It (still) isn’t easy being Green | Ralph Cassar

The spring hunting referendum marks a pivotal chapter for Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party. Secretary-general RALPH CASSAR is cautiously optimistic

It’s hard to resist quoting the Muppet Show at the best of times; but when the subject of your interview is a representative of the Green Party (AD) – which has (let’s face it) struggled over the years to assert its relevance in the local political landscape – the immortal words of Kermit the Frog inevitably spring to mind. 

“It isn’t easy being Green.” 

This has certainly been true for AD’s electoral performances over the years – at least during general elections – and March 2013 was no exception. At the same time, however, there is a perspective from which the Green Party suddenly appears more relevant than ever.

Malta is on the brink of taking a final decision on the contentious spring hunting issue – which AD has championed for 25 years – and on top of that important milestone for the party, the environment in general seems to be back on the menu as an item of major concern.

Polls indicate a resurgence of environmental angst of late: and the verdict of independent observers (including former AD chairman Michael Briguglio) on the first two years of a Labour government suggests that its most conspicuous ‘failures’, so to speak, have concerned environmental issues.

In a sense, this provides ample opportunities for Alternattiva Demokratika to once again flourish its green credentials. 

Ralph Cassar is both the party’s secretary general and one of its most prominent faces in the public arena. Does he share the opinion of those observers that the environment has been pushed up the ladder of popular concern? And more to the point… does he expect this concern to be reflected in a corresponding surge in support for the Green Party?

“I am still a little sceptical regarding how much people will rally behind an environmental cause,” he begins. “If you look at what happened in 2006, with the extension of the development zones, and the changing of the zoning schemes to allow three-storey penthouses, and so on… OK, it’s true there was a bit of concern among residents at the time; there was a protest, a court case… We asked the EU to look into a strategic impact assessment, but the government got out of it thanks to some deadline on the application of the directive... in any case, the bottom line was the decision was taken regardless, and much of what is happening today is a direct result of that decision.”

This includes many of the controversial developments that have fuelled much of the current criticism.

“Let me give an example from my own neighbourhood, Attard. People ask me if we’re going to ‘do anything’ about the development near the Tal-Mirakli chapel. Well, we had tried to do something about it back in 2006, when the decision to include that area in the development zone was originally taken. Now it’s too late. It’s within the development zone. But because of the time-lag between the actual decision and the implementation of the policy, some people may find it difficult to make the connection…”

Another case involves a proposed development on the outskirts of Misrah Kola, which residents fear will impact the skyline and character of the village. 

“In July, some residents organised a press conference to protest about the development in the area, and invited representatives of all three parties. The irony is that [Nationalist MP] David Agius showed up for the PN, and spoke out against the development. Yet he himself had voted in favour of the ODZ extension which made this development possible in the first place… like all other MPs, including Labour. And as far as I know, some of the people present for the protest would probably have voted David Agius into parliament. It’s his district. People don’t seem to make a connection between their own vote, and the things which happen afterwards.”

His reply seems to indicate a certain resignation: not just that the problems facing the environment may be insoluble, but also that such concerns do not actually impact people’s voting patterns. Am I correct in discerning a note of pessimism here?

“Not exactly. What I mean is that people often pay lip service to the environment, but when push comes to shove, it’s the economy that counts. And whether the price of petrol is one or two cents cheaper or more expensive…”

What does this tell us about the future of AD? If, as Cassar seems to be suggesting, the environment is eternally condemned to play second fiddle to other issues, then surely the implications are not rosy for an environmentalist party...

He shrugs. “We have to keep trying to prove ourselves, and carry on speaking out about these issues. We also have to tie economic issues to environmental concerns. Which I think we do, but perhaps not effectively enough. We have to get the message across more plainly, perhaps in more simple terms…”

Cassar is AD’s spokesperson for energy, industry and transport, so unsurprisingly he cites examples from his own portfolio. “Take energy, for instance. When we speak about the need to go for alternative sources of energy – at least, for a significant chunk of our energy needs – we are actually talking about an economic issue. It doesn’t make sense to depend completely, as we do, on foreign oil. What we are effectively doing with our current energy policy is exporting money…”

On the subject of oil procurement, it seems we have exported a lot of money over the years. It transpired that Malta paid 3.2 billion euros for fuel over 13 years… at a time when we now know that commissions were being paid by energy companies in return for contracts. Meanwhile, the experience of other countries – including small island states comparable to Malta, such as the Bahamas – suggests that millions might be saved by investing in renewables. Yet time and again, Malta has disregarded this option in favour of feeding an oil addiction.

How does Ralph Cassar account for this? If the economy always trumps the environment… shouldn’t economic arguments also prevail in such decisions?

“My suspicion, reading all these stories about BWSC, the commissions paid for oil contracts, etc. – is that there is a link between political party financing and fuel procurement. Possibly even with individual candidate financing. Some people might say: ‘If you have any information, go to the police.’ I’ve been told that before. But it’s the police’s job to investigate these matters, not mine. Or the job of magistrates, who have the power to investigate on their own initiative. But they never use it of their own accord, it seems…”

Cassar acknowledges that the reason for this may be nothing more complicated than a lack of resources. “Do the police have enough resources to investigate corruption? If not, I would expect the Commissioner to speak up about it. That’s what happens in other countries. Here, however, I sometimes get the impression that there is a civil service mentality that pervades these institutions. But the police should be independent…”

As with the environment, Cassar is inclined to believe that popular concern with corruption may be skin deep. He reminds me that apart from the oil scandal, at least three former Cabinet ministers have separately been named as holders of undeclared Swiss bank accounts.

“Yet there was no real public outcry,” Cassar points out. “It was just glossed over. Just imagine it had been someone else…”

Here he alludes to a long-standing sore point with AD: the arrest of former AD chairman Harry Vassallo on the eve of the 2008 election. “Had it been an AD chairperson who failed to fill in a zero VAT return, he would have been arrested and accused of evading tax. Yet when former Cabinet ministers were revealed to have evaded tax, nothing happened.” 

Again, this sounds like a somewhat fatalistic stance. Cassar however concedes that while the pace of change in some areas has been slow, there have been other areas where significant progress has been achieved. 

“Some changes have happened: the divorce referendum, the civil unions laws…. and there is a growing core of people demanding change, too. But it hasn’t reached critical mass yet. Even you look at other parties, I am sure there are people who want to change things in other parties as well, but they’re… how can I put it?... being held back…” 

One other change seems to have taken place just in the last few days, and may be of particular relevance to AD. Nationalist leader Simon Busuttil declared on TV that, unlike his predecessor Lawrence Gonzi, he would be open to a coalition with AD. Yet the reaction by the Green Party chairman Arnold Cassola didn’t sound very enthusiastic. He described it as ‘pie in the sky’. 

I put it to Cassar that this reaction may sound odd, coming from a party that has long argued in favour of coalition governments. How does he explain this apparent rejection of what appears to be an olive branch extended by the Opposition leader?

“I think what the big parties really want is cannibalisation, not coalition. That’s what they understand by the word ‘coalition’: to absorb smaller parties. If what Simon Busuttil really wants is more pluralism, a more democratic representation, he should press to change the electoral system to make it representative on a national basis…”

Instead, Cassar argues that the PN leader is doing the opposite. “Look at what’s happening now: after winning a court case to be given extra seats because of a mistake by the Electoral Commission, the PM now wants an additional two seats – over and above the Constitutional mechanism – because of 30 votes. They want to have two extra MPs representing 15 votes each. When it comes to proportionality, they’re only in favour when it suits themselves…”

He points out that in the last election, AD received close to 6,000 votes on a national basis, yet did not win a single seat. 

“Another thing is that it is not party leaders who decide such issues, but the electorate. Basically, there are two ways to go about the coalition issue. Either after an election, where two parties agree on a programme of government after contesting the election on separate manifestos; or a pre-electoral alliance, in which the coalition partners present a common manifesto. Those are the options to form a coalition. So it’s really quite pointless talking about it now, three years before an election…”

All the same, Busuttil is still sending out a different message from his predecessor Gonzi, who had pre-emptively ruled out a coalition in 2008. Surely that is a development AD would welcome?

He shrugs. “It’s nothing new really. When one of the bigger parties loses an election, they always start cosying up to AD… in fact, the first attempt would not be to form a coalition, but to co-opt individuals from the party. They approach our candidates to join their own party. Now it’s the PN, because they’re in opposition. Before the last election it was Labour that tried to poach AD candidates…”

Was Cassar approached? He nods. “By the PN, yes, but not by Labour. And all very informally. They tell you things like, ‘your place is with us’, etc…”

This, he adds, is standard behaviour for the two parties: when in government they ignore AD totally; it is only when in opposition that their tune changes.

Meanwhile, next month is particularly pivotal for AD… it will usher in the spring hunting referendum, as well as local council elections. Let’s take them one by one. 

Hunting has been one of AD’s major battlecries since its inception in 1992. And one of the party’s core arguments to date has always been that the other two parties have by and large cosied up to the hunting lobby, while ignoring the wider majority. 

Implicit in this view is the assumption that the wider electorate is, in fact, against hunting in spring. This however remains an assumption, and the referendum itself will prove to be its final test.

In a sense, this suggests that this referendum may have a lasting impact on AD whatever the result. A ‘Yes’ victory would once and for all shatter the illusion that AD has been the voice of a silent but neglected majority on this issue. And if the ‘No’ vote wins, AD would in a sense be robbed of one of its most defining political platforms: an issue that has always set it apart from the other parties.

Is Ralph Cassar concerned at the possibility of a ‘Yes’ win? And conversely, is the party apprehensive that the opposite result might also leave it with little to actually fight for?

“Personally I think the ‘No’ campaign will win the referendum. Those are the indications. And if so, it would prove that AD can get results; that our policies can be implemented, even if we’re not in parliament…”

But wouldn’t that also work against AD’s interests? People might reason that there’s no need to actually vote for the Green Party, if the same goals can be achieved through other means…

Cassar disagrees. “Not all goals can be achieved by referendum. The abrogative referendum law gives the electorate a chance to take decisions; but those decisions can only involve the removal of laws. You can’t hold an abrogative referendum to, for instance, increase Malta’s percentage of energy from renewable sources by 20%... which is one of our other targets. And there are hundreds of issues, which are also on AD’s radar, that cannot be decided by means of a referendum…”

As for the alternative scenario, Cassar is confident that there will never be a shortage of issues for the Green Party to raise even if the hunting issue is settled. “So no, I’m not at all worried. If ‘No’ wins, it will demonstrate that people have the power to make a change for the better. That alone is far more important than the loss of an electoral platform for AD.”

Besides, the spring hunting issue in itself cannot be taken in isolation: it points towards a much deeper underlying malaise. “This issue also ties in with the undeniable hold certain lobby groups have on political parties. We all heard recordings of meetings between hunters and Gonzi before the last election. And the hunters are not the only lobby group that exerts undue influence on the political decision-making process; there are other special interest groups that have a similar hold. If we can make a difference with regard to the spring hunting referendum, it will only demonstrate that AD can be just as effective elsewhere, too.”

This brings us to the second electoral test. Local councils have always been the one political arena where AD has been able to compete with the other parties: if not on a level playing field, at least with the opportunity to score a few goals. AD has in fact elected representatives in various localities over the years: not least Ralph Cassar himself, who is a councillor for Attard.

What are his own expectations of this election? 

“I expect people to vote AD because we have shown consistency, and we focus on how to improve localities. Our proposals are doable. We talk about issues that are relevant to local communities. As for the result, that is naturally in the electorate’s hands. But I do expect AD to do well…”

Is that based on any actual feedback or statistical indication? “Let’s just say the messages we are getting appear positive. But you know how it is: these things are difficult to gauge.”