Government must prove it listens

Perhaps we have become so inured to empty catchphrases that we no longer even expect incoming governments to actually stand by their electoral promises.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Elections are often characterised by vacuous slogans used by political parties during campaigns, only to be promptly forgotten once in government. 

Perhaps we have become so inured to these empty catchphrases that we no longer even expect incoming governments to actually stand by their electoral promises. But on a level of principle, failing to abide by the spirit of one’s electoral manifesto is in itself an act of electoral fraud. It is for this reason that the electorate tends to ‘punish’ those political parties which promise one thing before an election, only to deliver the very opposite.

Two years into its first term, the Muscat administration has already demonstrated the emptiness of many of its own earlier promises; and the ongoing controversy surrounding the American University of Malta embodies this failure in many ways. The Labour Party manifesto promised to ‘prioritise’ the environment; yet we saw how a decision to develop 90,000 square metres of ODZ land was taken without even the involvement of the Environment Protection Directorate. Of course, if that is what was meant by ‘prioritising’, the manifesto is a sham.

Moreover, the new Strategic Plan for Environment and Development makes it government policy to steer new development projects away from rural zones. This project has done the opposite, by earmarking a rural area for a development which, according to the government’s own planning policies, should be located in an urban zone.

Much the same could be said for the promises of meritocracy and transparency, as well as the mantra of ‘Malta Taghna Lkoll’. Yet even at this late stage, Joseph Muscat has an opportunity to salvage some of his party’s pre-electoral credentials. His administration also projects itself as a ‘government that listens’: and the current wave of opposition to the Zonqor Point proposal presents him with the perfect chance to live up to that claim.

Above all, Muscat must listen to the arguments against the proposal in its current form. He must acknowledge that his entire approach to this project was wrong from the outset. It was a mistake to simply by-pass the restrictions imposed by Malta’s planning regime, as well as by his own government’s declared intentions. 

The Prime Minister cannot expect people to simply accept without question that a large swathe of unspoilt land, in an area that is supposed to be protected at law, could be casually earmarked for development by the CEO of Malta’s planning authority, without even conducting an environmental impact assessment. 

On this point alone, the Prime Minister has already fallen foul of his pre-electoral commitment to good governance. The vast majority that voted the Labour Party into power in 2013 is fully within its rights to expect a much more socially and environmentally responsible approach to such sensitive matters. And land-use is a particular sensitive issue, in a country where there is already so little in the way of open space.  

But Muscat should listen also because there is still time to salvage the project itself. It would be wrong to construe last Saturday’s protest as a march against the concept of an American University in Malta (whatever reservations may exist on that score). The unanimous shout at the demonstration was not against the presence of foreign universities in the country; it was for the preservation for Malta’s very limited unspoilt environment. 

Indeed, there would have been no objection whatsoever, had the authorities followed their own guidelines when it came to selecting an adequate site, and ruled out ODZ land on principle.

Joseph Muscat must acknowledge that this principle is not some capricious whim of a non-representative cultural elite. Recent electoral history shows that concern with the protection of ODZ sites transcends social and political boundaries, and forms a major bulwark of popular resistance against any government. 

Lawrence Gonzi discovered this to his cost in 2008, when similar protests forced him to backtrack on plans for a golf course at Xaghra l-Hamra. Similar concerns about the ODZ ‘rationalisation’ can also be seen to have come at a high cost to the Gonzi administration: which went on to win the 2008 election by a whisker, getting a greatly reduced parliamentary majority which was eventually to cripple it by 2013.

The present government would be unwise to ignore the lessons of these and other events. Clearly, the ‘environment’ is more than just a free ticket for political parties to sail into power. Public expectations regarding this issue are very real, and so are the consequences of disregarding them.

All this makes Muscat’s reaction to Saturday’s protest crucial, if he is to quell a growing backlash. The Prime Minister has demonstrated on past occasions that he is willing to both listen to criticism, and also to change tack when convinced he is wrong. One example concerns the reform of the traffic warden service, where government abandoned plans to exclude the private sector from management. 

Already he has indicated that he would consider a ‘compromise’ regarding this project: most likely in the form of a split-site campus. The final decision remains to be taken, but if Muscat is to prove that his government really is ‘one that listens’, he must accept – as Gonzi did before him – that the ‘ODZ is ODZ’ principle is now a red line that cannot be crossed.

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