[ANALYSIS] Has Labour alienated the green lobby?

As if proposing Zonqor point for development was not enough, the government has used the start of the holiday season as a cover to rush to change Malta’s planning goalposts. Why is Joseph Muscat taking the greens for granted? asks James Debono

Conventional wisdom has it that floating voters tend to be more educated people. And more educated people tend to be more sensitive to environmental issues.

On its own, this should make Joseph Muscat cautious in his dealings with environmentalists. But events in the past days indicate that the PM is not just ignoring environmentalists – he is wilfully antagonising them. 

NGOs are already disturbed by amendments to the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Planning (SPED), which effectively creates loopholes for ODZ development when this is considered “sustainable” or when development within development zones is not “feasible”. Moreover, the SPED does not even include concrete enforceable policies. 

In fact the document is made up of a discussion document issued by the previous government to which the Labour government has added a number of projects like the Gozo airstrip, land reclamation, and tourism development in Comino, whose approval has now been facilitated.

A 24-hour job

Environmental NGOs were dumbstruck on Monday after being given a 24-hour notice for a meeting due for the next day during which they were expected to submit their feedback on three voluminous laws to parliament’s committee for the environment and development.

The Environment Bill is 76 pages long with 86 clauses, each of which has numerous sub-clauses and three schedules, the new Planning Bill is 98 pages long with 105 clauses and four schedules, and the Bill setting up a new Tribunal is 50 pages long with 55 clauses and several sub-clauses.

The three laws were published on the parliamentary website on Friday, 3rd July and made available on the government website on Monday, 6th July.

All this had to be discussed at a 150-minute meeting of the Environment Standing committee in parliament on Tuesday, 7th July and raised in plenary in Parliament on Wednesday, 8th July in the morning.

Marathon sessions, which saw MPs being convoked in the morning to discuss the bills, indicated an intention to press ahead with approval of the law before the summer recess.

But Environment Minister Leo Brincat denies this, insisting that it was always the government’s intention to approve the law in its final reading after summer.  Moreover, after expressing their disappointment environmentalists were given two extra weeks to read the laws and submit written submissions. But what sense does it make to have the debate in the plenary concluded before NGOs submitted their views?  Why not postpone the second reading to after summer, thus giving civil society the time to scrutinise a reform which is set to change Malta’s planning goalposts.

How the goalposts are being changed

The planning law itself reverses the landmark reform of 2010, which saw the introduction of the sixth schedule, which effectively bans the Malta Environment and Planning Authority from approving any illegal development located on protected areas like Natura 2000 sites irrespective of when these took place.

Moreover the existing law forbids MEPA from legalising any ODZ development carried out after May 2008, including any illegal extension to a legal building.

This reversal not only means that all the illegalities made in the past are now eligible for sanctioning. It also means that developers may be tempted to develop illegally in the hope of getting a permit some time in the future.

Even public consultation is being contaminated by the allowance made for “anonymous” submissions, something that opens a window for developers to propose changes in policies and plans without showing their hands. Since MEPA is by law obliged to consider and provide a response to every submission, this measure may be meant as a way through which developers can influence the local plans which are yet to be approved. 

Overall this sounds like a counter reform. For after being party to the extension of building boundaries and the increase in building heights, in 2008 the PN government did close a number of loopholes after being re-elected.

But the greatest impact of the proposed reform is that of turning the glorified Environment Authority into an external consultee whose remit in normal planning applications will be the same as that of the Malta Tourism Authority.  

The bill is sugar-coated by clauses envisioning board participation for the Environment Authority in both the Planning Board and the Planning Authority’s executive council. But this is no substitute for the role of the Environment Protection Directorate in assessing planning applications on a daily basis, and not only when consulted.   

By having an authority dedicated to environmental protection the government may have also found a way to co-opt environmentalists who may be appointed to serve on its boards in a bid to give legitimacy to the new set-up.

The creation of the authority also finally gives the well-meaning Leo Brincat the chance to prove his worth by being actually responsible for an entity with executive powers. But divorced from the planning process, the new authority may have limited influence.

Brincat prides himself on the fact that the law empowers the authority to appeal against planning decisions. But what’s the use of appealing to another government appointed body when the current set up could have been reformed to enable the Environment Protection Directorate to stop environmentally damaging proposals in their infancy?

Muscat’s calculation

But why is Muscat so keen on alienating environmentalists and showing so little tact in their regard?

Muscat’s calculation may be that most environmentalists do not vote for his party anyway and that switchers include irate businessmen angry at MEPA’s perceived bias against developers, which may be partly correct. 

But this analysis ignores the fact that the switchers also include part of mainstream voters who are becoming more aware of environmental issues. Moreover younger and educated Labour voters tend to share the same values of other voters in the same educational and age cohorts. This may explain why in the same week that he was pushing retrograde environmental laws, the Muscat administration presented very progressive legislation, which effectively bans censorship.

Muscat may also use confrontation against middle-class environmentalists to rally the party’s grassroots, even if his eagerness to sell public land to private interests irks both influential left-wingers and also environmentally conscious middle-class voters.  

Still Muscat has been careful not to off-balance himself. Ditching a pro-Zonqor development protest backed by Marsaskala mayor Mario Calleja and supported by Labourites on the social networks, Muscat has strayed away from direct confrontation with environmentalists. Playing the class card to depict environmentalists as bourgeois enemies of progress will backfire on Muscat, as it would alienate a section of the electorate strategically located across the political spectrum.

Muscat’s other calculation may be that this is the only time in which he can take a couple of unpopular decisions simply because the election is three years away.  Neither can Muscat afford to alienate the developers’ lobby, which forms part of Labour’s hegemonic block. Moreover Muscat’s economic model hinges on economic growth boosted by investments in the property sector. He can’t afford to alienate the people who may well make his economic miracle possible.

Muscat may also be banking on the fact that while people tend to show anger when a piece of countryside like Zonqor is proposed for construction, changes in policies which pave the way for such developments rarely have an impact on people. Through policy changes he is merely paving the way for projects, which will probably take place during the second Labour legislature. It is not a surprise that Muscat has counter-balanced controversy on the new laws by backtracking on the shooting range proposal in Mosta.

One sure way for Muscat to outmanoeuvre everyone would be to dish plans to develop a part of Zonqor point, an act which would compensate for any negative fall-out from the proposed legal changes. But this may well be a step too far, considering the political capital spent on defending this choice.

Once again Muscat has proven his worth in the art of managing public opinion, even if he knows that he is losing his sheen whenever groups with no self-interest or partisan agenda confront him.