Government presents motion to entrench Constitutional protection of environment

Constitutional amendment would introduce ‘strong moral and political obligation’ for the government to preserve the environment for future generations, minister says

Environment minister Jose Herrera
Environment minister Jose Herrera

Environment minister Jose Herrera presented a motion in parliament on Friday, that will see the government fulfil its electoral pledge to enshrine environmental protection in the Constitution.

Before last June’s snap election, and with the environment a great concern for a considerable portion of the population, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had pledged that if elected, his new administration would ensure that “the protection of the environment is given weight and priority, in every governmental decision”.

The Bill presented by Herrera proposes amending Article 9 of the Constitution which currently requires the state to “safeguard the landscape and the historical and artistic patrimony of the Nation”.

The new sub-article reads: “The State shall protect the environment for the benefit of present and future generations and shall take measures to address the problem of pollution and any other form of environmental degradation in Malta, and to promote the right of action in favour of the environment.”

In comments to MaltaToday, Herrera said the amendment would introduce a “strong moral obligation” on the part of the government to enact policy that favours environmental protection.

“When we take our oath as MPs we take it to uphold the Constitution, meaning we are obliged to implement the principles in the Constitution,” said Herrera. “This is a big leap forward for the environment because it will oblige future governments to prioritise it in the various laws they draft.”

Asked whether the change was merely a cosmetic one that would not impact day-to-day protection of the environment, Herrera pointed out that there were certain issues and principles that while very important, couldn’t be judicially enforced.

“I tried to see if I could do it judicially,” insisted the minister. “I can’t have a law saying you must preserve the environment, and then have people suing government if emissions increase for example. The courts can’t enforce policy, but the amendment will create more political accountability on the environment.”

He also rejected claims that the amendment was purely intended to quell criticism over the Government’s environmental track-record.

“You are making the government more politically and morally accountable for the environment. It can now be criticised for not having fulfilled its obligations towards the Constitution,” he said, adding that the environment would also have to be kept in mind when drafting new laws. “You’re creating a second tier of responsibility.”

Ultimately, he said the “final judges in a democracy are the people” and that if a government failed in its obligations towards the Constitution it would be held accountable by the people.

Herrera said he was happy that the Opposition would be supporting the Bill after he met and discussed it with environment spokesperson Jason Azzopardi in a “cordial and productive meeting”.

Once the amendment has been passed, Herrera said he would be working to create an environmental court that would be tasked with deciding legal matters related to the environment, in line with the general principle soon to be outlined in the Constitution.

Azzopardi said he had presented the Bill to the parliamentary group. He said there was “all round” support for the Bill, however, he added that the Opposition reserved the right to present its own amendments at the committee stage.

He thanked Herrera for meeting with him and keeping him in the loop as the Bill was being drafted, adding that the minister’s approach was as it “ought to be” and contrasted with the relationship he had with justice minister Owen Bonnici.

Asked what the law would effectively change, Azzopardi stressed that it was the insertion of the importance of the environment in the Constitution’s Declaration of Principles but it was not enforceable in a court of law.

He said there were many principles that could be enshrined in the Constitution but ultimately, he said, enforcement was a different kettle of fish.

Azzopardi, again reiterating his and the Opposition’s support for the Bill, pointed to issues such as the controversial fuel station relocation policy, Malta’s air quality and the increase in granted permits in the run-up to general elections reported by this newspaper, as examples of legal action that went against the spirit of the principle of environmental protection.

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