Protests are about more than numbers

Last Saturday’s protest may well make the government more sensitive to the creeping perception that it is in cahoots with big developers

Last Saturday’s ‘Enough is enough’ protest was significant in that it succeeded in attracting a respectable turn-out, despite effectively closing the door to ‘partisan-political participation’.

In a country where ‘identification with party’ remains one of the strongest social bonds, it is extremely rare for more than a handful to ever attend a ‘non-partisan’ environmental protest.  This explains why the protest against the Labour government’s Zonqor development in 2015 was so massive: it was inflated by a Nationalist Opposition which – understandably enough – saw the event as an opportunity to apply pressure on the Labour government.

There was an ironic reversal of roles involved in proceedings; for 10 years earlier, the Labour Opposition had likewise swelled the ranks of another anti-government environmental protest, against the Gonzi administration’s ODZ extensions of 2005/6.

From this perspective, last Saturday’s attendance – while still a far-cry from the turn-outs of 2005 and 2015 – may well represent a small but fundamental shift in national attitudes on the matter of political allegiance. Apart from the overt exclusion of the country’s two main political forces, the event also succeeded in uniting a significant cross-section of Maltese civil society.

Graffitti spokesperson Andre Callus contends that “the process leading to the protest was as significant as the protest itself”.

Unlike most other previous demonstrations, the 7th September protest had been announced more than a month in advance “in order to have the time to connect all the different groups around Malta and Gozo that are active, in some way or another, against this unsustainable development model”.

The result was that 68 groups, “going well beyond environmental NGOs and including many residents’ groups, students, farmers and cultural associations, amongst others, participated in both the protest as well as in its organisation”.

But protests are also instrumental in setting the national mood, and that is where last Saturday’s protest may have been most successful.  Just as pre-2008 protests against rationalisation forced Gonzi to promise that ‘ODZ will mean ODZ’ - and just as the Zonqor protest made Labour wary of any further tinkering of development zones - last Saturday’s protest may well make the government more sensitive to the creeping perception that it is in cahoots with big developers. 

In this sense, the protest can already be seen to have produced results: Former Labour leader Alfred Sant’s endorsement of the protestors’ demands has already exposed internal divisions on the issue within the Labour Party.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s reaction showed no indication of any willingness to depart from the current ‘unsustainable economic model’. Speaking a day after the protest, he reiterated that his government “would continue taking the decisions necessary for the country to prosper.”

Insisting that the government will remain ‘pro-business’, Muscat reaffirmed his belief that ‘unstoppable’ economic growth is the only way to create a strong economy in order for Malta to ‘continue to address the challenges it faces’.

His only apparent concession was to announce that next month’s budget would also lay out plans for addressing some of the challenges the country faces, including the environment and its air quality.

Unfortunately, this does not address the core point raised by the previous day's protest: i.e., a growing concern that Malta’s unprecedented rate of ‘economic growth’ has come about at the expense of the environment and our collective quality of life; and that, despite three years of economic prosperity, no significant progress has been achieved on the environmental front.

For all its success as a crowd-building exercise, then, Saturday’s protest has yet to achieve its main aim: that of instilling a fundamental culture-change in our country’s entire modus operandi.

For this to happen, it would have to take more than even a firm commitment by the Prime Minister. Regulators and national authorities would have to also revise their role, to be more autonomous from the political forces of the day.

What, then, is the way forward? Now that a discernible movement has been born, and a list of clear demands been made, one would expect civil society to step up its efforts: as Callus has already indicated he will do.

“This network is there to stay and grow stronger,” he said. “It is our belief that change does not happen through sterile dialogue, but through building a popular and broad non-partisan movement that can act as a counterweight to the disproportionate influence of developers over politics….The only possible way forward is to continue strengthening the movement that is fighting the unchecked power of developers and defending our environment and quality of life”.

This can only happen through, among others, “the formation of a national discourse that counters the notion that this widespread destruction is inevitable or even desirable”.

This is, in fact, the direction that the budding protest needs to work on the most.

The mantra that ‘a strong economy translates into a better environment’ has never been properly challenged in Malta; even though evidence points in the opposite direction.

It must be argued that ‘a strong economy’ does not need to be achieved through environmental destruction; and above all, that having a ‘strong economy’ is in itself meaningless, if it deprives us of our quality of life.