More than words

The most recent example of Busuttil’s reformist agenda – an environmental convention – was certainly a step in the right direction.

Just over two and a half years – half an electoral term – have elapsed since Simon Busuttil’s election as PN leader. Traditionally, this places him in a traditional time of reflection and soul-searching.

It is evident that Busuttil’s major concern is to rebuild public confidence following the electoral rout of 2013. One of his first decisions was to reform the party structures to grant a wider say in leadership elections (among other things). This indicates cognisance that the party had up to a point been straitjacketed by the ideas and vision of a small number of people… one of the many reasons why it seemed to lose grip of its previously unassailable electoral advantage.

The most recent example of Busuttil’s reformist agenda – an environmental convention – was certainly a step in the right direction. In a country where the environment has been brutally eviscerated on the altar of corporate greed, it is positive to hear that a future PN government would not be driven by unbridled economic growth alone. 

It is also ironic that this commitment had to come from the leader of the Nationalist Party… and not Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who had likewise promised an environmentally conscious administration before the election. Instead, we got a commitment to turn Malta into a new Dubai or Singapore, which – projected onto the local context, where there is so little unspoilt environment to lose – is in many ways the opposite.

But Simon Busuttil is also dogged by a number of unavoidable disadvantages. First and foremost, it will take a lot more than a mere ‘convention’ to undo the damage previously done to the Nationalist Party’s environmental credentials: much of which took place when he himself was a prominent PN exponent (eventually becoming deputy leader).   

Before turning to the elephant in the room mentioned by Busuttil himself (i.e., whether a party can win an election just by being green) there is a bigger obstacle. Is the PN credible when it promises to safeguard the environment from unbridled development?

Its own track record, previously defended by Busuttil, suggests otherwise. The PN is responsible for environmental crimes, in some cases irreversible, which were every bit as serious as those taking place today. Busuttil may have taken a public commitment not to sacrifice any more Outside Development Zone land for speculation… but it was the Nationalist Party which extended the development boundaries by 16.6% in 2006. 

Similarly, Busuttil recently claimed that there were no agreements to be honoured by the Nationalist Party with respect to the illegal occupation of public land by squatters in Armier. This on its own may be welcome… but what about agreements previously honoured by the former PN government? The issue is not whether Armier boathouse owners will squeeze more concessions from a future PN government… it is whether the ill-gotten concessions (including the provision of water and electricity to illegal structures) achieved so far will be reversed.

Would a new PN government under Simon Busuttil return the stolen land in Armier back to the country? How will it guarantee that MEPA achieves the true independence it needs as a planning authority? Will Busuttil retain the demerger between planning and the environment? What will be the PN’s policy within the development boundaries? Will there be a moratorium on development in ODZ? 

Even within the commitments pronounced so far, there are caveats which sound suspiciously similar to the Labour Party’s amendments to the Planning Act. Busuttil has promised that ODZ land would be off limits except for “exceptional cases”. What are these exceptional cases? Would a race track qualify as an exceptional case? On what grounds?

As long as these questions remain unanswered, the PN’s declared intentions to put the environment at the centre of its politics, and redeem itself of past sins, remain unconvincing. Experience has shown that it is very easy for a party in opposition to gain credibility by making public commitments. It is the ability to keep those commitments once in power that makes all the difference.

Here, Busuttil is hampered by another problem… this time, partly of his own making. The PN needs to undergo a transformation, not only in ideas, but also in its ranks. Politicians associated with past sins will hardly sound credible when singing from a completely new hymn sheet. George Pullicino defended the ODZ massacre in 2006. How can he now argue against ODZ development under Labour? Beppe Fenech Adami called for resignations over a spate of suicide cases in police custody. How can he be taken seriously, when his own former government presided over similar cases without ever taking action?

On this last point, it would be interesting to know what the PN’s plans for justice reform actually are. In all but the last of its 25 years in power, the Nationalist government resisted calls to introduce basic rights to persons in detention... resulting in a plethora of cases lost by Malta in the European Court of Human Rights. It can hardly pose as a human rights champion today.

Busuttil may well be honest in his intentions; ultimately, however, it will take more than words to convince the electorate that the PN means business.

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