An election-eve, environmental epiphany

It was almost to be expected, therefore, that a government that has grossly neglected the state of Malta’s natural environment, would attempt to make atones for that shortcoming in the weeks before a popular vote

Traditionally, elections have always been a time for public conversions on the road to Damascus. It is only when facing an imminent electoral judgment, that Maltese prime ministers tend to suddenly realise – like Shakespeare’s King Lear – that they “have taken too little care of this”.

It was almost to be expected, therefore, that a government that has grossly neglected the state of Malta’s natural environment, would attempt to make atones for that shortcoming in the weeks before a popular vote.  It was predictable, too, that the atonement would take the form of a “the biggest project of open public space in an entire generation”… in an as-yet unnamed location.

Indeed, this promise is strongly reminiscent of former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi’s similar ‘environment epiphany’ in 2007: when he dropped plans for a golf course to announce a national park in Xaghra l-Hamra: a year after his government had infuriated environmentalists by extending building zones and increasing heights in village cores. It was also a clear reaction to rising discontent among a category of pale blue voters who, back in 2004, had voted for Arnold Cassola in the first MEP elections.

The electoral script has changed little since then. Prime Minister Muscat knows that many of those disgruntled Nationalists had rallied to his ‘progressive, moderate’ theme in 2013. Already disillusioned by Panamagate, some may now be ruing their change of allegiance for the same reasons as they had turned their back on Gonzi six years ago.

These may well constitute a pale red constituency which may start asserting itself in mid-term elections, fully knowing that Labour is riding so high in the polls that they can afford to register their protest vote. Added to these there could be more traditional Labour voters who resent their party’s transformation into a pro-business party.

Joseph Muscat’s focus on environmental issues, in his address to the party’s general conference on Sunday, suggests that Labour strategists have started to recognise the risk posed by a groundswell of discontentment on environmental issues. This suggests that despite polling high, the party is not taking voters for granted in elections where they won’t be voting to choose the country’s government.

Nonetheless, Muscat’s speech indicates that his green conversion is at best skin deep, and at worse an exercise in deception. By framing environmental problems as merely a “consequence of progress” – and not the starting point for a radical ecological conversion which redefines our idea of ‘progress’ – it is clear that big business remains firmly fixed at the epicentre of his government’s policy attention.

It is a mind-frame whereby environmental problems can be solved by dishing out funds for a major recreational project, rather than changing policy direction.  But Muscat seems to be forgetting that most of our land use problems stem from the fact that policies have been tailor-made around the needs of big business, with the local community being seen as a mere afterthought.

This was clearly the case with the fuel station policy crafted in 2015, which was so badly skewed to favour a few developers, that the government itself is now ditching it. The question now is: how many more fuel stations will be approved, until a new one replaces the policy?

Yet the same attitude has underpinned the government’s attitude to construction and planning throughout. Elected in 2013 on a platform which promised social impact assessments on major economic decisions, Muscat’s government has constantly failed to assess the impact of its planning policies: like the metric conversion of the height of floors in local plans, which led to an onslaught of demolition works.

The endless redevelopment brought about by a combination of the 2006 local plans and Labour’s tinkering has also come at a direct social cost. For example, elderly people are spending the few years left of their lives buried in construction sites, and in terror of a repetition of a third-party collapse, as happened in Gwardamangia. People with pushchairs cannot even pass comfortably on pavements without inhaling cigarette smoke from diners accommodated on road-side platforms. No amount of economic growth will ever compensate for this loss of serenity in daily life.

To be really meaningful, even the creation of such an open recreational space should at least involve a transfer of presently developable land back to the community: for example, re-appropriating land already earmarked for development, like the Jerma or Manoel Island (possibly putting IIP money to good use)… or by putting an end to discussions on privatising the White Rocks site, and immediately restoring it back to the public as a park.  

On the plus side, the very fact that Muscat is now belatedly seeking to address the consequences of his own policies, suggests that he is mildly concerned. But there is more at stake than Labour’s success in yet another election.

Unless there is a serious, urgent revision of government’s environmentalist policies – which offers long-term solutions, rather than short-term fixes – Joseph Muscat risks going down in history as part of the cause of Malta’s environmental degradation. A token “project of open public space” will surely be welcomed; but such tokenism, no matter how big, cannot compensate for the damage done today.

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