‘Respect the people’s intelligence’, he said

And the fact that it just never happened at all – not even once, in all these long years of State-approved environmental destruction - well, it sort of brings us directly back to that other part I mentioned earlier… the one about ‘respecting the people’s intelligence’

A couple of weeks ago, I started off an article by pointing out that: “For some reason, it has become customary for journalists to ask every single newly-appointed Maltese President […] whether they would ‘approve a (hypothetical) law legalizing abortion in Malta’. And one by one […] all of them declared that, under those circumstances, ‘they would sooner resign’.”

Now: even as I wrote those words, I was struck by a thought that has been troubling me ever since.  It is admittedly a little too abstract to just define in a few sentences: but let me start with this.

The more I think about it, the more I realise that… actually, ALL our past Presidents (the ones I remember, at any rate) have always made it a point to inform us, from long beforehand, precisely what sort of legislation they would personally object to themselves. If it’s not abortion, it’s IVF; if it’s not IVF, it’s gay rights… and OK; to be honest, it never really gets much farther than that.

But already, you can see that Maltese Presidents are somehow pre-emptively conditioned to define themselves, only by the utmost limits of their own tolerance; and even then, only on very specific matters which they deem objectionable on purely personal, ‘moral’ grounds.

In other words, they are always very quick to lay down the precise boundaries, regarding what sort of legislation their own conscience would permit, or not permit, them to approve…

… but while they do sometimes tell us what sort of laws they actually WANT Parliament to enact – as a rule, every Christmas (George Vella is no exception: I’ll come to him in a sec) - I don’t recall a single one of them ever ‘threatening to resign’, or anything remotely comparable, over any of the countless other Parliamentary bills that they DO actually sign into law, every single year.

As a result, we have always had Presidents making loud proclamations about how they would refuse to ever ‘legalise abortion’ (note: a somewhat easy declaration to make, I should think, in a country where over 85% strongly shares that sentiment)…

... but none of them, to the best of my knowledge, has ever raised any similar ‘conscientious objection’ regarding, say, legislation that permits the continued rape of the Maltese environment; or, for that matter, laws which facilitate the continued theft of this country’s resources, by kleptocratic governments…

Odd, isn’t it? But then again, there is a very good reason why Presidents of the Maltese Republic should (but very often don’t) keep that sort of opinion to themselves. It was, in fact, the whole point of that earlier article (which was all about the pressure faced by George Vella to ‘veto’ the cannabis bill).

At the risk of repeating a small part of that argument: ours is not, at the end of the day, a Presidential system of government. So quite frankly, Maltese Presidents have no business whatsoever to be setting any kind of limits at all, regarding what Parliament can, and cannot, legislate (so much so, that should any incumbent President ever carry out that sort of threat, the result would be a Constitutional crisis.)

That, by the way, is just another reason why it has always been so very easy for Maltese Presidents to play the ‘abortion’ card: they are all well-aware, from long beforehand, that Parliament would never, EVER pass such a bill during their own tenure of office (so they also know, in advance, that they will never have to actually ‘put their money where their mouth is’…)

But then again – seeing as our Presidents are always so keen to draw such imaginary lines, when it comes to hypothetical issues that stand no real chance of ever being legislated – shouldn’t they also be held responsible for all the legislation that they do end up approving? Even when they themselves complain about it (without, it must be said, ever resorting to ‘threats’)?

OK, now we come to that exception I mentioned earlier.  It is, as we all know, that time of the year when we all write letters to Father Christmas: and some of us – including every President we’ve ever had – also get to read theirs out loud over the radio.

In keeping with this tradition, George Vella has just regaled us with his own annual ‘President’s Christmas Address’: and - like all past examples – it can also be interpreted as a ‘wish-list’ for precisely the type of legislation he would like to approve in the coming years.

The list itself is, admittedly, rather long: so for the purposes of this article I will focus on only one of George Vella’s many, many appeals.

Actually two: the part where he urged political parties “to respect the people’s intelligence”;

And, well, this other part here: “The President said Malta faced the threat of extensive building and construction works taking up more agricultural and virgin land. ‘In order to protect the beauty and sustainability of our country we must find a balance between the built and the natural environment,’ he said.”

Hmm. Now: for reasons I’ve already explained (in this, and also the previous article), I myself don’t actually hold George Vella responsible for any of the legislation he has approved, in the two-and-a-bit years he’s been President of the Republic.   

And that’s just as well, because most of the legislation which has permitted such large-scale loss of ‘agricultural and virgin land’, actually predates his own appointment by several years.

I’m not just talking about the 2006 Local Plans, or the extension of the development zones that took place at roughly the same time – even if, quite frankly, those two factors alone account for much of the overdevelopment that Vella now complains about - but also all the myriad amendments, adjustments and ‘reforms’, that have been happening ever since… under both Nationalist and Labour administrations.

Once again, the list is far too long to be exhaustively unfolded here; but suffice it to say, for now, that the situation so accurately described by George Vella, is also the result of at least three decades’ worth of legal tinkering with the Development and Planning Act (and other articles of law).

It was through a never-ending series of legal notices that successive Maltese governments increased the building zones… permitted expropriation of arable land… raised building height restrictions… chopped and changed existing policies, so that ‘stables’ and ‘countryside ruins’ could be turned into villas…

… not to mention the atrocious 2015 demerger of MEPA: a decision which split asunder the twin roles of ‘Planning’ and ‘Environmental Protection’ (you know, just to make sure that absolutely nothing gets in the way of more… and more… and MORE… development).

I need hardly that it was this same approach – condoned and approved by every successive Maltese government over the last 30 years – that resulted in what President Vella now describes as an ‘imbalance’ between ‘the built and the natural environment’.

What the President omits to mention, however, is that all of that legal tinkering – without exception - had somehow passed through all the hoops of Malta’s labyrinthine Parliamentary system… in different ways, granted: sometimes openly; very often, ‘through the backdoor’… but it was all enacted, in the end…

…and this also means that it all forms part of the broader package of legislation that is eventually approved by the none other than the President of the Maltese Republic (whosoever that happens to be, at the time).

So even if the vast bulk of it cannot be realistically attributed to anything personally approved by Vella himself; it remains a fact that all of it bears the ultimate ‘seal of approval’… if not of the present incumbent, at least of the office he represents.

And while this is, admittedly, merely a by-product of the same non-Presidential system I have just described – well, it also implies that any of our recent Presidents could, in theory, have at least tried to resist those changes, at any phase of the entire cycle… in precisely the same way as they always resist other (real or perceived) ‘moral’ threats.

Even today, there is technically nothing stopping President George Vella – or any of his forebears – from, say, ‘threatening to resign’, if ever presented with a Parliamentary bill that facilitated more destruction of the environment… or which would further mutilate our already-butchered planning regime… or which consigns more (and more, and MORE) of our natural and cultural heritage to brutish demolition…

And every single President we’ve ever had, could just as easily have kicked up precisely the same sort of ‘moral stink’ that they always enjoy kicking up in the case of their own personal (and, more often than not, imaginary) ‘crises of conscience’…

But let’s face it: that sort of thing could only ever happen, in practice, if ‘the environment’ were to ever really prick a Maltese President’s conscience quite as much as - for instance – ‘abortion’ always seems to do (or IVF, or gay rights, etc.).

And the fact that it just never happened at all – not even once, in all these long years of State-approved environmental destruction - well, it sort of brings us directly back to that other part I mentioned earlier… the one about ‘respecting the people’s intelligence’.

As far as I can see: that applies to Presidents, too, you know…