2015: a year of change?

One thing 2015 is also likely to illustrate is that public expectation from politics as a whole will also be higher.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The start of the New Year is traditionally a time for predictions. And though such efforts often go awry, there are some things that are easy to foresee. 

It is evident even from now that immigration will once again rise to become a major concern. This year, Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation will draw to a close, leaving only the EU Frontex operation, codenamed Triton, to address this issue in the central Mediterranean.

Already there are reports that the entire landscape of immigration is changing: human traffickers are adapting their strategies to the evolving scenario. With such changes, the number of large-scale fatalities close to our shores seems to also be rising. 

Not even Mare Nostrum was enough to prevent hundreds of people drowning within sight of Lampedusa last year. One shudders to imagine how the situation will develop, when it is fully replaced by an EU operation to which only a few half-hearted member states are actually committed. 

Even locally, the immigration issue is already at the heart of a transformation process as a result of the recently-published Valenzia enquiry into the death of a detainee in Safi in 2012.

Incoming home affairs minister Carm Abela has indicated that his government will implement the recommended reforms to Malta’s detention policy and procedures. It is not immediately clear what, exactly, will change as a result: but there is evidence that our current structures and even approach to this issue are in need of an overhaul. 

Malta is therefore in a sense caught between the hammer and the anvil on this issue. On one side, there is a worsening international humanitarian crisis engulfing the Mediterranean on two fronts, and with it, the reluctance of other EU member states to take collective action; and on the other, there are internal pressures to concede that our national strategy on immigration has so far been flawed, and must be reviewed. 

So whatever else 2015 brings, it will surely usher in changes to our entire modus operandi.

Another more specific controversy one can expect from 2015 takes the form of a referendum on spring hunting, which – barring the unlikely prospect of a stay of execution by the Constitutional Court – will have to take place in the first six months of the year.

After some uncertainty regarding the government’s intentions, the referendum now looks set to be held along with the March local council elections: which means that, if the ‘Yes’ campaign is successful, its effect will be felt immediately, as of Spring 2015.

One would be curiously reminded of the promise of a ‘New Spring’ upon EU accession in May 2004: only neither the EU nor the Maltese government would have had any hand in bringing about this particular change.

That, of course, depends on the referendum being won by the ‘Yes’ vote. And the outcome of a referendum is considerably harder to predict that the holding of one. 

On paper, surveys indicate that broad support for a ‘Yes’ numerically outweighs the hunting community; but much would depend on electoral commitment, which in turn depends on emotional attachment to the issue itself.

This is naturally much higher among supporters of the ‘No’ campaign; and it remains to be seen how many unconcerned voters will be swayed by their argument that this ban represents the thin end of a wedge that will later affect other issues besides hunting.

Either way, the decision itself will be historical, in that for the first time the electorate will have expressed an opinion on an issue which has so far never been directly linked to the outcome of an election. And from an ecological perspective, the stakes are high whatever the outcome.

There is evidence that environmental concerns may continue to increase in 2015, as they have done over the past 12 months. For all this, traffic congestion (with all its environmental ramifications) will most likely come out on top in a list of future complaints.

Traffic Minister Joe Mizzi has a heavy weight on his shoulders, as he plans to re-launch the bus service for the third time in as many years. Following the public outcry his own party made and fanned in 2011, it is fair to say that public expectations of a seamless reform are much higher this time round.

But one other thing 2015 is also likely to illustrate is that public expectation from politics as a whole will also be higher. For all its ups and downs, 2014 did raise the bar considerably on the standards of performance and behaviour among Cabinet ministers and (perhaps more pertinently) their members of staff. 

It is unlikely that the political responsibility demanded of Manuel Mallia last November will be limited only to that case; just as it is unlikely that Labour will only produce one damning report on the former peccadilloes of the Nationalist administration.

And as initial indications suggest that the economy will on the whole perform well this year – a prognostic shared by all major credit ratings agencies – the political battlefield of the year to come may well revolve around issues of transparency, openness and political honesty.

All in all, 2015 promises to be a year of change.

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