It’s not just the Gozo airport that’s ‘destined to fail’…

So while I can only applaud Alfred Sant’s umpteenth attempt to ‘stop this madness, once and for all’… let’s face it: the ‘madness’ clearly persists, regardless

You’ve got to love it, though. Just when Malta’s ‘big barons’ got every bit as comfortable under today’s Labour administration, as they used to be under the Nationalists… out pops Alfred Sant, to remind his own government of how deeply uncomfortable he himself is (and, presumably, the rest of the older generation of Labourites) with the same old status quo.

In case you missed it, I’m referring to the former Prime Minister’s recent Facebook post, in which he… actually, it would be a whole lot simpler to just reproduce the darn thing.

Here: “It amazes me that so many Gozitan entrepreneurs support the plan for a Gozo airport. In no way can I see how fixed-wing trips, with a regular schedule or not, for passengers from Malta to Gozo, can be commercially viable.

“The fact that this project is allowed to fail, if it ever even gets off the ground, is being ignored by all and sundry.

“Meanwhile, more Gozitan countryside will be gobbled up and destroyed before this project finally collapses, so that eventually some residential block, some commercial project is built around it, and a thousands more requests from Ċikku and Peppi to take their slice of this agricultural land to build upon.

“And let’s not forget the construction barons! Gozo deserves more respect.” (Signed: Sant, Alfred)

Ah, yes: those ‘big barons’ again. It’s been quite a while, hasn’t it, since we last heard Alfred Sant using that term (here and there varying to ‘big bosses’) to describe the more powerful members of Malta’s industrial-commercial- political complex? Even if, oddly enough, the ‘barons’ themselves remain more or less the same people – wielding more or less the same political influence (if not ‘much more’) – as in the distant 1990s.

In some cases, they literally ARE the same people. As I recall, Alfred Sant used to regularly name-drop the Hili Group – among others - as prime examples of the sort of ‘big barons’ he had in mind. And yet, just look at the Hili Group today: busily expanding their operations on Comino – in the process, eliciting the wrath of other Labour veterans, like Evarist Bartolo – just as they had earlier expanded their empire under Eddie Fenech Adami, Lawrence Gonzi, and... well, everybody since, basically.

In other cases, the individual actors may be different (Joseph Portelli, for instance, is very much the ‘new kid on the apartment-block’). But clearly, there have been no major re-writes of the script, since the ‘good old days’ (when people like Charles Polidano used to force MEPA to withdraw all its enforcement notices – and fines – simply by threatening to sack their entire workforce, in one fell swoop).

The only difference, of course, is that the same thing is happening under Sant’s own Labour Party (though to be fair, not under Sant’s own leadership). And already, it’s almost enough to make any older-generation Labourite wonder whether it was even worth electing ‘their’ party into government, back in 2013: just to watch it morph into a clone of precisely the same Nationalist Party they had so roundly defeated (and whose downfall, after 25 years, they had celebrated so raucously, too!)

But, oh well: such are the ironies of life, I suppose. What I find more intriguing about Sant’s latest tirade, is not just that those ‘big barons’ haven’t really changed at all, in the past 30 years (except, perhaps, that some of them have only grown conspicuously ‘BIGGER’, in the meantime). No, it’s that even the issues themselves have remained exactly the same, too.

The Gozo Airport, for instance. You’d never guess, just by reading press articles over the past year – i.e., ever since the Labour government unveiled its own hare-brained plans to build a ‘small, fixed-wing airport service’, on the site of the derelict Xewkija helipad – but the original proposal, unchanged in any detail, was actually first announced by Eddie Fenech Adami, back in around 1993.

As for Alfred Sant (who had only just become Opposition leader, at the time): suffice it to say that one of the first things he ever did, as Prime Minister between ’96 and ’98 [Note: I don’t precisely remember if it was before, or after, his spectacular U-turn on fiscal cash-registers] was to ‘put a stop to that madness’, once and for all.

Or so we all thought, back then. But no: it seems that – of all the unearthly things that Labour would actually choose to emulate, from the entire Fenech Adami era – the Gozo Airport is once again ‘back on the menu’.

Only this time, the government has even set a ‘deadline’ for its completion (by the end of 2023, if you please)…  something that Eddie certainly never did, back in the day; and which is also entirely illogical (given that the project itself hasn’t even been officially approved yet; and that the same government has also promised us a ‘public consultation exercise’… for a project that, very evidently, has already been ‘green-lighted’ anyway.)

And oh, look: just to make sure this self-fulfilling prophecy comes to fruition, exactly as planned… the Environmental and Resources Authority has conveniently exempted the entire project from the need for any ‘Environmental Impact Assessment’. (Because, you know: who the heck’s ever heard of any ‘environmental impact’, of any kind whatsoever, ever having been caused by…  a freaking AIRPORT, for crying out loud?!)

Well, what can I say? No wonder Alfred Sant is so pissed off. Not only is it now his own government, that’s all comfortably snuggled-up with the same pesky ‘big barons’ he had once promised to cut down to size... but the same project he had once ‘defeated’, has now been resuscitated by the same party he himself once led!

But leaving aside all those historical ironies: what fascinates me most are Sant’s actual stated reasons for opposing this project. He starts off by questioning, not its ‘environmental impact’ at all… but rather, its ‘commercial viability’.

In other words: what makes this project so objectionable – at least, according to this particular argument (Sant has, to be fair, been opposing the Gozo airstrip for a solid 30 years; presumably, he has made other arguments as well) – is the fact that it is ‘destined to prove an economic failure’.

And this puzzles me, for two reasons.

1) What if, conversely, the project were destined to be a ‘resounding economic success’? (Don’t get me wrong: I fully agree with Sant’s predictions… but just go along with the argument anyway, will you?) Are we to understand that – in the event that a Gozo airport proves both ‘commercially viable’, and ‘highly profitable’ – all those other objections would automatically fall by the wayside, as well?

Reason I ask is that: regardless whether the project ‘fails’, or ‘succeeds’… the environmental damage will still have been done. It matters little, at the end of the day, that it was caused to build ‘an airport, which was later transformed into a hotel (or apartments, or supermarkets, or petrol stations etc.)’… or the other way round. The result would still be: ‘another part of rural Gozo, lost forever’.

So… why even bring up the ‘commercial viability’ aspect, at all?

But that only brings me the second puzzling part:

2) If we’re going to base our objections to such projects (even in part) on issues such as ‘economic feasibility’… why limit ourselves only to the Gozo Airport? Why not extend that concern to ALL ongoing construction and development projects: some of which are also considered (by industry experts, no less) as being ‘likely to fail’; and pretty much all of which also ‘gobble up and destroy’ large portions of the environment?

Take supermarkets, for instance (including one recent application, to build an airport-sized specimen ‘partly on ODZ land’). Sorry to have to ask, but… does anyone at the PA ever assess the ‘commercial viability’ of such projects – in an island the size of a peanut, which already boats the highest ‘supermarket-per-customer’ ratio, anywhere in the known Universe – before actually deciding to approve them?

And how many supermarkets have to go bankrupt in Malta, anyway, before we finally realise that the local market can only possibly sustain so many of these things, to begin with… with the result that – inevitably - a fair percentage of them will be, a priori, ‘destined to fail’?

The situation is even more inauspicious for hotels. Earlier this year, the MHRA itself predicted that – just for local hotels to retain their 2019 occupancy-rate of 80% - Malta will have to attract almost double the number of tourists, than we do today (to be precise: around 4.7 million, compared to the 2019 figure of 2.75 million).

Effectively, this means that – when you count the number of existing hotels, and add all those new ones that are either at application-stage, or already in development – there is now more hotel-bed space actually available on the island, than can ever realistically be filled by real, living tourists.

And that forces us to also classify a fair percentage of Malta’s hotels (old and new) as being – by the unforgiving laws of free-market economics – ‘destined to fail’. Yet that didn’t exactly stop the Planning Authority from approving so many new hotels, in such an oversaturated market…. and even less, will it stop the approval of all the new apartment blocks (or whatever) into which they will one day – inevitably – be ‘converted’.

So while I can only applaud Alfred Sant’s umpteenth attempt to ‘stop this madness, once and for all’… let’s face it: the ‘madness’ clearly persists, regardless.