The proof of the (environmental) pudding

If the Nationalist Party is elected and betrays any of its pledges, it will have given civil society plenty of rope to hang it with it

Simon Busuttil is not the first PN leader to claim to hold the environment to heart
Simon Busuttil is not the first PN leader to claim to hold the environment to heart

Several years ago, Labour leader Alfred Sant immortalised the proverb: ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’.

Sant’s argument was that his proposal of ‘Partnership’ (to counter the PN’s vision of EU membership) could only ever be judged once it was duly enacted, so that its effects could be measured and appraised. 

For reasons of history, Malta never got to taste that pudding. For in one respect, Sant was mistaken: while it is true that a pudding must be served before it can be eaten... one get still get a clear enough idea from the recipe alone.

Naturally this applies not just to Sant’s aborted vision of ‘Partnership’... but to any proposal put forward by any party in opposition. In fact, one of the (admittedly very few) perks of being in opposition is that one is free to propose anything at all... on the understanding that such proposals can only ever be tested once the party putting them forward is elected to government. 

So when it comes to the policy document on the Environment published this week by the Nationalist Party, one must not look merely at the individual proposals themselves. One must also look at the credibility of the party on this particular issue. 

Simon Busuttil, after all, is not the first PN leader to claim to hold the environment to heart. Upon taking over from Eddie Fenech Adami in 2004, former PM Lawrence Gonzi also made the same claim. Yet within two years, his government had expanded the Development Zones twice; fought (successfully) to retain Spring hunting in the European Court; turned a blind eye to numerous illegalities in the tuna penning sector; postponed the planned power station switch-over from oil to natural gas; and failed to reach self-imposed targets in the renewable energy sector.

One cannot, of course, judge Busuttil’s intentions on these considerations alone. But the PN must be cognisant of the fact that its track record is not flawless. 

Nor, it must be said, is the document itself. Though it does contain solid and commendable ideas, the PN’s vision is often vague and unconvincing. Having said this, it does at least give due political importance to environmental issues that the present government is sidelining to its own cost. 

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s ambivalence to land use issues – and the Zonqor point controversy in particular – have clearly presented the PN with an opportunity to present itself as the more  pro-environment party of the two main parties. In this sense, environmental issues may be for the PN what civil liberties were for the PL before 2013.

While the document is in several aspects vague, it does include a number of firm commitments: such as a two-thirds majority requirement for major ODZ projects (which limits the power of government to ride roughshod when transferring land to private sector); no land reclamation for real estate purposes; a proposal to relocate all fish farms to a distance further away offshore, as well as the withdrawal of the Paceville masteplan. 

It also includes innovative ideas like surfacing roads with solar panelling, and enshrining solar rights to protect those robbed of access to roof space.

On other aspects, however, the document contains revealing omissions. It speaks about ‘zero tolerance’ for ODZ illegalities without mentioning boathouses; or about water management without addressing the crucial borehole problem. Most conspicuous of all, the ‘biodiversity’ chapter avoids any reference to hunting. Given the political cost of the referendum for the PN, this is at best surprising.

Admittedly, however, environmental and planning issues are complex and cannot be addressed by one-liners. Overall, the document does give a sense of direction and in some cases it goes beyond the run-of-the-mill vague promises characterising similar documents in the past.  

However, the PN’s greatest challenge is to regain the trust of the electorate on an issue where it disappointed, especially in the 2004 to 2008 period. For while the party can be historically credited for putting an end to the pre-1987 planning mayhem, where everything hinged on ministerial discretion, by creating a Planning Authority and delineating development boundaries (there was no ODZ before 1989), its reputation took a nose dive when new local plans and ODZ boundaries were extended in 2006 under George Pullicino’s stewardship.  

This was also a time when irregularities by big contractors often went unpunished. The PA reform of 2010 by the re-elected Gonzi administration – which restricted development through tougher regulations, and prevented the PA from sanctioning ODZ illegalities – was clearly not enough to dispel the trauma of the earlier extension of boundaries.

In this sense, the PA reform was too little, too late... even if, ironically, when it comes to small permits in the countryside, most of the additional safeguards in this reform have been removed by the present administration.

Ultimately, one thing is certain: this document will have the effect of raising expectations regarding the PN’s green credentials. If the Nationalist Party is elected and betrays any of these pledges, it will have given civil society plenty of rope to hang it with it.  

One trusts, then, that that is a ‘pudding’ the PN really does intend to bake.