‘We need to find a balance’, do we? You don’t bloody say…

What it also means, however, is that… NO ONE is actually responsible, for any of the stuff that ever happens in Malta’s towns and villages!

On Wednesday, activists and residents held up cardboard placards to protest the encroachment of public space in Mellieha
On Wednesday, activists and residents held up cardboard placards to protest the encroachment of public space in Mellieha

You’ve got to hand it to politicians like Owen Bonnici, though. They have a certain genius for expressing all the frustration the entire country will be experiencing, at any given moment… in just a few simple words, that everyone can instantly understand.

Right now, for instance, there is a growing wave of civil society disgruntlement, aimed specifically at the constant encroachment of public places by restaurants, bars, cafes, etc.

Now: I’ll grant you that it might not be the most earth-shatteringly important issue to actually be discussing, at the moment… but bear with me, I’ll come back to that in a short while.

Let’s just say, for now, that this week’s protest in Mellieha - where activists ‘blockaded’ one particular restaurant, by occupying its outdoor tables themselves – was but the latest in a series of similar clashes between civil society and private enterprise, on the thorny subject of ‘whom Malta’s streets and squares actually belong to’.

In Valletta, Merchants Street was temporarily cleared of tables and chairs to make way for this year’s Holy Week festivities… but only after the Our Lady of Sorrows procession had been given another ‘punjalata’, so to speak, by restaurants which continued playing loud music, even as it was passing by.

Likewise, Archpriest Joseph Curmi took to Facebook last month, to complain about similar ‘land-grabs’ going on in Gozo: particularly, in St George’s Square, Victoria.

Specifically, he lambasted the general lack of enforcement and accountability: "We have tried good will, dialogue and compromise. We have tried to meet the business owners personally. We tried talks lasting several months with the authorities including the police, Transport Malta, the Malta Tourism Authority, local councils and the Lands Authority. They all insist in one way or another that they hold no authority or involvement over St George Square”…

… to which I am tempted to add: “Hey! You’re not alone, bro! I live in Gzira, and walk to Sliema and back every other day of the week. And you know what? It’s a bit like Mike Tyson returning to the ring, at age 58, to take on a 27-year-old YouTuber named Jake Paul. You have to duck, bob, weave, and side-step your way through a never-ending array of obstacles… just not to trip over a chair, or get yourself accidentally knocked out by a passing waiter. (And not unlike Tyson: I’m getting a little too old for sort of thing too, you know…) So what can I say? I feel your pain, Fr Curmi! I really, really do…”

But in any case: like I said earlier, this issue many indeed appear somewhat trivial, in a world dominated by so much war and carnage, everywhere you look… but something tells it is precisely this sort of ‘trivial’ issue – far more than all the serious ones – that REALLY end up packing a punch where it hurts the most (for politicians, anyway).

If nothing else, because you can always choose to simply disregard all those other scandals, and calamities – and let’s face it: that’s what most people tend to do, anyway – but it is quite frankly impossible to ignore a problem that keeps cropping up, right in your face, every single time you take a step out of your own front door, and walk a few paces down your own street.

Simply put: the ‘encroachment of public places by catering establishments’ is NOT one of those issues that any politician can afford to lightly brush aside:  especially when (as happens to be the case with Owen Bonnici) many of those complaints are coming directly from voters in their own district.

That’s Marsascala, in this instance: and oh, look. Just like Sliema, St Julian’s, Bugibba, Marsaxlokk, and most of Gozo (oh, and Comino, too. Let’s not forget the Blue Lagoon)… Wied il-Ghajn is also suddenly awash with little green leaflets, affixed to every available surface, with the words:

"Stop destroying our town!"

"Give us back our square!"

“Keep public spaces public!", etc., etc., etc.

And yet, and yet… what was Owen Bonnici’s reaction, when asked to comment on such a clearly ‘emotive’ controversy?

OK, let’s start with the positive for a change. Evidently, the junior minister for Local Councils does at least understand the urgency; he did, after all, repeatedly stress that, “It is crucial that economic growth is sustainable and does not trample on the welfare of Maltese and Gozitans”; “We are very sensitive towards what is being said”; “it is important to protect the people’s welfare and the economy…”; and all sorts of other stuff like that.

The problem, however, is that all those statements were strung together to somehow reach a conclusion that, quite frankly, contradicts the entire lot of them. Having first assured us that his government intends to at least ‘listen’ to all these complaints… he went on to echo the fatal words immortalised by countless other politicians before him; and in so doing, shot his own credibility to atoms.

‘We need to strike a balance between…’

Wait, no, stop! I can’t even bring myself to carry on that sentence... again, for reasons that are reminiscent of Tyson’s imminent comeback, next July. I have, in a nutshell, ‘taken too many blows on the head’, over the course of the last 30-odd years, to sustain yet another ‘right uppercut/left hook combo’ to the jaw. (Translation: I’ve heard that line repeated so many times, by so many different politicians, that it has probably caused me permanent brain-damage, by now.)

So let’s just fast-forward to the obvious return-punch… which also happens to consist in a double-whammy ‘combo’.

First up: by repeating, yet again, that ‘we need to… [Ugh! Fill in the rest for yourselves]’, Owen Bonnici has only reconfirmed, for the umpteenth time, that no such ‘balance’ has ever been struck, at all. For if our government has done nothing but tell us that, repeatedly, for all these years – and I’m old enough to remember when the exact same words were uttered by Eddie Fenech Adami, George Pullicino, Austin Gatt, Francis Zammit Dimech, Tonio Borg, Alfred Sant, Karmenu Vella… you name the Maltese politician; they’ve all said it, at one point or other – and STILL we hear it repeated again, today…

… how many others ways can that even be interpreted, anyway? It only means one thing, as far I can see. Yes, Dr Bonnici: successive administrations of Malta’s government – your own included – have been promising us a ‘balance between the environment, and the economy’ for the better part of the last half-century… yet not a single one of them has ever actually delivered on that promise, and ‘struck that goddamn ‘balance’, once and for all!

All of which brings me to the second part of the combo: who does Owen Bonnici (or any of the others, for that matter) actually mean, when he uses the second-person-plural pronoun, ‘WE’?

Personally, I’d like to think it’s a reference to his own government (in which case, the rejoinder would be: ‘Then what the bleeding hell is even stopping you from achieving that balance, in the first place?’)

… but going on what Bonnici also said, during that interview – i.e., that “we emphasise the need for our capital city to grow and move forward, but also for THE PEOPLE TO BE WITH US THROUGHOUT THIS PROCESS” [my emphasis] – it could just as easily be interpreted as a reference to… erm… ‘us’.

Yup, folks: ‘us’ as in ‘you, me, and both our dogs’… for all the world as if ‘WE’ - the ‘bobbing, weaving, ducking, side-stepping, and long-suffering people of Malta and Gozo’ – are also partly responsible for this country’s failure to ever strike an impossible ‘balance’, between two, utterly incompatible demands.

In which case, the obvious answer would have to be (I mean, do I even need to say it?):

NO, dammit! It is NOT ‘we’ who have to strike this impossible balance… it’s YOU! Or at least, your government…

… because that’s another thing, by the way. Earlier, I alluded to Fr Joseph Curmi’s difficulties in tracking down the precise chain of political accountability, when it comes to land-use policy in Malta. And what do you know? Owen Bonnici graphically confirmed that one, too… by “pointing out that the regulation and approval of tables and chairs in public spaces did not fall under his remit”.

And OK, fair enough. I am well aware that the ‘chain of political accountability’ moves in very mysterious ways – so mysterious, in fact, that you can simultaneously be the ‘junior minister for Local Councils’; and also, ‘not accountable for anything that actually happens, in any of Malta’s localities’ – so I’m happy to just take his word for it, and move on.

What it also means, however, is that… NO ONE is actually responsible, for any of the stuff that ever happens in Malta’s towns and villages! It’s not the police; it’s not the Planning Authority; it’s not the Local Councils, it’s not the MTA; it’s not Transport Malta… and it’s not even the blinking ‘Lands Authority’, for crying out loud! (in which case, they may as well just change their name to ‘Barbie-Land Authority’, and get it over with).

Effectively, then, the Maltese government’s response to this complaint can be summarised as:

‘Yes, we need to strike a balance between public well-being, and private commercial interests… BUT NO! WE’RE JUST NOT GOING TO! (Yah-Boo! So there, too! Etc. etc.)’

A little brutal, I know, but… hey! At least, it’s honest.