Disagreeing to agree

The Prime Minister's reaction to the energy proposals unveiled yesterday by the Labour Party - and which Dr Gonzi compared to Alfred Sant's notorious pre-1996 pledge to remove VAT - seems to tell us much more about the current mood within the Nationalist Party's campaign office than anything else.

Let us however start off by looking at the proposal itself. Labour is effectively envisaging a full conversion of the existing Delimara plant (currently operating on Heavy Fuel Oil) to gas by next year.

But as this was going to happen all along anyway, the only really innovative aspect of the proposal concerns the purchase and delivery of the fuel: which would be supplied through the development of a floating liquefied natural gas terminal, with a re-gasification facility.

As such, the only real difference between Labour's plans and the ongoing proposals explored by the present government concern the use of the interconnector connecting Malta to the European mainland.

This much was acknowledged by Gonzi himself, whose earlier (less dramatic) reaction was a good deal more cautious.

"From what I have gathered at this early stage, it appears that the Labour Party is endorsing the government's energy policy with regard to the Sicily interconnector as well as the use of natural gas," Gonzi said. "The difference is that a gas pipeline is the government's preferred option, whilst it is still unclear what the Labour Party is proposing."

To be fair, the Prime Minister does have a very valid point when he argues that the finer details of the PL's proposal require more substantiation.

For one thing, Labour's proposals (or at least, the manner in which they were presented yesterday) appear to overlook the fact that natural gas - like oil - is a finite fossil fuel and therefore subject to often wildly unpredictable price fluctuations.

But Gonzi was clearly mistaken when he talked of uncertainties concerning the supply of gas: that issue that was actually fairly well explained in yesterday's press conference.

Labour's proposal envisages retaining the interconnector favoured by Gonzi - and also a small plant running on HFO - though the bulk of the supply would clearly not come through a pipeline from Sicily.

This is a significant difference, as it reduces what would otherwise be total dependence on the whims of a foreign state for our national electricity supply.

Yet close an eye at this single detail, and the core ingredients of Labour's energy strategy are not at all dissimilar from the sort of solution government has been looking at itself.

Both propose a total (or near-total) conversion of existing facilities from oil to gas; both have studied exactly the same proposal for an offshore floating terminal (government had even cited the same plan to the EU in 2008 - i.e., before the decision to go with an untested technology using Heavy Fuel Oil)... and both have even made use of the same consultancy firm, which evidently gave both parties the same advice.

On paper all this should make it hard for the government to shoot down the proposal... seeing as it is still toying with the same idea itself.

But as we all know, election campaigns and common sense are not often seen in each other's company... and by likening the proposal to Alfred Sant's VAT fiasco in 1997, Gonzi appears to be throwing both caution and credibility to the wind.

Leaving aside the sheer improbability of the comparison itself - the two scenarios do not even remotely resemble each other at all- it seems incongruous that government would be so scathing about a proposal which is so very similar to its own ideas about the same subject. Besides, even if one disagrees with Labour's proposal it still remains a recognised technology, in use in several countries in the world, and endorsed by a reputable firm which even the government makes use of as a consultant.

CET, on the other hand, was a harebrained concoction that had no correlative anywhere in the serious world.

Ultimately, all this points towards a serious, endemic problem with Malta's political system. Clearly we have reached a stage when our bipartisan approach has been stretched too far... a point where the two parties cannot bring themselves to agree, even when they are effectively saying the same thing.

On this occasion, we have the makings of a multi-party consensus on the need to convert to cleaner energy... yet translated into political propaganda, we remain incapable of acknowledging how ultimately similar our 'different' proposals are.

Given the sheer importance of the issue at hand - Malta's energy sector, no less - one can only wonder how long it will take before the two parties mature to a point where they put such petty differences aside and focus instead on the national interest.

After all, isn't this is what both parties' official slogans imply, when taken on their own merits? If Malta belongs to all of us, then we should have no problem converging on a common policy in the national interest. And if what we all want is a safe and secure future...  what better way to make that goal impossible, than by disagreeing merely for the sake of disagreement?

More in Editorial