Can Labour’s ‘environmental’ problem have repercussions for the construction-boom party?

Pembroke's Labour mayor voted against the City Centre project in contrast with government MP Clayton Bartolo. Just as the construction boom appears to be backfiring at a local level, can this rift could have political repercussions?

The controversial db Group tower was approved by the PA on Thursday
The controversial db Group tower was approved by the PA on Thursday

There is nothing out of the ordinary for a political party to have different nuances and opinions on environmental issues especially on issues or projects impacting on specific localities.

The Nationalist Party itself faced similar tensions when in government on specific issues like the Verdala golf course, a proposed cement plant in Sig­giewi and a landfill in the vi­cinity of the Mnajdra temples. All three projects were turned down or withdrawn.

But the PN was less sensi­tive during its latter years on projects like the BWSC power station, which contributed to the rift with rebel MP Franco Debono.

The PN’s decline may well be explained by increased rigidity towards internal criticism dur­ing the second Gonzi admin­istration and the Labour Party may well be sowing the seeds of decline if it ignores this histori­cal lesson.

Gzira mayor Conrad Borg Manché, Pembroke mayor Dean Hili and Marsaskala deputy mayor Desirée Attard may represent a new breed of Labour politicians who stand with residents or champion en­vironmental causes even when this clashes with the prevailing pro-business direction of the central government.

Attard was the first Labour politician to set the trend by opposing the development of a campus at Zonqor Point despite the government’s en­dorsement of the project.

She did so without reneging her allegiance to Labour and may have contributed to the downscaling of the project af­ter a massive protest, which she also attended.

Borg Manché teamed up with KEA activists to secure access to the Manoel Island. This re­sulted in guarantees for public access to the coastline. His task was made easier by the fact that the MIDI project had been ap­proved under a Nationalist ad­ministration.

Borg Manché also voted against an increase of an ad­ditional five storeys on the 16-floor East Tower in Gzira, which was approved in 2015. Even on that occasion his vote contrasted with that of the gov­ernment’s representative on the board.

Borg Manché has also been critical of pro-business policies such as regulations making it easier for restaurants to put ta­bles and chairs outside.

Hili’s determined stance against the db tower was more striking, considering the fact that this was a project on land which had been leased to the developer for 99 years by the central government. The land transfer deal was criticised by the Opposition before the 2017 election.

This difference in opinion can be useful for the party to retain a balance between pro-devel­opment elements and residents but a decision such as that in­volving the db project risks strengthening the sentiment among a minority of Labour voters that Muscat’s govern­ment is too subservient to big business interests.

It is only made worse by the fact that the beneficiary of the db project is Silvio Debono, historically known for his ties with the PN, while the impact of the shadow cast by the pro­ject’s tower will largely be felt by the Labour-leaning Pem­broke residents.

This may well create tension between those in Labour who believe that a new majority de­pends on economic growth and reaching out to big business groups including those tradi­tionally aligned to the PN and those in Labour who feel that their party should stand up for those suffering from over-de­velopment and who are inher­ently suspicious of the ‘fat cats’.

Moreover, in a period marked by economic growth, people may be more prone to express discontentment on quality of life issues. Public opinion sur­veys indicate that concern on the environment and overde­velopment are only surpassed by concern on immigration and the related traffic issue.

Although this rift in Labour may not be strong enough to shift votes towards the Opposi­tion, which has its own contra­dictions, it may boost non-par­tisan civil society organisations that question the current mod­el of development.

While tribal allegiance is like­ly to prevail over discontent­ment on local issues in a gen­eral election, disgruntlement on local issues may prove tricky for Labour in local and Europe­an elections next year.

With the government of the country not at stake, vot­ers may express frustration through abstention, voting for third parties or across party lines for individual candidates which they respect.

In the Pembroke case, a coali­tion of NGOs, Nationalist and Labour mayors brought to­gether by Graffitti activists did not manage to sway the PA’s board vote.

This may signal the limits of civil society when faced by more powerful forces. The fact that PA chairperson Vince Cas­sar voted against the project suggests that cracks are emerg­ing at an institutional level.

But the Pembroke issue along with others, like the fight against ODZ petrol stations, could also inspire more peo­ple, including Labour voters and supporters to make their voice heard on matters facing their communities. Whether this will lead to a debate on La­bour’s ideological direction is another matter altogether but people may yet stand up to be counted, irrespective of parti­san allegiances.

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