‘Doing nothing’ is not an option | Ian Borg

His admirers have dubbed him ‘King of the Roads’; his detractors use various other, less flattering epithets.  But Transport and Infrastructure Minister IAN BORG insists that his controversial road projects are necessary for the country to move forward

Roads minister Ian Borg on Reno Bugeja Jistaqsi
Roads minister Ian Borg on Reno Bugeja Jistaqsi

You have a reputation as ‘minister for roads’;  now, however, you seem keen on carving out a reputation as ‘the minister of flyovers’… despite all the flak and criticism these projects are attracting…

Flyovers attract criticism, yes; but they are also bringing about a positive change in people’s quality of life. This what I hear from people who are experiencing projects such as the Kappara flyover; and now, also the Marsa junction. 

There are other challenges, however. Those are not the only interventions we have planned. We have to continue with the strategic plan for the country, agreed to also by the European Commission, to intervene in other areas as well: including Msida, which is a critical congestion zone.

Everything has its price however. In the case of the Mriehel flyover, it seems that the project was kept ‘hush-hush’. In the end it had to be the farmers to sound the alarm… 

That is what the critics of the projects said. The reality, however, is that farmers got to know because Infrastructure Malta sent for them, and told them about the plans which had been submitted to the PA six months earlier. It was anything but ‘hush hush’. I repeat: the Mriehel flyover had been agreed, since the time of the previous minister, with the European Commission, in the strategic plan for important infrastructural projects…

All the same, there is a perception that these projects are only intended to favour big businesses. Is it a coincidence that there are two controversial high-projects in the Mriehel area, owned by the Gasan and Tumas Groups? 

I won’t mention names; but there is also another important factory in Mriehel, which employs a significant number of people. 

Right now, its application for an extension in hanging in the balance, because of the lack of suitable access to Mriehel. 

There is also another permit being implemented in the area – of another company, but not the ones you mentioned - which depends specifically on that junction being finalised…

Which company are you referring to?

That is something you can do your research about, and find out. But it’s an important, long-established company, in the same area, and one of the permit conditions is that the Mriehel junction has to be completed.  But it has nothing to do with the towers you mentioned. 

Besides, anyone who is familiar with that area will know that, to access the Gasan and Tumas high-rise developments, you need to approach from the other side of Mirehel… not from where the junction is planned. 

It also bears mentioning that there are separate works going on in the same area, on the side of Fleur de Lys: all aimed at improving access…

Meanwhile, the Mriehel flyover project – like the Central Link project before it – has come in for a lot of criticism: among others, by former PM Alfred Sant, and former President Marie Loise Coleiro Preca. Don’t you think these two Labour heavyweights have a point in criticising the project?

If we measure the Mriehel project using the same yardstick as the Central Link… I hope the outcome will be the same, too. In the Central Link case, the resistance consisted of around 3,000 people, who made as much noise as they could – and they had every right to make their voices heard; I was pleased to see their commitment. And thanks to the arguments they raised, we changed and improved the plans a number of times… including to safeguard trees in the area. Not only did we not uproot the existing trees, but we actually added new ones.

Today, I take satisfaction from the fact that many people send me messages, telling me that they no longer waste half an hour stuck in traffic in Attard; they are saving time, fuel, and also sparing themselves noxious fumes…

What about the criticism by Sant and Coleiro Preca, though?

I have the greatest respect, both for Her Excellency the former President, and for ex-Labour leader Alfred Sant. I am convinced that their comments are genuine; and yes, we will continue to improve the project, including the plan that have already been submitted.

But ‘doing nothing’ is not an option. Don’t tell me that, every time you pass through the Mriehel bypass, you don’t get frustrated to see all those vehicles cutting across from side-roads. Yet the suggestion of several people was: divert them onto the Central Link… so that, instead of turning onto the Mriehel by-pass from the industrial estate, they would have to go all the way round, past Mount Carmel Hospital, and come to Mriehel from the other side.

And these include people who had previously criticised the Central Link project. Yet they are now suggesting it as a solution to the Mriehel problem, too. So suddenly, the Central Link has become a ‘good thing’.

But let’s not be ridiculous. It makes much more sense to create an intervention that, while respecting the sustainability of the environment, improves accessibility to the area. The country needs to move forward…

On the subject of the environment, another criticism is that these projects also encourage and promote more vehicle-use…

A quick comment:  nobody has ever told me that they ‘bought a car because I implemented the Central Link project’. Let’s put things into their proper perspective. People buy cars because there isn’t an alternative. When people do have an alternative, they will consider it. 

It’s the same with politics. Today, there is no alternative to the present government. What is the Opposition proposing for these issues?

But let’s stick to the subject at hand: we will leave the people to be the judges on our projects.   Last Sunday, the newspaper Illum published a survey which revealed that ‘concern with traffic’ is at the lowest level since 2017.  Does this mean we’ve solved the problem? No, because the problem now becomes whether we use the time that we have gained through these projects, to implement longer-term solutions, and to introduce a long-term culture change…

Couldn’t the survey results also be because of the COVID-19 pandemic: which has reduced economic activity, tourism, and therefore also reduced traffic?

If you want to latch onto any excuse, to argue that the government’s projects – and, specifically, the projects of Ian Borg – are not improving the situation… you can be part of that faction. I, however, listen to the people. And the people are happy that these projects are improving their quality of life. 

Moving to other subjects now: some of your decisions have been criticised for diminishing people’s quality of life… including access to open spaces. The agreement you sealed with the hunters over Mizieb and L-Ahrax , for instance. Isn’t that a case of denying people access to the countryside, to favour a specific lobby?

I sealed that agreement, because I am a ‘doer’.  In the 1980s, we had a Prime Minister who – and I think he did the right thing – left those areas in the hands of the hunters: to plant trees, water trees, grow trees… and also to indulge in their pastime in those areas. But the agreement didn’t specify any rights, obligations, or even terms. 

The agreement I signed with the hunters, on the other hand, gave them a list of obligations: including that they have to allow public access…

This attracted a lot of criticism, however…

So what? The fact that I was criticised doesn’t mean that I was wrong; all it means is that some people disagree with me, on that particular issue. 

And just because you get criticised, it doesn’t mean you have to stop. So much so, that even Bernard Grech has now realised that we were right: he has now removed David Thake from his shadow cabinet [because of his anti-hunting views]; and just yesterday, he went running to meet the FKNK. 

As far as I know, however, Grech did not tell the hunters that he would rescind Ian Borg’s contract, if he becomes prime minister. 

And I had warned the NGOs about this:  that they should ask themselves whether all the political parties would have done the same as me. 

The answer is ‘yes’: because I believe that we did the right thing. 

On the subject of ‘doing the right thing’: recently the Standards Commissioner was called upon…

… by someone who clearly has nothing better to with this time…

… to investigate a case when you allegedly ‘took the Lord’s name in vain’ on live TV…

 … That is what some people said. And if some people believe I really said that: I apologise: but I will continue to insist that it wasn’t that way at all…

Doesn’t this insistence of yours come across as arrogant?

Not in the least. Let me put it this way: I am in politics to do a job. So I expect to be judged on how I do my work. And those who know me personally, know what I’m really like. I don’t have to make excuses for other people’s misconceptions…

Let me close with a few quick questions about your political past. You have worked as a minister under both Muscat and Abela: what are their defining characteristics? And what would you say distinguishes them from each other, as Maltese prime ministers?

They are both great political personalities, who have done, and are doing (respectively) a lot of important work for the country. And this is something the people can attest to, thanks to the improvements in their quality of life under both prime ministers.

Without a doubt, Joseph Muscat built up a movement – based on civil rights, and a strengthened economy whose effects have also helped us withstand the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic…

These are all ‘pluses’, though. What about the ‘minuses’?

Who doesn’t have minuses?  Everybody has minuses… that includes you, me, and everyone else watching this interview. But why should we only speak about minuses? I prefer to look at the plus side of things.

As for Robert Abela: what challenge hasn’t he faced, this past year? First he had to face the political climate of this country – which is one of Joseph Muscat’s minuses, by the way: Abela inherited a situation of political instability. 

But then, just as Robert Abela addressed the concerns of all the people who were protesting about governance issues… the pandemic broke out. A crisis, of the like we had not seen in 100 years. And he had to take decisions about it every day…

When Joseph Muscat resigned in January 2020, you were named as a potential replacement leader. Do you regret not contesting the leadership elections?

I don’t regret it, because I placed the interests of party and country ahead of any personal ambitions of my own: which, in any case, I didn’t really have. And now, a year later, we have a Prime minister who is building on all the positive achievements of the past…

Don’t you feel that you ‘missed the bus’?

I didn’t ‘miss the bus’, because I decided [not to take it]. You ‘miss the bus’ when it arrives at the bus-stop, but you’re not there. I, on the other hand, was at the bus-stop when it arrived. I just decided not to get on, that’s all. Because I felt that there were others who could fulfil that role better than myself...

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