construction’… for the same reason that ‘there can never be too much of a good thing’ (for themselves, at any rate.)

That, however, is around the extent of the straightforward answers you’ll ever get. And I won’t even bother arguing with them, either: because there is only one perspective that ultimately matters, when it comes to the issue of actually reining in Malta’s seemingly unstoppable construction machine… and it belongs to the only people who have the power to do precisely that.

And this is how Finance Minister Clyde Caruana actually replied, at a pre-budget meeting held last Friday in Gozo (note: a not-insignificant detail, seeing as how all Gozo’s local councils – representing all that island’s residents, of all political hues - so recently got together, to call on government to finally ‘do something’ about the over-development problem there....)

“Too often, we have been hearing complaints from people that the environment must take top priority. Because let’s say it as it is […] people are getting tired of cranes, and concrete, and dust, and noise […] We need to change the way we think, we need to change the way our economy works. If we repeat the same things, we will only get the same results…”

And… I’ll stop there for now: because it certainly does sound promising so far (or at least, as ‘promising’ as you might expect, from what was ultimately a pre-election, pre-budget speech.) Here we have the Finance Minister, no less, finally admitting that – to paraphrase his own words - “for too long now, governments from both sides had taken the ‘easy way out’, by relying on the construction sector for a quick boost to GDP growth…”

Much more beside, Caruana even hinted that he will indeed be ‘doing something’ about it in his forthcoming budget. Exactly what, of course, remains anyone’s guess…. but still: the overall message was clear enough.

Government, it seems, has finally awoken to the national ‘crie-de-coeur’ against rampant greed and overdevelopment in this country; and it was going to ‘look into ways to reduce its economic own dependence on the construction sector’. Yippie!

But before we all get too excited… let’s not forget that we’re still in the ‘Yeah!’ phase; and I suppose you can all guess what’s coming next…

“I’m not saying construction will stop,” Caruana went on. “Nobody wants it to stop. But that does not mean we should not look at other opportunities that allow us to grow without polluting, just like other countries do…”

Hmm. Sort of changes the entire perspective, doesn’t it? For put those two parts together, and what you’re actually left with starts looking like:

“Do I agree that there’s too much construction going on at the moment? YEAH! Sure I do, because… erm… that’s what everyone’s actually complaining about right now, isn’t it? And there’s an election coming up, isn’t there? So… well, we can’t exactly be seen as ‘unresponsive’ to the most fundamental concerns of our own voters, can we now…?”

At the same time, however, the answer is also: “Too much construction? Heck, no!” And for the exact same reason, as it happens: because… erm… “like I said, there’s an election coming up; and we still need to keep that economic motor turning as fast (and as easily) as possible… you know, so that people continue lapping up the illusion of a pre-election ‘feel-good factor’... and because… um… how else will all those construction companies be able to afford financing our electoral campaigns, as usual…?”

OK, OK: I freely admit that last part might, perhaps, come across as a tad simplistic… but I’ll stand by the overall gist anyway, because - to be fair to Clyde Caruana– he is not exactly the only one to occasionally get caught up in the same futile attempt to ‘be all things to all people’.   

Sometimes, you get the same contradictory reasoning from all sorts of unlikely places: like the Church, for instance (no real surprise there: you probably saw this coming just from the headline).   

But bear with me for a moment: last Wednesday, Archbishop Charles Scicluna delivered what I can only describe as – without a trace of sarcasm, I solemnly assure you - a truly ‘kick-ass’ Independence Day homily: a hell-fire sermon if there ever was one, in condemnation of the ‘culture of greed’ and “the craving for easy money” that is “destroying the moral backbone of our country”…

And just like Caruana’s initial ‘Yeah!’… it seemed to be aimed directly at the same public concern: “If we look around us at the city of Mdina, the bastions of Valletta and Cottonera, we do not only see functional buildings but also harmonious and captivating architecture […] Can we say the same thing about the buildings through which we are destroying the sense of beauty in our country?” [What can I say? Sock it to them, Charlie!]

Yet - almost the very next day, as it happens - we awoke to discover that a gargantuan development that is now being proposed (to widespread outrage) in the middle of Gharghur – at the very limit of that town’s ‘Urban Conservation Area’: and therefore, threatening to have the very same effect described by Archbishop Scicluna, above – was only made possible because the self-same Church had earlier sold off its land to speculative developers…

… in the same way as (let’s face it) practically every other Maltese landowner always ends up doing, sooner or later… and – slightly more embarrassingly for the Church itself – in precisely the same way as it criticises those other people for doing, from the comfort of its own pulpit…

And we can’t even stop there, either: for what is the Opposition’s take on the same issue, anyway? What was Bernard Grech’s answer, when the same question was put to him directly (during a NET TV interview on 12 September, to be precise)?

Here it is, in all its instantly-recognisable glory: “A country cannot move forward without development, we have to be honest about this fact […] We support development, but not at the people’s expense…”

And that was before Prime Minister Robert Abela also chipped in with an answer of his own (significantly, in response to the MDA’s reaction to Caruana’s comments). Ready? Here goes:

“Clyde Caruana never said we should stop construction”. [I know, I know; that’s the whole problem, right there…] “Construction is a very important contributor to our economy. It is not the only industry on which our economy is built, but it is a very important one…”

Later still, Abela even made it clear that his government “wanted construction to continue” – [I mean: stop rubbing it in, will you?] - only with [wait for it] “higher buildings and a greater focus on aesthetics.”

Yikes! We seem to have moved quite a long distance from that initial ‘Yeah!’, haven’t we? Suddenly, the answer to my original answer seems to be, quite emphatically, that: ‘No, there isn’t too much construction going on right now. In fact, there’s not enough. We want MORE… WAY more… and HIGHER, too! WAY HIGHER!’

So… um…. what can I say? I just can’t wait to see what Clyde Caruana will actually unveil, in that imminent budget of his, that will “offer alternatives to construction as a means of kick-starting the economy”, and all that…