Environment committee turns nasty as Labour MPs engage in heated exchange

Labour MP Marlene Farrugia accuses fellow MP Deborah Schembri of trying to ‘weaken democracy’, comments about ‘absolute dictatorship’

NGOs were invited to put forward their proposals in the presence of MEPA CEO Johann Buttigieg, Environment Minister Leo Brincat and parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon
NGOs were invited to put forward their proposals in the presence of MEPA CEO Johann Buttigieg, Environment Minister Leo Brincat and parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon

A parliamentary select committee meeting this evening to listen to NGOs’ proposals over the draft Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED) turned nasty when sparks flew between Labour backbenchers Marlene Farrugia and Deborah Schembri.

Farrugia is the chairwoman of the parliamentary committee on the environment, planning and development. The committee was discussing proposals put forward by Din l-Art Helwa and Friends of the Earth, who have expressed their concern over the draft SPED. The committee’s consultation with the NGOs will lead to a resolution which will be presented in parliament in the hope of improving the SPED.

The NGOs were asked to come forward because the chairwoman said she wanted a resolution that “is developed together with civil society” and to ensure environmental safeguards.

But what enraged Farrugia was a comment by Schembri who expressed concern over the committee setting “an ugly precedent”. “There was a consultation process which for all intents and purposes was also lengthened, during which the NGOs present and all civil society had the right to express their views and concerns on the document,” she said.

Schembri argued that that period of consultation was over and allowing further amendments to be proposed at this stage, at just a day’s notice, does not give “equality of arms to other people who might be in opposition to what is being proposed”.

However, Farrugia, after listening to what the NGOs had to say, said that the consultation that took place had been “a fake one”.

The NGOs have insisted that almost none of their recommendations had been included in the SPED. Describing public consultations as a lip service, the NGOs said there was no way of knowing which of their recommendations would have been included in the actual document. The NGOs were invited to the committee by Farrugia and, for the first time, were given the opportunity to see the document before it is amended by parliamentarians.

As representatives from Din l-Art Helwa said that they had been totally ignored, Farrugia said the public consultation that took place had been a “fake one”.

“I am abiding by our electoral pledge to engage civil society with facts. I don’t have enough words to thank the NGOs who came here today,” she said, to nods of approval by PN MPs.

Farrugia accused Schembri of demeaning democracy, firing words such as “absolute dictatorship” and “they want to ignore civil society” as Schembri insisted that there had been time for consultation.

Intervening, PN MP Marthese Portelli said that environment NGOs had to be commended for not giving up and come forward with proposals. The proposals put forward by Din l-Art Helwa representative Petra Caruana Dingli this evening are a sort of summary of the most important proposals that had been put forward by several environment NGOs in 2014.

Making a political argument, Farrugia said citizens elected MPs and inviting civil society was a way of widening democracy. “The NGOs are doing it from a voluntary basis, unlike those fat cats who don’t do a day’s work. I can’t accept a member of my own movement accusing me of creating a precedent.”

Turning to Schembri, an irate Farrugia suggested that Schembri – had she been chairing the committee – “wouldn’t have allowed the civil society to speak”.

“Until I chair this committee, civil society will be given a voice,” she said.

The Environment Minister went on to add that he understood Schembri’s concern. Saying that he was in no way “silencing people”, Brincat argued that they had to work “structurally”.

Speaking on behalf of Din l-Art Helwa, Caruana Dingli called for a transition plan, expressing concern that existing policies may be lost through the implementation of the SPED. She said, that the policies guided by the structure plan were not properly listed in the SPED.

MEPA CEO Johann Buttigieg however said that a transition clause would create confuse, reiterating that the SPED laid foundation for policies.

As criticism towards the SPED increased, parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon interjected to say that the government had identified 12 loopholes in the structure plan: “We are here to listen but let us not give the impression that the structure plan had been some sort of perfect plan.”

The Environment Minister added that the structure plan had been created to replace a policy vacuum: “Since then environmental regulation, administrative procedures and so on had been introduced. The SPED is followed by a SEA which addresses the concerns being raised. Together with the SEA, the SPED will have a more holistic and multi-dimensional approach.”

Brincat went on to add that the SPED was “a Cabinet document and I shoulder responsibility for it… we are not a band club with members voting in favour and against”.

When a Friends of the Earth representative proposed that ODZ areas are specifically protected by law from any future development, the committee said it was too drastic a decision to be taken on board. However, a number of MPs did agree that rural areas should only be resorted to as the last resort and only if no other solution is found.

The representative however expressed reserves on how the policy makers would guarantee citizens that all options had indeed been exhausted.

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