Taking stock in the lion’s den | Leo Brincat

In opposition Leo Brincat distinguished himself as an effective critic of the PN. Now he finds himself addressing controversies like hunting, waste and air quality

Even the furniture arrangements in Leo Brincat's new den in Casa Leone in Santa Venera remain unfinished. But rather than roaring like a lion, Brincat is cautiously taking stock of the situation and avoiding any rash decisions.

Brincat is starting his new job with the advantage retaining responsibility for the same areas as fell within his portfolio as Shadow Minister.

But two key areas within Brincat's remit, environmental policy and climate change, fall under the regulatory authority of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, for which the Prime Minister and his Parliamentary Secretary, Michael Farrugia, are now responsible.

Moreover the Malta Resources Authority, which according to the PL's manifesto will be amalgamated with the environmental arm of MEPA, presently falls under new Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi.

Brincat insists that this state of affairs is only temporary, until the promised separation between the planning and environmental arms of MEPA and the amalgamation of the latter with the MRA takes place.

"The easiest thing would have been to do this separation overnight but we want a seamless transition as demanded by all stakeholders, including the employees involved, who obviously want a reassurance that these changes do not impinge on their conditions of work."

To avoid duplication, Brincat is adopting a hands-on approach.  He mentions his immediate reaction to the disposal of burnt oil over the cliffs in the south of Malta and the collapse of another part of the Azure Window in Dwejra.

To address such cases Brincat is in "constant touch" with Parliamentary Secretary Farrugia, who for his part is "directly soliciting MEPA's response."

With regards to the illegal disposal of oil on the Tal-Mara cliffs Brincat was  "reassured" that action was being taken by MEPA's enforcement arm.

For Dwejra he has solicited an update from MEPA on what action has been taken since the problem surfaced months ago. He also wants the Dwejra Heritage Park's management committee to function properly.

Brincat estimates that the decoupling of MEPA's environment and planning arms will take about a year.

Climate change also falls under MEPA's remit, but Brincat indicates that some of the people best able to address this issue have already been shifted to the MRA by the previous government. Brincat is in touch with Konrad Mizzi to ensure that those responsible for policy on climate change will eventually migrate to Brincat's ministry.

Brincat makes a sharp distinction between policy, which should fall under ministerial responsibility and regulation, and monitoring, which should be the responsibility of authorities like MEPA and the MRA.

"The MRA should be regulating policy not making policy. Those who are responsible for policy will be taken on board in the Ministry itself, and those who are involved in monitoring and regulation should be kept in the MRA."

Brincat also makes it clear that he disagrees with having regulators like the MRA in the same ministry as operators like Enemalta, insisting that the current arrangement through which the MRA falls under Konrad Mizzi's energy portfolio is only temporary until the MRA is amalgamated to the new Environment Authority, which would fall under Brincat's portfolio.

"It does not make sense to have an operator and a regulator under the same ministry. The fact that the MRA presently falls under my colleague Konrad Mizzi is a transitional thing, because our manifesto makes it clear that the MRA should be amalgamated to the Environment Authority."

Brincat is determined to strengthen the role of the Environment Authority as an effective regulator.

"Over the past years we have had cases like the Mercaptan case (a case involving the illegal burning of hundreds of gallons of Mercaptan in Benghajsa and near Mgarr, by Enemalta) where the regulator proved to be weak and ineffective towards operators like Enemalta."

Another hot subject which has fallen to Brincat is hunting, which strictly speaking falls under the PM's remit, given his responsibility for MEPA. But in this case responsibility was immediately shifted to Parliamentary Secretary for Animal Rights, Agriculture and Fisheries Roderick Galdes, who works in Brincat's new ministry.

Brincat makes it clear that the party is bound by its electoral manifesto, which was endorsed by the electorate, and that the party was transparent in its discussions with hunters.

"The discussions with hunters had been ongoing for two years and this was publicly known...and the details of our conclusions of these meetings were known to the electorate before the elections."

He compares this to the lack of any reference to the hunting issue in the PN's manifesto.

"We have a clear mandate to implement what was promised in the manifesto, but we do not want to do this in a haphazard manner."

I point out that the agreement between Labour and hunters was quite vague, to the extent that it referred to a review of laws, legal notices and policies to eliminate uncertainties and ambiguities in local regulations, in respect of European rules.

"The people who voted for us and those who chose not to knew beforehand what our manifesto said and what was the gist of the summary of the agreement with hunters. What we are doing is finding an equitable way to ensure that in the implementation of all these measures, including the agreement with hunters, things are done in a sustainable manner and in a manner which does not run counter to EU rules."

One of the key issues for Brincat is "effective enforcement" of hunting regulations.

He refers to a recent meeting between the government, FKNK and Birdlife, which focused exclusively on this issue.

Brincat's aim is to reach consensus on hunting. But concretely how does the government plan to step up enforcement?

"At this point in time, the government's agenda is to ensure that enforcement will be effective and acceptable to all the key players. If government manages to reconcile the views of Birdlife and the hunters' federation on this particular issue after two weeks in power it will have done a lot."

He refers to an eventual "commitment" from both sides.

"One has to bear in mind that both organisations agree with effective enforcement. Even if there are different views on what constitutes illegality there is eagerness on both sides to bring to justice those who perpetrate illegalities."

But will the government strengthen its own enforcement?

"We will take note of what emerged in that meeting to enhance enforcement procedures to make sure that things move forward."

But one of the first measures of the new Labour government was the removal of the armbands system introduced in 2010, which was meant to distinguish hunters licensed in spring from unlicensed ones. Birdlife has warned that "without the use of armbands, distinction between licensed and unlicensed hunters will be practically impossible." So how credible is the new government's commitment to enforce the law against illegal hunting?

"I would not go in to such details at this stage. For some it might seem as an encouragement for more illegality, for others it is not. The primary issue is to make enforcement real and effective."

He also lambastes the previous government for not approving a pending legal notice which would have facilitated enforcement respecting hunters who are not members of the FKNK.

"For some unknown reason this was not published."

He points out that FKNK represents around 80% of hunters and the remaining 20% should also be held accountable.

I indicate to Brincat that both major parties are politically committed to applying the derogation on spring hunting. At the same time, both parties seem to see the need for an Ornis Committee, to introduce technical arguments to justify an existing political commitment. How far can one justify a political commitment with technical justifications?

Brincat makes it clear that it was impossible to present technical arguments this time around, because the spring hunting issue cropped up immediately after the election.

"I would have preferred to carry out extensive studies in advance...but in the absence of that I am assured that the Ornis Committee will also be commissioning the necessary studies."

In the past studies based on the Carnet de chasse were criticized for several flaws. So was the SMS system, which will be retained in this year's spring hunting season. How can we have a real assessment of how many birds are actually being shot?

"Our intention is to really take stock of the situation...I am adopting this policy in all areas. We have a lot of pressure on to do things which were not done in past years...to have the big picture is not an easy task."

But is there not a risk that the previous political commitments on hunting will contrast with the findings of technical studies, and what would a Labour government do in such a situation?

"It will be unfair on all stakeholders involved to prejudge this issue at this point in time, when we are already treating this issue with a sense of urgency, and I can assure you that we are treating it addressing all stakeholders and with EU regulations constantly in mind."

I turn to an issue which falls directly under Brincat's ministerial remit: waste. In his first public declarations after the election Brincat referred to a report by the European Environment Agency, according to which Malta ranks at the bottom of European efforts to improve recycling and minimize waste generation.

According to the report Malta's yearly average recycling rate worsened over the past decade, from some 0.2% in 2006 to -1.5% of municipal waste in 2010.

Moreover the amount of landfilled biodegradable waste should have decreased from 106,000 tonnes in 2010 to 70,000 tones in 2013. Instead the EEA report shows that landfilled waste increased to 150,000 tonnes.

"I do not have an instant solution overnight, but the worst thing is that when I recently asked for the full details on the EEA study I got only apologetic reassurances that we will still be able to meet our targets. I am not so convinced that we can do this so easily."

The way forward for Brincat is to set out those "strategic objectives" which need to be addressed to ensure that Malta does not remain a laggard.

"What I have done in the first week was to ask technical people to define the waste management priority areas."

The most urgent issue facing Malta according to Brincat is the implementation landfill directive.

"I was shocked to find out that there was meant to be a strategy on how to achieve the directive's targets which were meant to be completed by May 2004 had not been presented by 2009."

Brincat is still not sure whether a draft or a final version had ever been presented to the European Union, as he is still waiting for one, but what is sure is that no such strategy was ever made public.

He also identifies WasteServ as the main culprit for Malta's shortcomings in the waste sector, pointing at the damning findings of the Auditor General.

"The National Audit Office was so perturbed by the replies they were given by WasteServ that what started off as a purely financial analysis that on their own initiative they turned it in to an operational, management and financial full blown investigation."

Yet even in this case Brincat will not take any rush decisions and will only take action after "the bigger picture" is established.

Brincat does not mince words on the lack of transparency and "rampant nepotism" at WasteServ, describing the hiring of 75 employees by a security firm as a "convenient way of bypassing ETC rules" in order to turn the waste agency "into a personal fiefdom and employment agency of the powers that be."

He points out that the workforce at Wasteserv has mushroomed from 280 a couple of years ago (200 of whom are employed by a private contractor) to 111 direct employees and 307 employed by a private contractor now.

Still Brincat makes it clear that none of those employed with WasteServ will lose their jobs, and he now intends to hold a meeting for all WasteServ employees, including those working for the private contractor, to listen to their concerns.

"The worse thing to do is to create job insecurity at a time when we need to create new jobs."

Brincat does not want to use Malta's failure to meet EU targets on landfill and recycling as an excuse to build an incinerator, as proposed in the previous government's waste management plan.

"I would not like to be coerced to change my position against incineration. That is certainly something I would like to avoid at all costs. My views on incineration remain the same, and I do not want to be pushed into the position where incineration will be the only option available. I will doing everything humanly possible to avoid incineration."

The responsibility for afforestation and open spaces has also landed in Brincat's plate.  In this sector Brincat wants to change the focus from "building new megaparks" to a more "decentralized way of doing things at a local level by engaging local council."

One of the initiatives which Brincat will retain is Tree for You, which he deems successful.

What Brincat plans to address is the mismanagement at the newly opened family park at Marsaskala. He points out that plants there have wilted since it was opened on 28 February.

It was also difficult for Brincat to establish who is actually responsible for running the park. Although it falls under the parks section of the ministry, it is still not clear whether the park has a management board and an operations manager.

"The fact that plants are already dying in a project launched two weeks before the election speaks for itself."

He also intends to give more importance to the Majjistral Park by addressing issues of accessibility. He describes the park's administration as "dysfunctional" and promises to work hand in hand with Nature Trust, Gaia and Din l-Art Helwa to ensure its proper operation.

"We cannot have a situation where school children visiting the park have to turn back simply because the place is run in an unruly manner."

Brincat also makes it clear that "there has to be a place for everybody" at Majjistral, "hunters included."

Brincat is quick to point out that even NGOs like Nature Trust and Din l-Art Helwa have "no objections to hunters operating in certain hours."

When I point out that the major problem is the right of access to parts of the park, Brincat replies that "all stakeholders, including hunters" should be involved.

"I am quite sure that we can find a way that, without restricting anyone's leisure, the park can live up to its mission statement as a national heritage park to be enjoyed by families."

One of Labour's main priorities is air quality. Brincat plans to work closely with the Transport Ministry and the Energy Ministry on this issue.

During the electoral campaign the Delimara power station, operating on heavy fuel oils was described as a cancer factory. Brincat is quick to point out that even Prof. Victor Axiaq said so in an article penned on the Sunday Times. I tell Brincat that Labour's timeframe for the shift to natural gas will be two years. In those two years does the new government plan to convert the power station and do away with HFO by using diesel, something that can be done without any conversion costs now?

Brincat makes it clear that this is something which has to be discussed.

"We have to find a practical solution. I am aware that Konrad Mizzi is addressing this issue. But we will not operate in a state of limbo in the interim period...What I can assure you is that we won't start addressing air-quality issues when we convert to gas."

The environment minister is going to great pains to show that things are being done justly and transparently and yet try as he might, exactly the opposite picture becomes evident. He claims that talks with the hunting lobby had been going on for 2 years and one questins why no other NGO or stakeholder were ever present to these talks? Why does the hunting lobby merits all the attention and yet no similar meetings were ever held by the PL with other environmental NGOs ? Why does ORNIS has to have 3 government representatives, giving the government the obvious advantage of, at least, 4 out of 7 votes? To influence a foregone conclusion to pre-electoral agreements?. I would have expected you, James, to have more journalistic acumen to take the environment minister to task over these anomalies rather than letting him get away with just a cart load of ideological rhetoric, of which we already have our stomachs full after a tedious electoral marathon.