Even in crisis time, some animals remain more equal than others

While Malta’s response to the health emergency has so far been largely exemplary, it has once again exposed the fault lines between those who are always listened to and those who are ignored

AT a time of collective anxiety, where everyone is making sacrifices, one would expect powerful lobbies to take a back seat and refrain from making demands which only serve to stretch the country’s limited resources and increase the anxieties of other categories.

Unfortunately, two of Malta’s most powerful lobbies – the construction sector and the hunting lobby – still manage to dictate their agenda, even in times of crisis.

Following demands by the hunting lobby to re-open the spring hunting season, Cabinet has requested an urgent meeting of the Ornis Committee: the consultative body responsible for recommending whether Malta should derogate from the EU’s ban spring hunting.

Conservationists BirdLife Malta are worried the move is aimed at rubber-stamping a decision to open the season in April, giving hunters the run of the countryside at a time when law enforcement is occupied by the coronavirus crisis.

The reality is that the country’s enforcement capabilities are already stretched to the limit, as police have to enforce quarantine rules and guarantee law and order in a sensitive time. In such circumstances dedicating police resources to enforce hunting regulations appears superfluous.

If government accommodates the demands of this lobby, even at a time of national crisis, it will risk sending the wrong message. It is no surprise that lobbies are in a position to make irrational demands; the reason is that governments have always given them the impression that they are eager to listen.

Another lobby which has distinguished itself during the crisis was the construction sector. The Planning Authority has gone as far as to summon a planning board meeting, to discuss applications presented by top guns in the construction industry; only to be stopped by the Minister following a public outcry.

But instead of postponing decisions on major projects, the government has now rushed to enable the Authority to hold these meetings on-line: ignoring the digital divide, and the fact that this changes the very dynamic of what constitutes a public hearing: where people from all spheres of society can bring to the fore their concerns.

In a situation where even the law courts have been shut down, thus postponing a large number of court hearings, one would have expected the same to happen with regard to Planning Board meetings.

Postponing decisions on a dozen or so mega projects, to ensure fair and transparent public hearings, would have hardly had any economic impact. On the other hand, the on-line system could have been limited to the hundreds of permits issued within development zones, where no objections have been raised. This would have permitted a reasonable continuation of construction activity.

Unfortunately, however, the impression being given is that the government is banking on the construction industry to kick start the economy once the crisis is over. PM Robert Abela himself recently said that the construction industry will play a vital role for the economy to recover after the Coronavirus pandemic.

While the construction industry is important for the economy, such a declaration only serves to give the sector greater leverage on policy makers at a time when it is under scrutiny, following a spate of construction accidents which have even cost the life of a woman.

It was also startling that while the government has continued holding meetings with the Malta Developers Association, no such meetings have been held with environmental NGOs.

Moreover, the reality of a lockdown for over 65-year-olds has further exposed those living next to excavation sites to unbearable noise pollution, coupled by anxiety triggered by recent house collapses. While one understands that works commenced before the COVID 19 crisis cannot be stopped abruptly, one would also expect a sense of responsibility from the industry not to commence new excavation works, to safeguard the peace of mind of neighbours currently living in quarantine.

It seems, then, that the crisis has once again shone a spotlight on the inequality of power in Malta, with some lobbies being clearly heard more than others.

For even when it comes to financial aid, while some businesses sectors – including those providing a public service, like the media - have been side-lined, others like hoteliers – which have always benefitted from government support – have been given greater attention.

Moreover, some sectors like third country nationals have been completely abandoned, after having being squeezed like lemons during the economic boom.

While Malta’s response to the health emergency has so far been largely exemplary, it has once again exposed the fault lines between those who are always listened to and those who are ignored. If this persists, all the good work achieved by government, in instilling a sense of discipline at a time of crisis, will be undone.