Cynical resolution on Gozo tunnel

The parliamentary attempt to rope in the Nationalist opposition to back the development can be interpreted as just another cynical pre-electoral move to undermine any sort of opposition there might be to the Gozo tunnel

Inadvertently, Transport Minister Ian Borg and Gozo Minister Justyne Caruana may have exposed an endemic political problem, by attempting to conjure up an artificial parliamentary consensus on the proposed Gozo-Malta tunnel link.

Last week, these two MPs adopted the unorthodox approach of seeking parliament’s support for the Gozo tunnel project by presenting a motion asking MPs to back the development.

The motion refers to the electoral manifestos of the two major parties at the last election, which both promised a permanent link between Malta and Gozo. It also notes that plans for the project started in the 2008 legislature by the then Nationalist administration, continued in the last legislature and works will likely go beyond the current legislature.

The motion recognises the challenges the project is expected to create in terms of waste generated by the digging, and the need to preserve Gozo’s natural beauty and its cultural identity.

It finally calls on MPs to back the project.

However, this attempt to rope in the Nationalist opposition can be interpreted as just another cynical pre-electoral move to undermine any sort of opposition there might be to the Gozo tunnel.

While the Opposition was itself the party that promoted the idea when it was in government, by forcing a ‘resolution’ style debate in the House that demands unanimous support for the Gozo tunnel, Labour intends using bipartisan agreement as a way of undermining reasonable opposition from civil society and environmental NGOs.

The government is clearly interested in nullifying any sort of opposition that advances positions that would, given the scientific and other environmental objections that would emerge based on studies, make a ‘no tunnel’ option the more sustainable choice.

This newspaper has no doubt that a tunnel link between Malta and Gozo will serve as a pretext for the creation of land reclamation projects through the generation of an unprecedented amount of construction waste. The attempt by Labour MPs and the business class to force through this project with scant attention given to the mounting opposition to the tunnel by environmentalists and civil society, is another blot in the way the Labour administration treats issues of sustainability.

There is also an undeniable party-political dimension to this manoeuvre. Labour knows that the PN, now suffering a massive trust deficit that will probably result in yet another drubbing at the European elections, has its back to the wall. Any attempt at representing reasonable and rational opposition to the Gozo tunnel, not just by environmental NGOs but also by heritage organisations and others who demand holistic transport reform, will be used against the Opposition to further undermine it politically.

This is particularly cogent, in view of our recent survey that suggests broad popular support for the tunnel. Politically this places the Opposition in an awkward position for two reasons: one, by opposing the motion, the PN would be perceived as going against the prevailing public opinion; two, because the minority that opposes the tunnel is likelier to be composed of traditionally Nationalist sympathisers.

Support for the tunnel is very strong among 2017 Labour Party voters, with 74.7% agreeing with the project. On the other hand, 48.8% of Nationalist Party voters said they agreed with the tunnel, with 37.9% giving the project the thumbs down.

This creates problems for the PN. By backing the motion, it would alienate a sizeable chunk of its voter base. But by opposing it, the backlash would be even greater.

Politically, then, the strategy places Labour in a win-win situation. But it is an insidious strategy, because it subjects what should be a scientific decision to the equivalent of a popular vote.

Perhaps the most damning aspect is that the motion simply takes for granted that the tunnel will be approved to begin with; even if Environment Impact Studies and geological studies still have to be published.

Such studies may well indicate that aspects of the current proposal may have unacceptable environmental and cultural heritage impacts. In the most extreme scenarios, there could be irreversible impacts on the water table, and possibly even geological problems that make the tunnel impossible in practice (or, worse still, dangerous).

It is, in effect, to study these possibilities that the entire planning process exists in the first place. One cannot just override it at will: no matter how urgent the social (or political) need for any given project may be. Otherwise, we may as well consign the entire planning process to the dustbin of history.

However, the biggest problem may even be unrelated to the tunnel proposal. It concerns abuse of the parliamentary system to engineer some sort of pre-determined outcome.  Parliament’s job is to debate the pros and cons of such a proposal… not to simply embrace one option, to the exclusion of all others, while ignoring all scientific objections.

This motion sabotages Parliament’s most basic function: it is designed to kill discussion, not to encourage it. And rash decisions, taken in the absence of proper debate, are a recipe for disaster.