Priorities in a changing Malta

Perhaps the most striking statistic is an apparent spike in concerns with environmental degradation, coupled with the effects of the construction industry

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

The results of our survey, published today, provide a snapshot of a country that is in the process of rapid change: with all the positive and negative repercussions that this implies.

Unsurprisingly, traffic remains a number one issue for the Maltese people, at 16.6%. But it has dropped four percentage points from our last survey, held last March; and much more so since October 2017, when the issue weighed in at a staggering 35.7%... the highest it has ever been.

This decrease may indeed reflect an overall improvement in the actual traffic situation, especially since the completion of a number of road infrastructural projects.

But it may also be the case that other concerns are narrowing the gap. Perhaps the most striking statistic is an apparent spike in concerns with environmental degradation, coupled with the effects of the construction industry. Taken together, these two concerns almost (but not quite) overtake traffic at first place.

Here, there is no mystery as to the increase in concern. These statistics are directly proportional to the damage being done to the environment, in a way that has a very direct impact on the quality of life in Malta. There can no longer be any doubt that Malta’s undeniable recent economic progress has been achieved at a significant cost to the natural and urban landscape: and a lot of this cost can be measured (literally) in acres and hectares of lost public space.

This construction drive, in turn, is in part fuelled by the extraordinary demographic changes the country has experienced in recent years. It is no surprise that environmental issues are matched by the emergence of a whole new category of public concern: an influx which is boosting population levels, and – directly as well as indirectly – placing a strain on Malta’s infrastructure and resources.

Although the levels of concern are not, in themselves, enough to trigger alarm bells, it can be seen that many people are uncomfortable with the sheer pace of change. And their concern is not groundless: though the economic benefits of such rapid expansion are undeniably positive, it remains a fact that Malta is expanding at a faster rate than the changes to its infrastructure can accommodate.

Recently, the tourism and hospitality sector raised eyebrows by questioning whether there should be an upward limit to the number of tourists Malta should try to attract. It was an unusual argument, coming from the industry that benefits most from a tourism influx... but if even the industry is struggling to cope, we must begin to likewise question whether Malta as a whole is prepared to handle the changes it is currently going through.

Nonetheless, the item which will most likely concern the present government is corruption, which has steadily increased as a national concern since last March. The period coincides with the revelations made by the Daphne Project, some of which revived the allegations of money laundering and corruption by top people in the government.

On this score, our surveys seem to indicate a rising groundswell of public opinion that – although still small, in terms of active, vociferous demands –expects higher standards of governance than this country is actually receiving.

This is a flipside to the same coin: Muscat’s government has been very effective at revitalising the economy, and transforming Malta into a more forward-looking country. It has been conspicuously less successful at reforming itself and its own work-practices, to bring its governance levels to the same standards of ‘excellence’ it seeks to establish for the country.

On all these fronts, the message is clear. Malta’s new economic realities need to be better managed, and better catered for by infrastructure and legislation. Otherwise, we may win the battle for traffic... but end up losing the war for a fairer, more equitable Malta.

On a separate note, the Front Against Censorship has this week proposed an amendment to Malta’s newly-launched Media and Defamation Act that would protect Maltese newspapers from so called SLAPP actions in foreign courts. (A SLAPP is a ‘strategic lawsuit against public participation’ intended at dissuading journalists from pursuing stories through expensive and damaging legal actions in foreign courts.)

The proposed amendment is simply to cap any libel judgements handed down by foreign courts, to within the maximum limit imposed by local courts. It also aims to guide the Maltese courts to consider whether the defendant was accorded equal rights in the foreign court, whether the damages imposed by the foreign court would result in the financial ruin of the newspaper or compromise its ability to operate, and whether the judgment is likely to impede the newspaper's journalistic freedoms or freedom of expression.

On the surface, this appears entirely reasonable and practical: especially if the Front is correct that the measure would still be compliant with the Brussels I Regulation, that requests European courts to uphold decisions on matters of tort.

Either way, the issue remains to date unresolved; and despite recent improvements to the Press Act, Maltese news outlets still operate under constant threat of ruinous overseas libel suits.

Government would do well to take such recommendations on board, if its claims to having protected local media are to ring true.