Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Żonqor Pandora’s Box

The Times, 31 August 2015

Malta’s largest ever environmental protest, against the development of a private university in Żonqor had a substantive impact. Subsequently, the government announced the reduction of the footprint of development on ODZ land and, instead, opted to shift a sizeable amount of the proposed development to Cospicua.

A pro-government narrative would say that this is what democracy is all about. In such a scenario, the government acts as the mediator of different interests and finds a reasonable compromise.

Making a critical narrative, however, one might say that the government used a cunning strategy by initially proposing something totally unacceptable to make the real proposal look acceptable in comparison. Hence, Joseph Muscat’s subsequent statement of a “double victory” for the South and his warm welcome by party loyalists in staged events.

From my point of view, the government’s strategy has opened a Pandora’s Box with a multitude of unpredicted consequences. In this regard, it does not seem that civil society is ready to accept the government’s insistence to build on ODZ land.

Indeed, the environmental movement, the independent press and opposition political parties are being relentless in their questions on the project, which, if anything, are increasing.

Such questions are very much based on what Muscat did not tell us during his recent public appearances.

For example, the Prime Minister said nothing about the legal status of ODZ land, which is protected by Mepa policies and which falls within an area designated as having ecological and scientific importance. Will the government change these policies? And if yes, how and when?

What about the proposed football ground? In a recent statement, Marsascala FC stated that, while disappointed that the pitch is no longer part of the private university plan, it is pleased that Muscat is promising a full-size football ground with ancillary facilities, which will be constructed in Marsascala concurrently with the university project. The obvious question to ask is: where is this football ground going to be developed?

The social impact assessment carried out for the university project confirmed that the latter will attract 4,000 students, the majority of whom are expected to be Muslim and, thus, requiring a mosque.

If this is the case, where will it be constructed? If this is not the case, as the government subsequently stated in a press release, does the agreement with the university developers confirm this?

Given that the government has, to date, failed to publish its agreement with the Sadeen Group, it stands to reason that questions on the construction project itself are multiplying. For example, does the agreement have a clause that the developers can eventually extend upwards? If the university business model does not work, can there be a change of use to a hotel, apartments or other businesses?

If the government is so sure about the “double victory”of the South, I see no reason why the agreement with Sadeen cannot be published immediately.

The fact that the government keeps playing hide and seek is only increasing discontent, suspicion and rumours. Given that the government PR machine is not replying to the multitude of questions being put forward, things can only get worse in this regard.

It is also ironic that while the government is boasting of giving a present to the South, elected local councillors in Marsacala are being kept in the dark about the government’s agreements with Sadeen. It is only the mayor who seems to enthusiastically support the government’s plans. Yet, has he read the agreement?

Finally, the government’s PR spectacle during the August holiday season has also led it to ignore the parliamentary process. In an Environment Parliamentary Committee meeting chaired by Marlene Farrugia, and which I attended, civil society organisations were promised by Mepa’s CEO that the possible alternative sites to Żonqor will be discussed in a future meeting. Is the government now consigning the meeting to the rubbish bin of spin? Or will civil society be entertained with a fait accompli power point presentation?

It is indeed unfortunate that Malta’s elected Prime Minister keeps giving the impression that he is Sadeen’s salesman while ignoring genuine concerns from civil society. In the process, he is only fuelling further disappointment in Malta’s south, north, west and east.

As the Labour government is in its mid-term, it is becoming clearer than ever that there is a big difference between writing an electoral programme and governing.