Never tell someone from Valletta how they feel about their own city

Sometimes MPs are so focused on demonstrating absolute party loyalty that they end up grasping at straws and shooting themselves in the foot in the process

Labour MP Alison Zerafa Civelli
Labour MP Alison Zerafa Civelli

Sometimes MPs are so focused on demonstrating absolute party loyalty that they end up grasping at straws and shooting themselves in the foot in the process.

Alison Zerafa Civelli did just that this week during a Parliamentary debate on the controversial legal notice that allows establishments in Valletta to play music outdoors until 1am, in which she described how the formerly deserted capital city has been turned into one which pulses with activity in the evenings…thanks to a Labour Government. If she had merely waxed lyrical about how a ‘dead’ city had been revived, no one would have said anything, because it’s true. We didn’t really think it was possible to turn things around in Valletta, a place which used to be completely empty once shops closed for the day. In the evenings, as soon as you came out of the theatre, the cinema or any other event, there were only a handful of places which stayed open where you could go to for a drink or a meal. But allowing restaurants, wine bars and pubs to spill out and use their outdoor spaces transformed the way people perceived the capital and suddenly it became the “in” place to be. Boutique hotels have flourished and the city is now bursting with just about everything you can imagine, as a capital city should.

The regeneration of Valletta should have stopped there (and so should have Ms Zerafa Civelli) but as we know, the extended hours of music have ruined a good thing and likewise, the MP herself ruined the point she was trying to make. Her next words have echoed far and wide, repeated with outrage by everyone born and bred in Valletta; even those who have not lived in their home city for decades. “In the past, people used to be ashamed to say they were from Valletta”. And yes, before I’m pounced on, I did hear the whole thing in context….the fact remains that by uttering these very words she chose to take a misguided jab at an issue which many are very touchy about.

Now, perhaps she has not met many “Beltin”, or else she has not really engaged in deep conversation with any of them because she could not have been further off the mark if she had tried. I could have told her from my own experience through my large extended family of in-laws as well as the countless Valletta people I have interviewed throughout my career….that they have always been, and will always be, fiercely proud of their roots. Even if they have barely lived there and can only claim a distant affiliation through their parents, they will still tell you “jien mill-Belt” (I’m from Valletta). So by saying that they “used to be ashamed” she succeeded in putting the backs up of an entire line of people who are descended from Valletta.

This is not to say that others don’t carry around a lot of prejudice in their heads about anyone from the city The stereotype of men (and women) always ready to lash out and argue or fight at the slightest provocation is alive and kicking, much to the chagrin of these who are not at all like that. But ashamed to say where they came from? Never.

I suppose we can put it down to a rookie mistake – Ms Zerafa Civelli is after all, one of the new MPs of this legislature. However, just like others before her who have made similar gaffes by voicing sweeping statements about certain segments of society, she will eventually learn to choose her words more carefully and weigh their impact on the public The backlash from her statement reminded me of the furore caused when former PM Lawrence Gonzi said “Taħt Gvern Laburista tistħi tghid li int Malti.” (Under a Labour Government you are ashamed to call yourself Maltese) and when and former PN leader Simon Busuttil told (then Labour candidate) Deborah Scehmbri , “għandek wiċċ ta’ Nazzjonalista” (‘you don’t look much like a typical Labourite’ / ‘you look just like a Nationalist’).

The reaction to such blunders was a disbelieving chorus of “WHAT did he say?” (except of course from blinkered diehards who applauded such rhetoric). And, as we have seen…that kind of “us vs them” discourse has been soundly rejected, time and again.


How long are we going to keep picking up other people’s trash?

I admire those who are involved in clean-ups on a regular basis, mostly because after participating in a couple myself, I can assure you that it is backbreaking, thankless work. The satisfaction of making an area clean is often dampened by the sheer enormity of the job. Imagine yourself picking up endless cigarette butts from a patch on the side of the road, and no matter how many you spot, there are always more - it almost feels like another of Dante’s circles of Hell.

So while I applaud the volunteers, I have gradually started to wonder whether these initiatives are actually backfiring. This was pointed out to me by a friend who said that as long as these clean-ups keep happening, those who litter will just keep on littering, secure in the knowledge that someone will pick up after them. It’s rather like a sulky teenager who keeps his room looking like a bomb had exploded, because he knows an exasperated Mama will eventually come and collect the dirty cups and plates, sort out and wash the stinky clothes and make everything neat and tidy again… until the next teenage bedroom explosion occurs.

That is why when I heard the news that sand sifters have been purchased to clean up our dirty beaches from cigarette butts and other litter, a part of me wondered whether this was just another way we are ‘enabling’ litter bugs. It was reported that 120 kilos of waste are being collected daily from our most popular sandy beaches – but just think how much better it would be if, for example, smokers who flick their spent cigarettes casually while at the beach were to collect their own cigarette butts and dispose of them instead.

Perhaps rather than a news report about these sand sifters, it would have been more fitting to carry out an investigative report into the psychology of people who persist in littering? I am constantly reminded of that clip from the 1980s satirical programme Aħna jew M’Aħniex in which a group of women are at a picnic talking in scandalous tones about how filthy the country is while simultaneously throwing their own trash over their shoulder. It perfectly encapsulates the ‘it wasn’t me’ culture – where we happily point fingers at others but will never admit to doing anything wrong ourselves.

As it happens, as if right on cue, I read that, “nine cleanup organisations have formed a Coalition for a Sustainable future, after they noticed that, despite the increased awareness, they are still witnessing an unprecedented increase in the amount of litter dumped in both public and private spaces”.  The coalition is made up of Nadur Nadif, Din l-Art Ħelwa Mellieħa, 7R Lifestyle Malta, the Birżebbuġa Clean-up Group, No to Plastic Malta, Green Hats, Raniero’s Adventures, Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq Clean-up Group and Green Waves. I’m sure you will agree that for a small island, those are a lot of clean-up groups whose volunteers spend much of their free time picking up other people’s careless trash. This is not right.

They have now decided on a different approach and will be engaging with policy makers to implement new policies. I hope that at the top of the agenda there will be a steep increase in fines which should be handed out on-the-spot, much like when a warden flags you down for not wearing a seat belt and hands you a traffic citation. Unless that is done, these clean up groups, as well-intentioned as they are, will simply keep having to do the dirty work while an island of spoiled, entitled “teenagers” keep leaving a trail of rubbish behind them wherever they go. Who cares right? Someone else will come along and clean it up.