Constitutional Convention: upsetting the apple-cart

 

A Constitutional Convention is long overdue. It has been on the public agenda for years.

Over the years, Malta’s Constitution has been patched up several times in order to resolve political issues arising at that particular point in time. It is about time that the Constitution is considered in its entirety in order to ensure that it serves the needs of the nation now and in the foreseeable future. An overhaul would certainly be in order.

One major issue which, in my view, needs to be addressed is the curtailing of the executive’s power over the composition, set-up and running of authorities and institutions so that these can begin functioning properly. Rather than the executive ceding power, as Minister Owen Bonnici stated recently when piloting the debate on the Bill that seeks to introduce limited screening of public appointments, it means that Parliament should rediscover its proper functions and claim back its authority.

This is the basic flaw in Malta’s Constitutional set-up. Malta is described as a Parliamentary democracy and, on paper, Parliament does have the power to decide but, over the years it has been reluctant to upset the current balance of power that favours Cabinet over Parliament. Unless and until there is a will to address this, no headway can be made and any proposed changes will necessarily be cosmetic in nature.

Currently, the focus of public debate is on the functioning of the institutions of the state. This debate has been going on for some time but has gathered steam as a result of the obvious inertia observed over many years. The principal issue is the manner in which major public appointments are made.

Unfortunately the public debate is sometimes derailed. The debate on the Attorney General’s office, for example, should rather be on the functions of the office than on Dr. Peter Grech, the current incumbent. In particular, Parliament should examine whether the multitude of responsibilities added to the office of the Attorney General over the years have diluted its Constitutional responsibilities. One detailed proposal on the hiving off of responsibility for public prosecutions was made in the Vanni Bonello-led Justice Reform Commission, many moons ago. So far, no action has been taken.

I think that by now it is clear to all that Parliament, on its own, will not deliver on the reform required because such reform, if properly carried out, will upset the manner in which political power is exercised in these islands.

The basic Constitutional set-up underpinning the 1964 Constitution, notwithstanding the multitude of changes carried out throughout the years – including the 1974 change from a Constitutional Monarchy to a Republic – is still substantially in place. On Independence, in 1964, most of the powers of the British sovereign, then exercised through the Governor, were handed over to the Prime Minister, subject to the theoretical oversight of Parliament. For over 50 years, Parliament has been reluctant to upset the apple-cart and no Prime Minister has ever had the courage to propose the curtailment of his own powers and handing them over completely to Parliament, which is where they belong in a Parliamentary democracy. Nor has Parliament ever taken the initiative: its composition prevents it from acting in such a manner.

The current large size of the Cabinet, coupled with the nomination of backbench MPs on the government side to various posts and sinecures, is a clear declaration of intent. Keeping backbench MPs happy and occupied reduce the likelihood of them asking too many questions. This has been going on for some time: in fact the Gonzi administration acted in a manner very similar to the current administration in this respect.

This, in my view, is the crux of the whole issue which Parliament cannot and will not resolve on its own. It needs a vibrant civil society (not a fake one represented by a couple of non-entities) which can prod and guide it until it embarks on the path where real political power is channelled back to where it really belongs. This is the real reason why electoral reform has always been left on the back burner, as it is only through fair electoral reform that results in a different Parliamentary format whereby Parliament can start to think outside the box in which it is currently restrained.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 5 November 2017

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In Malta it pays to ignore planning law and policy

planning authority

The planning amnesty announced earlier this week has been in the pipeline for 18 months. In the initial stages of the debate – on 8 February 2015 in an article published in this paper – I had described it as The spoils of environmental crime.

The need to promulgate an amnesty is a political declaration that there has been a failure of good governance. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence on these islands, where politicians are repeatedly held hostage by various special interest groups. It is has happened with fiscal issues and it is happening with development irregularities.

In 2012,  had through Legal Notice 229 of that year,  the Gonzi-led government introduced a concession related to infringement of sanitary rules in development. On the Planning Authority website, the present amnesty has been labelled as “the new regularisation process”. It is described as a “one-time opportunity to regularise existing unsanctionable non-conformant development located entirely within the development boundaries”. The only practical limitation to the said regularisation is if the said regularisation has an impact on third parties, described as “injury to amenity”. In such instances, the regularisation cannot be proceeded with. However, beyond a general definition of  “amenity” Legal Notice 265 of 2016 entitled Regularisation of Existing Development Regulations 2016 does not  go into any detail on the criteria as to what constitutes “injury to amenity”. This is very worrying as it signifies that third party rights are once more on very shaky grounds, with the Authority deciding each case on its merits.

The proposed regularisation is applicable within the development boundaries. This signifies that no application to regularise development illegalities carried out ODZ can be submitted. However, there are no limitations on the regularisation of illegalities carried out within urban conservation areas and more so on scheduled properties. The Planning Authority is authorised to regularise these irregularities if an application is submitted. It will all depend on the common sense of the individual decision-takers and the inevitable pressures that will be applied to approve most, if not all, of the applications submitted. On the basis of the Planning Authority’s past performance this is very worrying.

This amnesty, like the one before it, sends out one very clear message: it pays not to observe the law and policies. Those who, over the years, have ignored enforcement notices are now being rewarded.

This is ethically reprehensible as, simultaneously, those who have observed planning law and policies are indirectly being punished.  Does anyone seriously believe that after this amnesty there will be an increased observance of planning laws?

In a statement earlier this week, the Chamber of Architects and Civil Engineers  rightly pointed out that “ ………. these regulations will open the door to severe blots in our built landscape, and will serve to promote the laissez faire attitude of certain developers by condoning the provision of a mechanism for illegalities to become legal.”

The regulations promoting this planning amnesty are vague and open to a wide interpretation. This signifies a clear intent at drafting stage to ensure that the enforcement backlog is wiped out. It is, however, still unclear  whether and to what extent third party rights will be protected unless they had reported the illegality to the authority in the first place.

The whole exercise carried out by the authority is clearly drafted with the specific intent of protecting those who have ignored rules and regulations. Instead of observing the law, it is now possible to pay your way around it. This is now official government policy.

At the end of the day, the Maltese government is sending out a clear message: in Malta it pays to ignore planning laws and policies. Wait for the next amnesty when you can cash in the spoils of environmental crime.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 28 August 2016

The professor who messed things up

Victor Axiaq

 

Professor Victor Axiaq, Chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority, is not at fault for being absent at a Planning Authority public meeting on the 4 August which discussed the Mrieħel and Sliema high-rise applications. By now everyone is aware that he had just been discharged from hospital and was instructed to rest for 15 days.

There were various officers of the Environment and Resources Authority present for the 4 August public meeting, yet instead of entrusting one of them with presenting the environment’s case on the Sliema high-rise, Professor Axiaq preferred to entrust Dr Timothy Gambin with a memorandum which Gambin opted to keep to himself.

There were various environmentalists, Sliema Local Councillors and civil society activists present for the public hearing. Those of us who were present for the public hearing presented the environment case and managed to convince six out of 13 Planning Authority members to vote against the proposed high-rise at TownSquare Sliema. Support for the environment case from a representative of the Environment and Resources Authority during the public hearing would have been most welcome. It could also have had a determining impact.  Yet it was not forthcoming notwithstanding the presence of a number of the Environment and Resources Authority employees at the public hearing.

The split of MEPA into two separate and distinct authorities, we were irresponsibly told by Government representatives some months ago, would ensure that the environmental issues would be more easily defended when considering land use planning applications. Yet prior to the split, an official of The Environment Protection Directorate would have addressed the public hearing. On the 4 August none were invited. The only person who was briefed to speak (Dr Timothy Gambin) opted instead to ignore his brief and instead openly supported the development proposal for a high-rise at TownSquare.

Professor Victor Axiaq, as Chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority, missed the opportunity to contribute to convince the majority of members of the Planning Authority due to his two basic mistakes. He entrusted his memorandum to another Planning Authority member (Dr Timothy Gambin) who had opposing views and hence had no interest in communicating Professor Axiaq’s memorandum on TownSquare to the Planning Authority. Professor Axiaq also failed to engage with his own staff at the Environment and Resources Authority as none of those present for the public hearing uttered a single word in support of the case against the high-rise proposal. The person sitting on the chair next to me, for example, preferred to communicate continuously with his laptop correcting with track changes some report he was working on. I have no idea why he even bothered to be present for the public hearing.

Unfortunately, Professor Axiaq, as chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority, messed up the first opportunity at which the input of the authority he leads could have made a substantial difference in the actual decision taken. It would have been much better if a proper decision was taken on the 4 August instead of subsequently considering whether to present an appeal, as this will be an uphill struggle as anyone with experience in these matters can confirm.  This could only have happened if Professor Axiaq had acted appropriately, which he unfortunately did not.

Next Wednesday, the Sliema Local Council will be convened for an extraordinary session in order to discuss the planning appeal relative to the TownSquare high-rise development permit. Environmental NGOs will also be meeting presently to plot the way forward and consider whether they too will appeal the decision.

Even the Environment and Resources Authority will be shortly considering whether to appeal. In view of the way in which Professor Axiaq handled the whole issue, the Sliema Local Council and the environmental NGOs would do well if they do not place any trust in the Authority led by Professor Victor Axiaq. They will avoid ending up in another mess.

After creating this mess, there is only one option left for Professor Victor Axiaq in my opinion. He should immediately resign from his post as chairman of the Environment and Resources Authority. The sooner he resigns the better.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 14 August 2016

Alternanza tal-poter u tal-ħmieg

Same Shit

 

Waqt il-manifestazzjoni tas-soċjetà ċivili, iktar kmieni illum, uħud ħadu għalihom bil-poster tal-Moviment Graffiti : Same Shit, Different Government.

Alternanza tal-poter bejn PN u PL twassal ukoll l-alternanza tal-ħmieġ. Jekk tivvota bħas-soltu ikollok l-istess riżultati. Ġieli tinduna bihom mill-ewwel u ġieli tieħu ftit taż-żmien. Imma fir-realtà ma hemmx x’tagħżel bejniethom.

Id-differenza qegħda biss fl-attenzjoni ta’ kif jagħmlu l-affarijiet.

PNPL : m’hemmx x’tagħżel bejniethom.

PNPL Pezza Wahda_1200x1200px

Mario de Marco u l-proposti ta’ Alternattiva Demokratika

AD 2013 electoral manifesto     Mario de Marco

Fil-Parlament nhar l-Erbgħa, Mario Demarco qal li forsi jkun għaqli li qabel ma jsiru ħatriet sensittivi (mill-Gvern) jkun hemm konsultazzjoni mal-Parlament.

Din hi proposta li Alternattiva Demokratika diġa għamlet fl-aħħar Manifest Elettorali tagħha meta ipproponiet li diversi ħatriet isiru bil-kunsens tal-Parlament.

Fil-fatt fil-manifest elettorali ta’ AD għall-elezzjoni ġenerali tal-2013, insibu tlett proposti f’dan is-sens.

Fil-Kapitlu 6 tal-Manifest li jitkellem dwar riformi kostituzzjonali u demokratiċi hemm il-proposta ġenerali li l-Bordijiet u l-Kummissjonijiet ta’ importanza nazzjonali għandhom jinħatru mill-President tar-Repubblika bħala l-Kap tal-Istat u dan mingħajr l-involviment dirett tal-Prim Ministru. Il-President għandu jikkonsulta mhux biss mal-politiċi imma ukoll mas-soċjetà ċivili qabel ma jagħmel/tagħmel il-ħatriet.

Fl-istess Kapitlu tal-Manifest Elettorali, Alternattiva Demokratika titkellem ukoll dwar il-ħatra tal-ġudikatura: “L-imħallfin u l-maġistrati m’għandhomx jibqgħu jinħatru mill-Gvern iżda mill-President tar-Repubblika u soġġetti għal konferma mill-Parlament. Dan jiżgura sistema ta’ checks and balances bejn is-setgħa eżekuttiva (eżerċitata f’dan il-każ mill-President tar-Repubblika) u l-leġiżlatura.”

L-iktar proposta dettaljat qegħda fil-Kapitlu ambjentali, l-Kapitlu 14, fejn dan jitkellem dwar il-ħatriet fil-MEPA u jgħid hekk :

“Il-ħidma tkun effettiva daqs kemm ikunu kompetenti u affidabbli dawk li jinħatru biex imexxu. Alternattiva Demokratika għaldaqstant tipproponi illi filwaqt li l-Gvern tal-ġurnata jibqa’ jżomm s-setgħa li jaħtar il-membri ta’ din l-Awtorità kkonsolidata, dan m’għandux jagħmlu sakemm il-Parlament permezz ta’ Kumitat Magħżul ma jagħtihx il-kunsens tiegħu għall-ħatriet proposti. Il-Parliament ikun jista’ jikkunsidra li jagħti l-kunsens tiegħu wara li l-Kumitat Magħżul tiegħu ikun organizza sessjoni pubblika (public hearing) li fiha jgħarbel lil kull persuna proposta. Kull persuna proposta għandha tkun eżaminata fil-pubbliku dwar l-esperjenza u l-kwalifiċi tagħha konnessi mal-ħatra proposta.

Fejn tidħol rappreżentanza mis-socjetà ċivili, in-nominazzjonijiet għandhom isiru direttament mill-korpi effetwati. Għandu jkun hemm inqas uffiċjali pubbliċi bħala membri tal-bord, u rappreżentanza ikbar tas-soċjetà ċivili fl-awtorità kkonsolidata.

B’hekk huwa ittamat li jiżdiedu n-nomini ta’ persuni kompetenti kif ukoll li jonqsu l-ħatriet ta’ persuni li l-iprem kwalifika tagħhom hi l-lealtà politika. B’hekk ukoll il-Parlament ikun qed jieħu lura mingħand il-Gvern rwol importanti biex jassigura li l-ħarsien tal-ambjent jittieħed b’iktar serjetà.

Dan jgħodd għaċ-Chairman u l-membri tal-Bord li jmexxu l-Awtorità kif ukoll l-uffiċjali ewlenija fit-tmexxija tal-Awtorità li jinkludu iċ-Chief Executive Officer, id-Diretturi kif ukoll il-membri tal-Kummissjonijiet jew Tribunali tal-Appell li jiddeċiedu dwar talba għal permessi kemm ta’ żvilupp kif ukoll dwar riżorsi u permessi ambjentali oħra.”

Mario de Marco tkellem ukoll dwar jekk Membru Parlamentari għandux ikun full-time jew le. Huwa ma jaqbilx għax jidhirlu li Membru Parlamentari li għadu jaħdem/jipprattika l-professjoni ikun iktar f’kuntatt man-nies.

Hawnhekk ma naqblux: għax il-kuntatt prinċipali tal-Membru Parlamentari part-time mhux man-nies in ġenerali jkun, iżda mal-klijenti tiegħu li jiddedikalhom il-ħin u l-enerġija tiegħu. Huwa importanti li l-Membru tal-Parlament jiddistakka ruħu mill-klijenti tiegħu, għax issa l-pajjiz kollu huwa l-klijent tiegħu. Il-pajjiz jeżiġi servizz full-time mill-Membru Parlamentari. Sfortunatament dan is-servizz mhux jieħdu.

 

 

 

Il-Gvern iċċaqlaq ……….. għax sab l-iebes

Zonqor protest.200615.05jpg

 

Il-mod kif il-Gvern ħa id-deċiżjoni dwar l-Università Amerikana juri biċ-ċar li m’għandux idea tal-obbligi ambjentali tiegħu. Għax kieku kellu l-iċken idea kien jimxi b’mod differenti. Il-konsultazzjoni neċessarja kien jagħmilha qabel ma jiddeċiedi u mhux wara li għaffiġha.

Id-deċiżjoni oriġinali kienet ħażina. Bid-deċiżjoni reveduta li tħabbret il-bieraħ l-Gvern ġabar ftit ġieħu.

Ir-reviżjoni saret biss u esklussivament minħabba li s-soċjetà ċivili fetħet ħalqha.

M’huwiex possibli li tikkonkludi minn każ wieħed jekk dan ifissirx li l-Gvern immexxi minn Joseph Muscat huwiex ser jibda jagħti każ ta’ x’jaħseb il-lobby ambjentali. Dan inkunu nistgħu nikkonkluduh wara li jkollna xi żewġ każijiet oħra.

Irridu naraw per eżempju dwar kemm il-Gvern ser jagħti każ tal-proposti tal-lobby ambjentali dwar il-liġijiet preżentement pendenti quddiem il-Parlament. Irridu ukoll naraw xi proposti ser isiru meta fix-xhur li ġejjin ikunu ippubblikati l-abbozzi ta’ pjani lokali.

Jiena naħseb li l-Gvern kontinwament ser jipprova jevita l-obbligi ambjentali tiegħu. Jekk isib resistenza jaġġusta l-posizzjoni tiegħu skond ir-resistenza li jsib.

Għalhekk hu importanti li s-soċjetà ċivili tibqa’ viġilanti għax ser niffaċċjaw battalja wara l-oħra. Min jaqta’ nifsu l-ewwel jitlef.

Ippubblikat fuq l-Illum il-Ħadd 23 t’Awwissu 2015

 

Sustainable development goals : beyond rhetoric

SDGs

 

In the past few months, considerable work has been carried out by the United Nations to produce a document on sustainable development goals and earlier this week it was announced that a consensus has been achieved over this document that lists 17 goals and 169 specific targets.

The final document, which is now ready for adoption, is brief but wide-ranging. It is entitled Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

Taking into account the different national realities, the 17 identified goals cover  a wide range of issues (vide box) that form the global sustainable development agenda for the next 15 years. They aim to eradicate poverty, promote prosperity and increase environmental protection – constant objectives of the international community, that are continuously aimed for but so far not achieved.

The renewed commitment to achieve these goals is welcome. However, both the goals and the specific objectives will have to take account of different national realities and capacities, while respecting national policies and priorities.

Although the document has been described as a historic achievement, in practice it is nothing of the sort. We have been there before. For the past 40 years, commitments have been made at one global meeting after another, only for the world community to come back years later with a slightly different document.

In Malta, the politics of sustainable development is generally cosmetic in nature: full of rhetoric but relatively void when it comes to substance.

Sustainable development should be primarily concerned with having a long-term view which spans generations. It seeks an inter-generational commitment, with the present generation committing  itself to ensure that future generations have sufficient elbow room to take their own decisions. Even if we limit ourselves to this basic objective of sustainable development, it is clear that such a commitment is nowhere in sight in Maltese politics.

Sifting through the rhetoric, a clear gap is very visible. Rather than being developed over the years, the rudimentary sustainable development infrastructure has been dismantled. The National Commission for Sustainable Development, through which civil society actively participated in the formulation of a National Strategy for Sustainable Development, was dismantled by the previous administration.

If the politics of sustainable development is to be of any significance, it has to be evident at the roots of society and the sustainable development strategy itelf has to be owned by civil society. In Malta, a completely different path is followed. The sustainable development strategy is owned by the state and not by civil society. Hence it is largely irrelevant and practically insignificant.

The net result of the developments in recent years has transformed sustainable development politics in Malta into another bureaucratic process, with government appointees pushing pen against paper, producing reports and no visible improvement.

There is no political will to implement a sustainable development strategy, as this runs diametrically opposite to the political decisions of the current administration, which seeks to intensify the complete domination of Malta’s natural heritage by economic forces, plundered for short term gain.

The fragmentation of environmental governance is the latest building block of this strategy which is clearly evident behind the rhetorical facade.

This is not the future we want nor the future we deserve and it is not the transformation that Malta requires.

Next September, Malta will join the community of nations at New York in approving a document which it has no intention of implementing. Behind that rhetorical facade, the farce continues.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 9 August 2015

Ir-rapport tal-MEPA dwar iż-Żonqor: kif isiru l-affarijiet kieku jsiru bis-serjetà

iz-zonqor.wied_ilghajn_project_map

Tiftakru dak ir-rapport tal-MEPA dwar iż-Żonqor, fejn awturi fantażma qalu li ż-Żonqor seta jkun ikkunsidrat għall-iżvilupp ta’ Università Amerikana?

Il-konklużjoni ta’ (kważi) kulħadd kienet li ma kien hemm l-ebda serjetà fit-tfassil tar-rapport, u li kien ikun aħjar għall-MEPA u l-kredibilità tagħha kieku qagħdet il-bogħod u ma daħlitx bħal żatat fejn ma kienx postha.

Il-bieraħ fir-Renju Unit wara stħarriġ ta’ sentejn u nofs u nefqa ta’ £stg 20 miljun [għoxrin miljun sterlina] kien ippubblikat rapport imsejjaħ Airports Commission: Final Report. F’dan ir-rapport kummissjoni maħtura mill-Gvern tar-Renju Unit kellha l-inkarigu li teżamina l-kapaċita’ tal-ajruporti li jservu Londra u l-impatti tal-espansjoni potenzjali ta’ tnejn minnhom. Il- kummissjoni kienet mistennija tagħti parir dwar jekk għandux ikun kostruwit it-tielet runway fl-ajruport ta’ Heathrow inkella jekk kellux ikun kostruwit runway addizzjonali fl-ajruport ta’ Gatwick.

Iċ-Ċhairman tal-kummissjoni Sir Howard Davies, fid-daħla għal rapport ta’ 344 paġna jagħmel din id-dikjarazzjoni:

“Il-benefiċċji tal-avjazzjoni jgawdihom kulħadd, filwaqt li l-piż ambjentali tagħhom jintrefgħu mill-ftit. Għal dawk li joqgħodu ħdejhom l-ajruporti huma ġirien storbjużi, b’kilba għal ħafna art.”  

(The considerable benefits of aviation accrue to the many, while the environmental costs are borne by the (relatively) few. For those who live near them airports are noisy neighbours and are greedy for space.)

Essenzjalment dan il-kumment jgħodd għal kull proġett li jkun ippjanat. Għalhekk isiru l-istudji, biex ikunu identifikati l-impatti negattivi tal-proġett bl-iskop li, fejn possibli, dawn ikunu indirizzati. Fejn minkejja kull sforz (ġenwin) l-impatti jibqgħu hemm, wieħed imbagħad ikun irid jara jekk il-proġett ikunx għadu ġustifikabbli.

Ir-rapport jirrakkomanda li jkun ikkunsidrat l-espansjoni tal-ajruport ta’ Heathrow permezz tal-kostruzzjoni tat-tielet runway imma jorbot din ir-rakkomandazzjoni ma’ lista twila ta’ kundizzjonijiet ambjentali.

Il-Gvern (tar-Renju Unit) għad irid jieħu deċiżjoni. Imma l-kontroversja għadha fil-bidu nett. Hemm diversi membri parlamentari tal-Gvern li diġà esprimew ruħhom kontra l-proposta, fosthom numru ta’ MPs prominenti.

Ir-rapport ta’ 344 paġna, li diġa hu voluminuż, hu supplimentat b’numru kbir ta’ rapport tekniċi li jikkunsidraw diversi aspetti tal-impatti ambjentali , soċjali u ekonomiċi. Impatti fuq in-negozju u impatti fuq il-kwalita’ tal-arja. Impatti fuq il-klima, kif ukoll l-impatti fuq ir-residenti lokali. Impatti fuq it-trasport fil-lokalità kif ukoll eżami tal-validità tal-previżjonijiet diversi tat-traffiku tal-ajru ġġenerat. L-impatti fuq l-ekonomija lokali u l-impatti fuq l-ekonomija nazzjonali. L-impiegi w ix-xogħol iġġenerat.  L-impatt fuq il-kwalità tal-ħajja, is-saħħa u “equality impact assessment”.

Dan kollu u iktar hu mfisser f’eluf ta’ paġni biex il-Gvern tar-Renju Unit ikun jista’ jieħu deċiżjoni infurmata, imma ukoll biex is-soċjeta’ ċivili tkun tista’ tagħmel il-kontrolli neċessarji li l-analiżi qed issir sewwa u b’mod professjonali.

Dan kollu eventwalment ikun segwit ukoll bi studju dwar l-impatti ambjentali (environment impact assessment) skond jekk jintagħżilx Heathrow jew Gatwick.

Ma kienx ħaqqu iż-Żonqor u r-residenti ta’ Marsaskala li l-proġett propost ikun ikkunsidrat ftit fid-dettall, ankè f’dan l-istadju?

Mhux ta’ b’xejn li l-awturi tar-rapport stħaw juru wiċċhom!

Reflections from Carthage

Tunisia-Med

 

At the University of Carthage in Tunisia between Thursday and today the international community has been engaging with Tunisian civil society. The Fifth Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy – Decentralisation by Participation exchanged views and experiences with all sectors of Tunisian civil society: young people, women and trade unionists were at the forefront, with very passionate views on the Tunisian roadmap to democracy.

Why has the Arab Spring in Tunisia provided different results from those reaped in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria?

Yahd Ben Anchour, lawyer, former Chairman of the High Commission for the Preservation of the Revolution, and charged with overseeing  constitutional reform in a post Ben Ali Tunisia, emphasised the fact that the roots of this more successful outcome can be traced to a number of policy decisions in the late 1950s. The then Tunisian strongman Habib Bourguiba had championed free access to education, including higher education. He had, moreover, championed gender equality right from the first days of independence.  Tackling these issues made Bourguiba an exception in the Arab world.

From outside Tunisia, Bourguiba’s personality cult, the large scale clientelism over the years as well as the leadership of a one party-state naturally overshadowed his otherwise significant  social achievements, which are considered by many as the essential building blocks of today’s Tunisia civil society.

Even though a number of Tunisian women are still shackled by tradition, the number of them active in public life is impressive. It is this exceptionalism which has given the Arab Spring in Tunisia the edge over neighbouring countries and consequently the reasonable chance of success.

Mohammed Bouazizi’s  self immolation and subsequent death on the 4 January 2011 brought together all those dissatisfied with the Tunisian regime, leading to its downfall and laying the foundations for the first democratic state in the Arabic family of nations.

The debate in the Global Forum focused on the discontinuity of the electoral process in contrast to the permanence of political dialogue and participation. In a society which has rediscovered its hold over its own destiny, it is emphasised that political participation bridges the gaps of political time and goes beyond political monoplies. All Tunisian participants emphasised the fact that direct democracy reinforces – and is complimentary to – representative democracy.

Power originates from the people, who ultimately remain its sole arbitror. This can be done through referenda, not just to delete legislation but also to propose measures which the elected representatives did not consider necessary.

It is an ongoing debate that sees young people, women and trade unionists together with a new generation  of political activists debating the next steps to be taken by a democratic Tunisia.

It is in Malta’s interest to nurture this democratic development on our southern borders. We are not accustomed to having this type of neighbour!   During a recent meeting with Tunisian Premier Habib Essid, Malta’s Foreign Minister George Vella stated that Malta was willing to support Tunisia’s democratic process.  Back in 2012, in the first months after the revolution, Michael Frendo, then Speaker of Malta’s House of Representatives,  had also been in Tunisia, offering Malta’s  hand of friendship and cooperation to our neighbours.

Some positive developments for a change to our south.

Published in The Independent on Sunday : 17 May 2015

Taking back control

turtle dove

 

Throughout this Sunday morning the Electoral Commission will supervise the counting of the votes cast  in yesterday’s  spring hunting abrogative referendum. The first reliable projections of the result should be available at around  10.00am with a final result early in the afternoon.

Irrespective of the result, this is history in the making as, for the first time ever, Maltese voters will be directly taking a decision on environmental policy. They will decide whether spring hunting in the Maltese islands will be consigned to the history books.

This is the end of a two year journey that began in  April 2013 when the first steps were taken to form a broad-based anti-spring hunting Coalition of  environmental NGOs together with Alternattiva Demokratika-The Green Party in Malta. Initially, Alternattiva Demokratika’s initiative was met with scepticism: there was widespread fear of confronting the parliamentary political parties which had created the current spring hunting mess.

Constructive dialogue with both the Maltese authorities as well as with the EU Commission had failed to yield results, yet when push came to shove there was still considerable reluctance to think outside the box.  This mess could not be cleared by applying the same thinking that led to its creation. The spring hunting mess was created by successive governments that were held to ransom by the hunting lobby. There was only one solution: government was the problem so it could never be part of the solution – civil society had to take back control of the decision-making process to have order restored.

This was going to be a mammoth task. The fact that the abrogative referendum tool had never been used since its introduction in 1998 understandably added to the reluctance.

As late as 18 June 2013, some environmental NGOs were still hoping that the Maltese Government, or the EU Commission itself, would act in a reasonable manner and stop spring hunting.  In fact, reports in the press at that time were speculating on then EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik initiating an inquiry into spring hunting in Malta.

Early in the day, few people were conscious of the empowerment potential of the abrogative referendum. Almost none of the eNGOs was aware that the abrogative referendum process is independent  of government or Parliament.  Some eNGOs  supported the initiative almost immediately but it was an uphill struggle to convince others, taking weeks and a great deal of patience until practically all eNGOs were on board.

The collection of signatures to initiate the process for calling this abrogative referendum was launched on 10 August 2013 at Il-Buskett. Initially the uptake was very slow, as voters took some time to understand that this was no ordinary petition.

Then, on 23 and 24 October 2013, one of the worst massacres of wild birds in Malta took place. It is best described in a Birdlife Press release which stated  as follows :

“Despite the presence of six BirdLife Malta teams and as many ALE units in the Buskett area this morning at least one Booted Eagle, Ajkla tal-Kalzetti, was shot down inside Buskett Gardens as it left its roost this morning. Several others, including Short-toed and Booted Eagles, were shot at and many more were seen carrying injuries after last night’s shooting spree by hunters in Dingli, Buskett, Girgenti, Siġġiewi and Zebbuġ.

This morning’s second confirmed victim was a Short-toed Eagle, Ajkla Bajda, shot down in Gozo.

The shootings follow what can only be described as a massacre yesterday evening, after more than 50 eagles were seen by birdwatchers counting passing migrating birds in their regular watch-point above the wooded valley of Buskett. At least 10 eagles are known to have been shot down and many more targeted by dozens of hunters in locations around Buskett. Several as yet unconfirmed reports were also received from members of the public who saw eagles and other large birds of prey being shot at and shot down.”

This marked the turning point in signature collection as within ten days of the massacre of these eagles the required number of signatures had been received . The verification process was commenced immediately and the petition was finalised for submission to the Electoral Commission.

By July 2014, the Electoral Commission had concluded its vetting of the signatures submitted and six months later, in January this year, the Constitutional Court threw out the hunters’ objections.

For the past three months we have been actively campaigning to drive the message home: spring is the time when birds are on the way to their breeding grounds. They need to be protected. This message has been conveyed through the different spokesman and women ambassadors who, together with hundreds of volunteers, have done wonders to ensure that practically every voter is aware the he or she has the power to take a decision in order to clean up the mess which Parliament and the government have created over the years.

Today we will know what the decision is.  Saving any last minute surprises, it is clear that after today’s result Maltese civil society will cherish its newly discovered empowerment. Tomorrow, Monday, will not be just the start of a new week.  Hopefully, it be the start of a new era of ever-vigilant NGOs, now armed with the knowledge that they can hold government to account for inadequate legislation whenever they consider that this is necessary.

The abrogative referendum is the tool through which civil society can bring government to order. Today’s result will just confirm whether it can make use of it.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 11 April 2015