Politicians and the environment lobby
When the draft amendments of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations were recently announced, NGOs publicly expressed their disapproval at the government's proposals by demonstrating in front of the MEPA premises in Floriana, holding a banner that said: "Keep politics out of MEPA".
This simple message belies a significant anti-politician bias that is, at the end of the day, unjustified. It was politicians who set up MEPA in the first place and it was politicians who approved the existing EIA regulations that are much more onerous than what the European Union requires, to the extent that prospective investors could not understand why they were being required to undergo procedures that were not required of them in similar circumstances in other EU member states. It is therefore the politician's duty to see that these regulations do not create an unnecessary hurdle to Malta's economic development.
During the controversy on the development boundaries extension, The Times editorially termed the exercise as a case of 'political interference' when, by law, it is Parliament - and not MEPA - that has the power to approve any change in these boundaries. The country has come such a long way from the planning calamities of the pre-1987 days that we have even forgotten that it was the politicians who were courageous enough to give up a lot of their own power and hand it over to technical people.
I recalled all this when I read the second part of Herman Grech's interview with Minister George Pullicino, published in The Times last Wednesday. When discussing the development of the Tigné peninsula, which some consider to be a case of over-development, Minister Pullicino was reported to have said: "Is there anybody who really believes we can turn the clock back? The Tigné peninsula was lost in 1994. I believe that the urban conservation plan could have been more rigorous." This statement was described by the interviewing journalist as the minister "admitting it was his own party which ultimately dealt the blow".
Although it is correct to state that the political responsibility for the development rests with the government that gave it the green light, it is to be pointed out that the Tigné/Manoel Island development brief was drawn up in 1994 by the then Planning Authority when the project was launched by the then Ministry for the Environment together with the then Ministry for Economic Services. The ministers responsible were myself and my friend Notary George Bonello Du Puis. Moreover, the contract was awarded to MIDI after the 1998 election, i.e. when Minister Pullicino was Parliamentary Secretary responsible for the Planning Authority.
Therefore, it certainly was not the Nationalist Party that dealt any 'blow' to Tigné peninsula - if in fact such a blow was dealt - but it was purely the planners' doing... with the government of the day being politically responsible, as is only normal in a democracy.
My point is, however, that there was absolutely no political interference during the drawing up of the development brief and if this brief allowed much more development than it should have, this was not the result of political interference but the result of an error of judgment by the planners.
But the persistent bias within the environment lobby seems to decree that it is always the politicians who make mistakes, while technical people are supposed to be infallible! The truth, of course, is that political masters carry the political responsibility for both their own mistakes and the mistakes made by the technical people serving them and the country! Of course, all humans are subject to error and no one is immune from making mistakes. And mistakes will keep on being made by all humans whatever they believe, environmentalists included.
In truth, people do not resent 'political interference' as a matter of principle. They resent it only when they think that it leads to something that they do not agree with while they are absolutely in favour of so-called 'political interference' whenever they think that this could lead to the extinction of something they are against!
Incidentally, during the same interview, Minister Pullicino showed his interviewer a copy of an e-mail received by the Prime Minister from a citizen whose family had abstained from voting in the recent local council elections because MEPA had refused him a permit.
In spite of the vociferous way in which the environment lobby puts across its views, the truth is that politicians are continually beset by individuals asking for their 'interference' so that MEPA issues them with some permit that they had applied for. Obviously, every case has to be seen on its own merits, but I am sure that, statistically, there are more people clamouring for political interference in order to 'persuade' MEPA to issue some permit than the other way round.
The idea that ministers should not and cannot interfere in MEPA's daily run-of-the-mill business has never sunk in among the man in the street. Indeed, if one were to glean the opinion of the majority of Maltese citizens, I am sure that they will lament the independence that MEPA enjoys, claiming that it is a monster that we can ill afford.
The fact that it was the politicians who set up MEPA in the first place is seen as a stupid mistake by the great majority of people and is continually ignored by the environmental lobby that acts as if MEPA were generated spontaneously during some tree-hugging exercise, to the chagrin of politicians who continually want to 'interfere'!
Irrespective of whether they are wrong or right, the environmental lobby does not seem to realise that they are in a minority on this and that many people not only consider political 'interference' as a normal phenomenon, but also invoke it when they are 'in need'.
Meanwhile the environmental lobby plods on, believing that they are always right and that politicians are consistently on the erring side.
Keeping politics out of the things that directly concern the day-to-day life of citizens is an impossibility in any country in the world, let alone in the small community that makes up our nation state.