Valletta’s anger is about more than just ‘noise’

Governments which ‘disregard the interests of citizens’, always end up paying a very hefty price for their arrogance

It is a lesson that is very often learnt the hard way: but governments which ‘disregard the interests of citizens’, always end up paying a very hefty price for their arrogance.

Few should know this better than the Labour Party, which so often used to champion the ordinary citizen against businesses elites (which former leader Alfred Sant used to describe as ‘Barunijiet’, while campaigning under slogans such as ‘Ic-Cittadin l-Ewwel’).

Yet it is difficult to trace any remnant of that legacy, in a Labour Party that now – after almost a decade in government – seems hell-bent on doing the precise opposite: i.e., consistently defending the business interests of the few, at the expense of local residential communities.

Nowhere is this more visible (or rather, ‘audible’), than in the government’s recent Legal Notice to permit live music in the streets of Valletta until 1am: a decision which not only threatens to significantly impact the city’s character and identity – reducing it to a mere ‘entertainment district for tourists’, instead of a proud European capital, looking back on 500 years of history…

… but it also simply steamrolled over all the complaints, objections and concerns expressed by Valletta’s long-suffering residents: who have already had to endure all the financial pressures, noise pollution, waste generation and encroachment of public spaces, that came with Valletta’s recent ‘gentrification’.

The situation has even led to the establishment of ‘The Valletta Residents Revival Group’: which on Wednesday protested against what it calls a “totally obscene” Legal Notice, that was “written and presented to Parliament without any consultation with the residents.”

“It is an affront not just to us who have been enduring the degradation of Valletta as a habitable city for years, but also a blow to the face of all those who for so many years have been striving and working to make the city a superior leisure destination in Malta.”

It added that the Legal Notice goes contrary to all living standards, as well as to the European guidelines on night time noise levels, published by the World Health Organisation.

More significantly, however, VRR also echoed a growing concern that extends far beyond the confines of Valletta: i.e., that our elected representatives – be they in the national Parliament, or at local council level – no longer seem to be ‘representing’ their constituents at all.

The VRR group even had to remind the (Labour-led) Valletta local council, that “the Council is supposed to represent us residents, and not the Government.”

But it is not just the Valletta local council that seems to have forgotten its most basic raison d’etre. MPs, too, are elected to serve the interests of their communities; yet when it came to Wednesday’s vote in Parliament, not one of the Labour Party’s five First District representatives - Deo Debattista, Keith Azzopardi Tanti, Aaron Farrugia, Cressida Galea and Davina Sammut Hili – chose to participate in the debate. (In fact, some of them were not even present in the House at all.)

Surely, this leaves Valletta residents – and everyone else – in no doubt whatsoever, as to whom those MPs feel they are really representing in Malta’s Parliament. And it is very clearly not the ‘citizen’ that the Labour Party used to always boast about ‘putting first’.

But even this pales to insignificance, when compared to what was said by those government MPs who did speak during the debate.

Culture Minister Owen Bonnici, for instance, snapped that he “would take no lessons from the Nationalist Party when it comes to Valletta”: adding that “it was the Labour Party that transformed Valletta into a lively city, not the PN.”

And another Labour MP – former Bormla mayor Alison Zerafa Civelli - only added insult to injury, by claiming that “people used to be ashamed to say they hailed from Valletta in the past”.

What both those remarks have in common, is that they betray an underlying expectation of ‘gratitude’: as though the Valletta residents should be thankful towards the government, for having elevating them out of the ‘squalor’ in which they used to live.

And apart from being untrue (as well as unfair), these words may yet return to haunt the Labour government: as Valletta residents have more to complain about, than just the recent extension of nightlife hours.

The same ‘transformation’ Owen Bonnici now boasts about, also came at a considerable cost to the city’s longest-established population: some of whom – especially those in the lower income bracket, who rent their homes (in other words: Labour’s traditional voter-base) – have been ‘priced out of Valletta’ altogether.

This is not to say that the capital city did not benefit, from the enormous sums invested to make it the ‘European Capital of Culture 2018’. As VRR put it during Wednesday’s protest: “we recognise the investment that many businesses have continued to make in recent years, which continues to make Valletta a centre of activity and entertainment [...] What we oppose is the imbalance between the needs of businesses, and those of the residents and the community.”

Labour MPs would be wise to address this imbalance, with urgency. Otherwise, they may well end up ‘learning a lesson’ from history, after all.