Zonqor: a test for Muscat and civil society

The Zonqor development remains a stern test for Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his government, but even more so for civil society

Thousands attended one of the the largest protests ever in June
Thousands attended one of the the largest protests ever in June

During his recent visit to MaltaToday’s offices, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat voiced his concern over what he described as the media’s “existentialist crisis”, asking us knowingly, “where does campaigning stop and where does reporting start?”

Muscat’s misgivings betray the way the establishment deals with criticism, but it also sheds light on the model of development his government embraces. He is no longer in Opposition, so it is he who must answer the questions, and not the independent media to reduce itself to a reporting agency, placated by government’s power of patronage.

Instead of wasting time on the media’s metaphysical quandaries, Muscat should for instance tell us where politics ends and where business starts.

The Labour leader, who professes that he is to the right on economic matters and to the left on social matters, acts like a CEO at the helm of Malta plc. To paraphrase his antithesis – probably the next British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – the Labour government can make itself attractive to Sandro Chetcuti, Marco Gaffarena, Sadeen Group and Saudi sheiks, but this comes at the expense of its social democrat soul and the most vulnerable within our society.

Muscat this week announced a “fair solution” to the private university originally planned to take up 90,000 square metres of ODZ land in Zonqor, by splitting up in two over 41,800 square metres.

What is worrying is that Muscat’s staff expects the country to be grateful for having listened to the outrage that AUM elicited. I am surprised at how easily this government metamorphosed itself into the maligned PN administration of yesteryear, with its misplaced self-righteousness.

It it short-sighted in believing that a private university in Cospicua can pull people out of poverty and galvanise social mobility in a socially deprived area. Do profit-driven projects really carry any social responsibility on their sloping and slippery shoulders? Past projects like yacht marinas, the Birgu waterfront and Smart City, did not have the desired knock-on effect everyone claimed they would have; Cottonera retains a number of odious records, including the lowest rate of tertiary level of education and the highest rate of illiteracy.

Sadeen cannot provide the solutions to the south’s problems, especially in education, which needs more State investment in better schools, better teachers and better facilities.

Nor will token scholarships address the inequality which plagues people in the area and beyond. It is State investment in education that can play a pivotal role in the fight against poverty. The State has a responsibility to ensure that inequalities which exist in society are not reproduced and nurtured in primary and secondary schools.

It is hard to argue against foreign investment, which creates jobs and bigger profits. But even these can come at a cost, hiking up rents for ordinary folk, food prices and other needs for the high net-worth students of American University, which will ultimately affect the most vulnerable classes living in the south.

The pursuit of bigger profits by the privileged few and the race to the bottom only drive wages of skilled workers and unskilled workers in different directions and do not guarantee the creation of opportunities and a fair redistribution of wealth.

On its part, the State should be the guardian of social and environmental justice, creating a decent society that looks after the most vulnerable and promote social cohesion.

The diminished plans for Zonqor should not be seen just as some Pyrrhic victory for the green lobby but a reminder of the key role civil society plays in the development of this country: however conceited the Labour administration is, governments and investors cannot ride roughshod over the environment and the green lobby. The loss of virgin land in Zonqor remains unacceptable, irrelevant of its size. It would be a grave error if government thinks it has neutralised civil society by reaching a compromise.

So Zonqor still remains a test for Muscat, but even more so for civil society. The emergence of Front Harsien ODZ and the mobilisation of thousands of people in June should condition the way this administration deals with future projects of similar dimensions.

But only if civil society remains a thorn in Muscat’s side. Squabbling about whether it was a loss or a victory for the green lobby only strengthens Muscat’s hand. We live in hope that the cementification of the countryside is not inevitable.

The establishment will still attempt to sell urbanisation as progress and that those who oppose the orthodoxy will be labelled ‘extremists’.

But the environment is no longer expendable, and the destruction of the little countryside and coast that remain will be met with stronger resistance. Partisanship, smugness, and inane triumphalism can only reinforce civil society’s will to fight for every square inch of undeveloped land.