I represent the principles of Labour, not the party | Conrad Borg Manche

Gzira mayor CONRAD BORG MANCHE has good reason to celebrate his court victory, to save the only public garden in his locality: but the battle to save the rest of Gzira, has yet to begin  

Conrad Borg Manche (Photo: James Bianchi)
Conrad Borg Manche (Photo: James Bianchi)

Last Wednesday’s court ruling was a resounding victory for the residents of Gzira (and common sense, in general). But the reasons given by Judge Mintoff, in overturning the earlier petrol station decision, were mostly ‘technical’ in nature: namely, that there was no prior consultation with the Gzira council. This suggests that the Lands Department could still forge ahead regardless; this time, making sure that it ‘ticks all the right boxes’, as it were. Are you concerned, then, that this battle might not be over yet?  

I’m always concerned, to be honest. Because you just never know what’s going to happen next. This whole issue had, after all, started behind my back. In fact, I only actually found about the plans [to relocate the Manoel Island petrol station to Gzira’s only public garden], by a complete coincidence. 

From the very beginning, I had plans of my own to enlarge and renovate that garden... but when I went to the Planning Authority (over a completely unrelated issue, in July 2019), I found that the owner of the petrol station, and representatives of the Land Authority, happened to be there on the same day.  

They were already discussing the relocation plans, back then; and the discussions were already at an advanced stage. In fact, had I not been present, at the time – by pure coincidence – I would never have found about it at all, until it was too late. Because the 30-day limit for objections would have expired; and by then, it would have become a ‘fait accomplit’. 

That, basically, is how this whole thing started. So yes, I wouldn’t be at all surprised, if the authorities try and do things behind our backs, once again. 

Having said this, though: I would be VERY surprised if the Lands Authority were insane enough to actually try to reactivate this application, after all the public backlash. It would, let’s face it, be suicidal... 

But this, at the end of the day, was what this ruling was all about. Because, had it been otherwise – i.e., had things been done properly: with all the necessary consultation, and transparency – it would have been a very different story.  

In fact, one of the main aspects highlighted in the judges’ ruling was that the authorities have to operate in full transparency. You cannot have a local council wasting all its energy, fighting against something that should never have been allowed to happen, in the first place... 

On the subject of ‘backlash’, though: not all of it was directed at the Lands Authority. You yourself have received your fair share of hostile reactions: mostly emanating from supporters of your own party. How do you respond, for instance, to criticism that your actions are ‘damaging the PL’? 

First of all: I couldn’t really have acted otherwise, in this case. It was evident to everybody, from day one, that this ‘project’ was absolutely unacceptable, from any perspective you care to name. And I really mean ‘everybody’, by the way: we conducted an Environmental Impact Assessment, for instance... and 82% of Gzira residents were opposed to it. 82%! Come on... that’s not the sort of percentage that you can easily ‘ignore’: either as a mayor representing the local community; or – even less, I would say – as a government calling itself ‘Socialist’. 

So, to answer your question more directly: if there are people out there, who think that I did all this to just ‘damage the party’... I can assure them all, that: for one thing, it isn’t true at all; and for another, the damage would have been much, MUCH worse, had this project gone ahead as originally planned.  

How would you describe your relations with the Labour Party, right now? 

To be honest, I don’t know. Let’s just say that there have been a lot of ‘manoeuvres’, within the party, that I felt uncomfortable with. But I’m the type of person who can put up with a lot. I calculate my actions; you won’t see me ‘throwing any tanrtrums’, or ‘losing my temper’, or anything like that.  

But at a certain point, it was all getting too much. When you have certain councillors, from your own party, conspiring with others to make life difficult for you... or constantly raising trivial issues, just to keep ‘annoying you’, or ‘distracting you’ from the really important issues... it becomes painstakingly clear that you no longer enjoy the backing of that party. 

Unfortunately, that’s what politics in Malta is like, at the end of the day. When others see someone who is trying to ‘do the right thing’... they always try to stop him. In my case, however, it didn’t work... 

There was more to it than just ‘Labour councillors in Gzira’, though. The lawyer representing the Lands Authority, in this case, just happened to be Ramona Attard: the President of the Labour Party, no less. Given that you accused her (and the PL, in general) of ‘betraying the principles of Socialism’: wouldn’t you say that you’ve burnt your last bridges with Labour, now? 

As regards Ramona Attard; let’s just say that I never had any rapport with her before – we never actually met, that I recall; and I only ever knew her through her public role, as PL President – and, even less, do we have any rapport today. So there was certainly nothing ‘personal’, in what I said about her. 

But I felt I had to say it all the same, because... you cannot have things like this. You cannot have the President of a party which, on one level, ‘evangelises’ about Socialism; then, on another level, practises the very opposite of what it preaches.  

Now: just to be clear, my issue was not with fact that Ramona Attard – or anyone else – was a ‘lawyer representing the Lands Authority’. Lawyers have to eat, too, after all; and you can’t begrudge them, for doing the job they’re supposed to be doing, anyway. 

But when the lawyer in question also happens to be the President of the Labour Party... sorry, but it’s just not on. To put it another way: if I were both Lands Authority lawyer, and Labour Party president; and something like this cropped up – which is going to pit me against the residents of an entire locality (not to mention, against the public interest, and the common good)... you can rest assured, I would not touch that case with a barge-pole. I would send someone else. I mean, come on... it stands to reason, doesn’t it?  

You can’t claim to be ‘defending the public interest’, and ‘upholding the principles of Socialism’; while at the same time, ‘prioritising the private interests, of people who have been making money out of occupying public land, for over 30 years’.  

In other words: you can’t have your cake, and eat it... 

Wouldn’t you say, however, that those two roles were all along ‘incompatible’, anyway? That party presidents should NOT also double up as ‘lawyers representing public authorities’, in the first place? 

I’m not so sure that they are necessarily ‘incompatible’, myself.  It all depends on how you actually perform in those two roles. For example: if, as Lands Authority lawyer, Ramona Attard were to have taken the people’s side – as should have been the case all along, really – there wouldn’t be any ‘conflict of interest’, at all. 

Because the irony, in all this, is that the very first article in the Lands Authority Act states that the Authority has to administer its responsibilities, so as to “ensure the best use of Government land”. So in this particular case, the Lands Authority was actually breaching the first article of the law it is supposed to be enforcing.    

Let’s face it: placing a petrol station, in a public garden that represents the only public space left, in one of Malta’s most densely populated urban areas... that’s not exactly ‘the best use of Government land’, is it?  

All the same, however, you are still an official representative of the Labour Party on the Gzira council; even if you clearly don’t identify with that party anymore. Do you not see that as a conflict, either? 

At this stage, I would say I am representing the ‘principles of the Labour Party’, and not so much the party itself. Because, if I am a member of the PL at all... it’s not because ‘my father, or my grandfather, was Labour’. In fact: no one in my family is Labour, except for me. It’s only because I believe in the principles of Socialism; and as such, I want to be there, to defend the people who most need defending: the ‘small’ [‘iz-zghir’]; the downtrodden; the people who are being exploited, etc. 

Those are my principles; and I will stick to them, no matter what. And in theory, they should be the Labour Party’s principles, too. They are, after all, written in black-on-white, in the PL’s own statute. So if the Labour Party is no longer following those principles... it’s not my problem, at the end of the day. It’s theirs. 

Meanwhile, in an interview with our newspaper, PM Robert Abela said that there are ongoing ‘mediation efforts’, between yourself and the party. Can you confirm whether any meetings have, in fact, taken place? 

Yes, there have been a few meetings; and further meetings are in the pipeline. I don’t know if they’re going to actually lead anywhere, naturally. But there is a dialogue happening. They know where I stand... 

Onto a separate (but related) issue: the traffic situation in Gzira, in general. The shocking murder of Pelin Kaya has once again underscored just how dangerous Gzira’s streets have actually become (a fact that is separately confirmed by official traffic accident statistics). As mayor of that locality, what’s your own explanation for this state of affairs? Why has Gzira become such a ‘death-trap’, for pedestrians? 

I’m not sure where to even begin, to be honest. But let me start with this: yes, Gzira has a shockingly high rate of serious traffic accidents. And ironically, most of Gzira’s fatalities, over the years, have occurred on the seafront. You can include Pelin Kaya here, too: she died at the bottom of Testaferrata Street... less than 100 metres from the beginning of the Strand.  

And I say ‘ironically’, because if you go to France, Spain, or Italy... the seafronts there are not like ours. They USED TO BE like ours, 40 years ago; but those countries recognised that ‘seafront areas’ were being enjoyed by the general public; so they took the decision to remove all high-speed roads, and replace them with infrastructre that prioritises ‘people, over cars’. 

Here in Malta, on the other hand: we’ve done the very opposite. Take ‘speed cameras’, for instance: where have we actually put them all, in this country? On all the main, arterial roads– the Regional Road, the Mriehel Bypass, etc – and NOT on the roads where they are most needed: in urban areas, where thousands of pedestrians have to cross the street, on a daily basis; and where the traffic needs to be ‘calmed’, the most... 

Now: I’m not saying that it was ‘wrong’ to install speed cameras in places like the Kappara Roundabout, or elsewhere: of course, they are needed there too. But why only there? Why not on the Gzira seafront: where so many people have died, or been severely injured? 

For let’s face it: the Gzira Strand is a four-lane road. To get to the seafront promenade, you have to cross four lanes of very busy traffic. Now: do you know how many elderly people are afraid to actually go for a walk on the Gzira seafront, because of the risk of being ‘run over’ in the attempt? 

At the risk of an awkward question, though: isn’t it your job, as mayor, to actually install those speed cameras – not to mention zebra-crossings (which I can confirm are sorely lacking in Gzira, even from my own daily experience)? Wait, why are you looking at me like that? 

[Exasperatedly] What, do you think I haven’t tried? I’ve been applying to have all those things introduced, for years!  

Zebra crossings, for instance. If it were up to me, there’d be one at every single intersection in Gzira. Like the one right outside this office, for instance [between Rue D’Argens and Sliema Road]. That, in itself, is one of the busiest – if not THE busiest – traffic junction, in the entire country. And there isn’t even a place for pedestrians to cross...  

Now: in other countries, you will see how busy intersections like that always have zebra-crossings – or underground crossings, where possible – in the same ‘corner’ of the intersection [relative to the direction of traffic] – so that motorists would be able to see where people were actually crossing the road. 

Here, on the other hand, people have no option but to just cross, from any or all directions at once. And then, people wonder why certain areas become ‘accident black spots’... 

[Shaking his head]. No, I’ve been applying for zebra crossings, and speed cameras, and other traffic-calming measures, for literally years on end; but now, I’ve given up. After all, why should I – as the mayor of a locality - have to ‘beg’ the authorities, for these things? Isn’t it obvious that they are needed? That they might save people’s lives...? 

What’s your own explanation, for the fact that the authorities have so consistently refused your demands, for so long? 

The only explanation, as far as I can see, is that: the authorities, in this country, always give priority to cars... never to people. Their only concern is to ‘keep the traffic moving’ – ideally as fast as possible – and that’s it, really. Nothing else matters...