How to feel like a law-abiding fool

It seems that everything in this country is favourably geared towards those who openly flout the law because somehow they know that, if they wait it out long enough, all will be whitewashed away as if it had never happened.

Men in suits handling Malta's environment and planning regime: ministers Leo Brincat and Michael Falzon, and MEPA chairman and CEO Vince Cassar and Johann Buttigieg respectively
Men in suits handling Malta's environment and planning regime: ministers Leo Brincat and Michael Falzon, and MEPA chairman and CEO Vince Cassar and Johann Buttigieg respectively

While many were still getting all hot and bothered over the questionable decision to place the new-fangled monti stalls near Parliament, another much more serious, development landed on our breakfast table with the Sunday papers.

“MEPA plans an amnesty for building violations” ran the headline. And with that headline, my first reaction was, why don’t we just dismantle MEPA right here, right now and drop all this pretense that we are in any way trying to regulate further development and construction planning? This was quickly followed by an even more mutinous thought: just how foolish can we be to actually obey the law when it is clear that those who break the law will eventually be given amnesties and basically, get away with it?

It seems that everything in this country is favourably geared towards those who openly flout the law because somehow they know that, if they wait it out long enough, all will be whitewashed away as if it had never happened.

You didn’t pay your VAT or income tax? Don’t you worry, a scheme will eventually be rolled out where all will be forgiven and penalties and interest due will be lifted, as long as you pay some of it back. High five! You can keep right on spending money which is not yours because by the time they catch up with you, another accommodating government will have been voted in, willing to close an eye or two, as long as you promise to behave in the future.

What exactly is the point of MEPA anyway? With 10,000 cases pending means anyone inclined to get away with building something or adding on to an existing building, even if it was supposedly not allowed.

Are you an Armier squatter getting the blues because there is menacing talk of demolishing your man-made village? No worries, mate. Not only will you be allowed to continue to occupy the land you stole, but you will be legally connected to Enemalta with smart meters (rather than, you know, keep stealing the electricity via “irregular” electricity connections). Yes, that’s right! You will be officially recognized by the authorities as owners of land which was not yours to begin with. Sweet. Now, care for a swim?

And just to make sure everyone is clear about exactly how much it pays to do as you please, we now have the latest amnesty (or sanction): around 10,000 pending MEPA enforcement notices of infringements are going to be given the sign of benediction and wiped away against a one time fee. Poof, just like that.

Gone. No longer illegal, no more laws broken, because what was illegal will now apparently be made legal against the cha ching! of cold, hard cash. €20 million of cold, hard cash to be exact.

According to the report, “the scheme could even see people apply to sanction a property built without a permit in the countryside before 1994, or to have an entire illegal floor approved.”

We all know what that means: if the possibility of the remotest type of loophole exists to get their illegal building rubber-stamped, people will wriggle their way through it and grab it with both hands. We’re ingenious and sly in that way (or at least some people are). Give us a rule or regulation and we will show you 1000 ways to circumvent it before the ink is even dry on the legal notice.

Which brings me back to my first question, what exactly is the point of MEPA anyway? With 10,000 cases pending before it when there were all sorts of laws and regulations which were seemingly impossible to enforce, that means a large chunk of the population is involved. In other words, anyone who was so inclined was trying to get away with building something or adding on to an existing building, even if it was supposedly not allowed.

Now that restrictions are being relaxed it will be even more of a free for all than it already is. It’s the “just go ahead and do it, and worry about it later if they catch you” school of Maltese thought and can be seen everywhere you look. From taking out your rubbish whenever you feel like it, rather than on the correct day/time to double parking and causing traffic chaos because you cannot be bothered to park and walk. It’s like the whole country is in perpetual, collective, teenage rebel mode - “I’m not going to do it, you can’t make me!” And the authorities have pandered to this rebellion through lack of enforcement and now, amnesties.

Some might argue that giving an amnesty in exchange for paying up will at least bring in some money for the nation’s coffers, but the problem with this mind-set is that it completely misses the whole point of laying down a rule of law and enforcing it. Why should fools like me (for yes, I do feel like a fool) do everything by the book, paying VAT and taxes on time and making sure to have all the necessary documentation for every little thing, when all around me people are busily thumbing their noses at the whole system?

The message these amnesties and sanctions give is that it really does not pay to be law-abiding, because in the end, the person who broke the law is better off than you. They have not been penalized in any way, nor will they suffer the consequences of their behaviour. The whole thing is simply unjust and unfair, further proving that those who bend the law to suit their own interests are basically being rewarded while the rest of us carry the burden of propping up the system by being (foolishly) dutiful.

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