[ANALYSIS] How Muscat ‘discovered’ the environment on election eve

No amount of economic growth will ever compensate for the loss of serenity in daily life from over-development. Will this discontentment find an outlet in European and local elections, sending a strong message before the imminent race for the PL’s leadership?

Even those who prefer Muscat may use their vote to solicit a change in direction in areas where the government has a poor track record
Even those who prefer Muscat may use their vote to solicit a change in direction in areas where the government has a poor track record

With the notable exception of its energy policy, which has seen the conversion from heavy fuel oil to natural gas, Labour has so far not been keen on environmental issues, particularly those related to land use and construction.

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. This makes these elections the best opportunity for people who though unwilling to change government may be craving to vent their grievances on issues impacting their daily life.

This also explains why Muscat insists on turning this contest in to one pitting him against the opposition leader when in reality it is merely an exercise in choosing the MEPs and local councillors.

No amount of economic growth will ever compensate for this loss of serenity in daily life.

For even those who prefer Muscat to Delia may use their vote to solicit a change in direction in those areas where the government has a poor track record. Moreover, these voters do not even have to vote for the PN to do so. They may well do so by voting for smaller parties or independents in both MEP elections and in a considerable number of local elections. This time round they are even spoilt for choice when it comes to third party candidates.

From Xaghra l-Hamra to Muscat’s ‘biggest’ park

Muscat’s environmental epiphany is reminiscent of Lawrence Gonzi’s ‘discovery’ of the environment in 2007, the year he dropped plans for a golf course announcing a national park in Xaghra l-Hamra. This happened a year after his government had unleashed environmental havoc through his extension of building boundaries and increased heights in village cores, two measures from which the country is still suffering. It was also a 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.

Muscat’s environmental epiphany is reminiscent of Lawrence Gonzi’s ‘discovery’ of the environment in 2007, the year he dropped plans for a golf course announcing a national park in Xaghra l-Hamra
Muscat’s environmental epiphany is reminiscent of Lawrence Gonzi’s ‘discovery’ of the environment in 2007, the year he dropped plans for a golf course announcing a national park in Xaghra l-Hamra

It may be these voters, a large number of which may well have migrated to Labour in elections held in 2013 and 2017 which may be of concern to Muscat now. 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. For if they do not use their power in mid-terms when can they use it? Added to these there could be more traditional Labour voters who resent their party’s transformation in to a pro-business party.

10 years after Gonzi’s conversion on the road to Xaghra l-Hamra, it is Muscat’s turn to propose a park for the people. It comes at a time when government is hell bent on pushing through the Gozo tunnel despite its devastating impact on some of the most scenic areas in Gozo and the north of Malta while presiding over a building boom and road widening exercise of unprecedented proportions. To address the first signs of discontentment he promises “the biggest project of open public space in an entire generation,” while reiterating his commitment to make Gozo the first island to shift to electric cars.

Muscat’s skin-deep environmentalism

Still Muscat’s speech indicates that his green conversion is at best skin deep and at worse an exercise in deception. For him environmental problems are merely a “consequence of progress”, not the starting point for a radical ecological conversion which redefines our idea progress by putting local communities and pedestrians rather than private cars and big business at the centre of policy.

“Even if we paint our house, we’re going to have consequences. So what? We don’t work on our roads? We’re not going to find excuses not to carry out work,” he said while affirming once again that “we will always be pro-business,” and that this is the only way to have enough funds to improve the quality of life of the people.  

So in his mind-frame even environmental problems can be solved not by changing direction, but by dishing out funds for a major recreational project.  

He seems to forget 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 sheer after thought.

This was clearly the case with the fuel station policy crafted in 2015, which was so badly twisted to serve 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?

Destined for construction as well? The White Rocks area
Destined for construction as well? The White Rocks area

Yet the attitude has pervaded the government’s attitude to construction and planning. Elected in 2013 on a platform which promised social impact assessments on major economic decisions, Muscat’s government has constantly failed on assessing the impact 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 had 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 that which happened in Gwardamangia. People with pushchairs cannot even pass comfortably on pavements without swallowing 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.

A park to redeem their sins

Instead Muscat’s solution – expressed in a discourse reminiscent of that used by developers to justify high-rise developments is “the biggest project of open public space in an entire generation”… Like developers’ projects it is also being granted as a concession meant to sweeten the pill and solicit eternal gratitude.

It bears strong resemblance to the PA’s “floor area ration policy” which permits extra heights in exchange of more “open spaces”. It also coincides with attempts to present land reclamation as a panacea for the increased claustrophobia created by endless construction.

Yet 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 like 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.  

Despite clear shortcomings, the very fact that Muscat is seeking to address the consequences of his own policies suggests that he is mildly concerned. The question is: will Muscat once again succeed in reassuring voters, as he probably will, or will this discontentment find an outlet in European and local elections, thus sending a strong message before the imminent race for the PL’s leadership?

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