Serious people who conduct public opinion polls consider their work to be a “science”. And insofar as the word, from the Latin, simply means “knowledge”, they may be partly right.

Newspapers like polls because they are interesting and easy to report, more so if they support the editorial line. And there is the problem.

Polls can easily be weighted in order to produce the desired results. I have, in my distant past, been involved in commissioning and setting up opinion polls. They are expensive to run because the serious pollsters (there are lots of companies available and some, sadly, are in it for the money, rather than for the knowledge) take great care in the process. They can still get it wrong.

The basic concerns are: who is going to be polled, and how, and what they are going to be asked.

Which brings us straight to this government’s claim that 82 per cent of Maltese are in favour of a tunnel. There is no source material of which I am aware.

The figure was first published around the same time as the announcement that a consortium of Gozitan businessmen was prepared to pay for it. And we sceptics raised our eyebrows at that prospect, too.

So the doubter asks: 82 per cent of what Maltese? People who live in Malta, or “on Malta”? Or Gozitans (I have heard it claimed that it was only Gozitans)? Or was it both? And if it was people on both islands, what was the ratio of the respondents’ residencies?

What was the difference between the Gozitan and the Maltese responses? Were they frequent or casual users of the ferry and was the survey perhaps conducted on a ferry, in which case was it mid-week, or at a weekend?

Were they, perchance, the audience at a public lecture on the advantages that a tunnel might bring? Or members of a university group? Or some other single roomful like, say, the Chamber of Commerce?

We don’t know. I don’t know anybody who knows anybody who took part in this important single-question poll.

Okay, it must have occurred, somewhere; so what was the question? Was there really only one?

Might it have been: “Considering that you may be forced to spend an unnecessary four hours a day, travelling even in the most violent sea conditions, and have to endure the ridiculous road systems connecting that dump of a place at Ċirkewwa in order to get to work (or to the university, or to the hospital)… do you think that a fast, safe, five-lane tunnel might be a better option for some people?”

I am guessing that they were not asked: “Do you want a tunnel that will make Gozo just the next Maltese village north after Mellieħa and destroy its uniqueness as a place that is still a markedly different and more desirable destination?”

You probably get the point.

Most people I speak to do not consider the 24-minute ferry journey to be the problem, but they resent the time that must be spent waiting idly

Were they possibly asked whether they thought that more, and more frequent, ferries - with a fast ferry service to somewhere nearer the middle of Malta - would be an acceptable, and far less costly, alternative to a tunnel? Or whether a quick way of escaping Ċirkewwa, even a tunnel from it, would be appreciated.

I am guessing that they were not.

Most people I speak to (this bit is not “scientific”, it includes tourists) do not consider the 24-minute ferry journey to be the problem, but they resent the time that must be spent waiting idly in line to get on it.

Depending on their timing - and often it is only a matter of luck - this can be an hour, or more. And always, on the south island, there is that weary, wearing journey to and from the port.

For businessmen, and the movers of goods, for whom time is money, and for commuters, who just want to get home or to work, this is the frustration point.

(There’s a thought… were the respondents waiting in a queue for the ferry, when they were polled?)

All governments have seemed blind to that wasting of time. Certainly, they have not attended to it. So, after first considering a bridge that would break its journey on Comino but be unusable in high winds, we learn that a tunnel is the desired solution. Reportedly 82 per cent of the people want it, so the opposition, anxious not to offend such a majority, decides that it has to support the idea.

It may be a unique situation for the Maltese… For once, it is not a party argument.

As Rudolfo Ragonesi wrote: “We have one advantage. Since both major parties are in favour of this ghastly project, people need not feel like it is a party issue that has so often polarised the electorate.

“People could rise above what their party thinks about it, without feeling that they would be giving mileage to the other party. So the fact that both parties are on the same page in favour of the tunnel is not necessarily a hindrance [to opposing it].”

Labour members can oppose it because the PN favours it – and vice-versa.

So I would suggest that the government (with the implicit approval of the Opposition) sends the pollsters back whence they came and pose this question:

“Are you in favour of our intention to build a tunnel that will be only one lane in each direction, for many miles deep beneath the sea, wherein you may be trapped for the duration of your journey in a narrow concrete tube behind a slow-moving truck belching noxious exhaust fumes; a project that will take half a lifetime to build and then probably be maintained by Transport Malta, that will cost untold billions of everybody’s tax money (whether or not they use it) and that will need a high tariff in order to be economically viable... and be ordered before anybody knows about the effects of unpredictable continental plates on the sea bed?

And are you against the prospect of a faster and more frequent ferry service as an alternative?”

Answer: yes or no.

Revel Barker is a semi-retired English newspaperman and long-time resident of Gozo.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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