Moving away from Ali Baba politics



Way back in 2008 during the general election, Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party in Malta had put the issue of a possible parliamentary coalition on the national political agenda.

The PN, then, did its best to try and ridicule the proposal as it preferred to go it alone. At the end of the day, the PN just managed to scrape through the general election by the minimum of margins (1580 votes) on a national level. Eventually, however, it had to pay the consequences, as it ended up as a political hostage of a couple of unprincipled mavericks.

Simon Busuttil is trying not to repeat his predecessor’s mistake. He has called for the formation of a coalition against corruption, hoping that until the forthcoming general election, such a coalition will coalesce around the PN. This is similar to the strategy adopted by Joseph Muscat who transformed the Labour Party into what he described as a “movement”. In practice, however, Muscat’s endeavours have only transformed his Labour Party into a modern day version of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves!

To date, both the PN and the Labour Party have acted in such a way that the only coalition that made sense to them was the one within their own parties as both of them have over the years developed into grand coalitions, at times, championing diametrically opposed causes simultaneously.

However, coalitions are forged quite differently, at least those coalitions that are intended to contribute positively to the local political kaleidoscope.

The first foundation on which coalitions are built is reciprocal respect. Without reciprocal respect, those forming part of a coalition end up clowning around, trying to impress those around them with their buffoonery.

A second essential prerequisite for a coalition is an agreed political programme which clearly communicates the agreed common objectives of the coalition members. It would obviously be expected that members of such a coalition act in accordance to such an agreed political programme. Supporting environmental protection as an essential element of a programme to better everyone’s quality of life would undoubtedly feature in such an agreed political programme to which Alternattiva Demokratika could adhere. This would also be in line with the PN’s recent “conversion” in support of environmental activism.

It is not however clear how these newly discovered credentials of the PN are manifested by going around patting the management of Palumbo Shipyards and Malta Freeport Terminals on the back, congratulating them on their achievements which have inconvenienced their neighbours in the surrounding localities. This was recently done by the Leader of the Opposition Simon Busuttil during his visits to the Għajn Dwieli yard and the Kalafrana Terminal.

Consistency by the coalition members is not only desirable, it is an essential prerequisite for a coalition intended to last!

A coalition is not formed just to win an election. On the contrary, it seeks to win an election in order to be in a position to implement an agreed electoral programme. Winning an election is a means to an end and not an end in itself. It is for this reason that coalitions seek to bring together people and political parties who share a sufficient number of ideals on the basis of which they can construct a common electoral platform. Otherwise, what purpose would be served if those forming part of a coalition are not at ease with the new political environment which they seek to create?

For this specific reason, coalitions must be based on sound political principles. Having a coalition or a political party based on anything else is a recipe for the creation of an additional Ali Baba den, of which the present one is more than enough.

A solution to the current ethical crisis, which Malta’s political infrastructure is faced with, will not be delivered by a Parliament which is composed of only two political parties. This ethical crisis can only be overcome if more than two political parties make it to Parliament and if the winner-takes-all mentality and behaviour is consigned to the dustbin of history once and for all . This is both essential and possible without any changes to Malta’s electoral legislation and still allows for like-minded political parties to form a coalition.

It is important that those who have discarded good governance are set aside by the electorate in the forthcoming general election. It is however equally important that the machinery of government is never again entrusted into the hands of one single political party. In Malta’s particular circumstances only this can guarantee that good governance is placed on solid foundations.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 2nd October 2016

The Freeport: who pays the price for its economic success?

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There are conflicting views on the acceptability or otherwise of the operations of the Freeport Terminal at Kalafrana, limits of Birżebbuġa. Throughout the years, governments have repeatedly emphasised that the Freeport’s contribution to Malta’s economic growth justifies practically anything. It has been implied that no sacrifice was to be spared for the Freeport to be transformed into an economic success.

As a result, the residential community of Birżebbuġa has been forced to sacrifice its quality of life.

Putting it briefly, it is the result of a lack of planning prior to the setting up of the Planning Authority. Land required for the Freeport was expropriated as far back as 1962, yet a considerable residential area was developed close by in the mid-1980s. No suitable buffer zones were created to shield the Birżebbuġa community from the operational impacts of the Freeport. Had this been done when the Freeport was not even on the drawing board, the present day problems would have been substantially less than what they actually are today.

A major issue is the noise generated, particularly during the quiet hours. Advisors to the Freeport Terminal recently submitted the results of a 12-month noise monitoring survey which was conducted over the period February 2014 to January 2015. The report lists a number of recommended remedial measures, both those required in the short term as well as those requiring a longer time frame to implement. The 15 short-term measures and the seven long-term ones are no guarantee that issues of acoustic pollution will disappear. Reductions in impacts are anticipated even though no projections have yet been made as to whether these will be cancelled out by impacts resulting from an increase in operations at the Freeport Terminal.

A major contributor to noise pollution originating from the Freeport Terminal during the quiet hours is the humming of the main and auxiliary engines of the berthed vessels in port. It is for this specific reason that the Environmental Monitoring Committee at the Freeport Terminal (which includes representation from the Birżebbuġa Local Council) has insisted right through that the shore to ship electrical supply to vessels berthed at the Freeport Terminal should be addressed.

The final report of the 12-month noise survey in fact points at the necessity of undertaking studies on the feasibility of this proposal. This is in line with the 8 May 2006 Recommendation of the Commission of the European Union on the promotion of shore-side electricity for use by ships at berth in community ports (Recommendation 2006/339/EC).

The EU recommendation is specifically intended to be considered by EU ports “where air quality limit values are exceeded or where public concern is expressed about high levels of noise nuisance, and especially in berths situated near residential areas” .

The above makes the point on a reduction of the quality of life of the residential community as a result of just one issue: noise. Then there are other issues amongst which light pollution (resulting from the floodlights at the terminal), which issue is being addressed, as well as the lack of availability of a substantial portion of Marsaxlokk Bay which cannot be adequately used for water sports. Add to this the large number of sports facilities which the British Services developed in the past in the Birżebbuġa Area, most of which have been gobbled up by the development of the Freeport and one gets a real feel as to what the Freeport has done to the quality of life of the Birżebbuġa community.

The development of a waterpolo pitch to replace that constructed in the 60s as well as the development of a football ground, both in the final stages of completion will reduce these impacts. But they will certainly not be sufficient for a community which had so many more sports facilities when it was so much smaller.

To be fair, the Freeport Terminal is not the only contributor to the reduction of the Birżebbuġa residents’ quality of life. Generally, it is the result of the gradual industrialisation of the Marsaxlokk Port over the last thirty years. The addition of the floating gas storage facility servicing the gas-fired Delimara Power Station in the coming weeks (or months) will further increase these problems.

The concerns of ordinary people have been ignored for far too long. Maybe this is why the Prime Minister commented earlier this week on the undesirability of any further expansion of the Freeport Terminal. Possibly he has, at this late hour, realised the extent of the mess which has been created.

The time to clean up is long overdue.

published  on The Malta Independent on Sunday : 24 July 2016

Smelling the coffee


extract MT freeport crane clearancesmell the coffee

Last Thursday was one of those very rare occasions when the MEPA Board, considering two different development applications submitted by the Freeport Terminal operator, decided on the one which will be beneficial to Birżebbuġa residents.

I must confess that I was surprised at this, as I am accustomed to a MEPA which thinks and acts differently. I do not know whether Thursday’s sitting was a one-off or else whether it signals that the Authority has at last realised that the quality of life of our communities should be the real focus of its endeavours. Only time will tell.

The first application was to renew an approved permit in connection with  dredging work aimed at enabling larger ships to make use of the West Quay of Terminal 1. The second application proposed the installation of larger cranes with 140-metre jibs. The cranes currently in use have 110-metre jibs.

After repeated representations from the Birżebbuġa local council, as well as Birżebbuġa residents, MEPA-weeks before Thursday’s meeting- informed the Freeport Terminal Operator that siting these large cranes along the West Quay of Terminal 1 was unacceptable due to their impact on the quality of life of  residents, a number of whom live just across the road from the Freeport Terminal boundary wall.

The management of the Freeport Terminal complied with MEPA’s instructions to relocate the 140-metre jib cranes. This, however, begged the further question as to whether or not the pending dredging work was, in fact, now required.

The MEPA Board unanimously accepted the submission from the local council that, in view of the relocation of the cranes, there was no further need for the dredging permit and this was therefore not renewed.

Regarding the second application, seeking authorisation to replace a number of existing cranes with 110-metre jibs with more modern models having 140-jibs, the local council sought an explanation as to why a proposal for the siting of a power station close by – at il-Mara Bengħajsa (with an 80-metre high chimney) in the late 1980s was shot down by the Civil Aviation authorities, who are now accepting the installation of 140-metre high jibs.

During the discussion, it transpired that the clearance issued by Transport Malta was ambiguous. In fact, Transport Malta stated that the 140-metre jib cranes “will penetrate one of the established aeronautical protection surfaces by circa 18m and although this situation is not desirable, given the importance of this facility to the economy, on exceptional basis and without prejudice to any future request it is being considered acceptable subject to the following mitigations ………………”

You have read correctly. The 140-metre jib cranes are “not desirable” yet they are “being considered acceptable” by Transport Malta due to the importance of the Freeport to the economy.

The MEPA Chairman is insisting that Transport Malta owes us an explanation. He could have added that safety should not be compromised for any reason, including “economic importance”.

In a further twist in the whole saga, the Freeport Terminal management proceeded with the installation of the new cranes without waiting for a MEPA decision on the development permit requested.

Public opinion has been repeatedly critical of MEPA for its insensitivity to the impact of developments on residents in various localities. Economic operators were afforded  sufficient protection to be able to over-ride the growing environmental concerns of our communities.

The same MEPA Board which, last Thursday, unanimously decided to refuse the renewal of a development permit to carry out dredging work had, 18 months ago, voted by a large majority in favour of changes to the Freeport’s environmental permit such that it would have been permissible to carry out repairs to ships and oil rigs at the Kalafrana Terminal.  It was only at the insistence of the Birżebbuġa Local Council that the Freeport Terminal management opted not to use the permit issued.

The question to which I seek an answer to is whether Thursday’s events signify that MEPA has awoken up from its slumber and smelled the coffee  It would indeed be commendable if it is capable of standing up to corporate (and state) arrogance.

Ending MEPA’s Rip van Winkle phase would signify that, after all, the possibility to improve the quality of life in Malta through better environment protection does exist, after all. But time is running out.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 22 November 2015

Land Reclamation and the construction industry

land reclamation 01

The issue of land reclamation should be tackled in a responsible manner.

The Netherlands used land reclamation successfully to adequately manage its low-lying land. Hong Kong made use of land reclamation to create high value land required for its airport on the Chek Lak Kok island. Through land reclamation Singapore expanded its container port, an essential cornerstone in its economy.

In Malta land reclamation was used in the past to create the Freeport Terminal at Kalafrana in the limits of Birżebbuġa.

MEPA has during the recent past engaged consultants to assess the potential of land reclamation in Maltese waters.

A 2005 study was commissioned by MEPA and carried out by  Carl Bro. This study identified six relatively large coastal areas as search areas for potential land reclamation sites. The study had  recommended that these six areas, or a selection of them, be “investigated in further details in parallel with the execution of a pre-feasibility study, before a principal decision is taken on whether land reclamation is considered realistic under Maltese conditions. It is recommended that such investigations and studies be carried out by the Government prior to the involvement of the private sector in possible land reclamation projects.” (page 8 of report).

MEPA took up this proposal and commissioned ADI Associates together with Scott Wilson to carry out a detailed study on two of the identified coastal areas. These studies were finalised in 2007 and 2008 and consist of 4 volumes. The coastal areas identified and studied are those along the  Magħtab/Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq coastline and the Xgħajra/Marsaskala coastline.

These latter studies conclude with a detailed set of recommendations on more focused studies relative to environmental and economic impacts which would be necessary if land reclamation is to be further considered.

In Chapter 10 of its electoral manifesto the Labour Party is committed to utilise a programme of land reclamation as an important tool in the infrastructural development of the country.  The said electoral programme emphasises the environmental and economic sensitivity of such projects and underlines a  commitment to high standards in environmental, social, economic, land use planning and sustainable development fields.

In Parliament it has been declared that the next step would be for expressions of interest to be submitted by those proposing  projects for  development on reclaimed land. A call should be issued in the near future.

I believe that this is not the way forward.  On the basis of the studies carried out to date and such additional studies as may be required it would have been much better if government presents for public consultation a detailed draft land reclamation strategy.  Such a strategy would then be subjected to public consultation. A dialogue is required, not just with the developers but also with civil society, including most importantly with environmental NGOs.

The draft strategy would undoubtedly indicate the proposed permissible development on the reclaimed land. It would be interesting to note if the said strategy would consider the need for residential development in view of the over 70,000 vacant residential properties  on the islands. On the basis of existing and possibly additional studies the strategy would also seek to ensure that Malta’s coastline is protected much more effectively than Malta’s countryside has been to date.

All views should be carefully considered before such a strategy is finalised.

Once the strategy is finalised its environmental impacts should be carefully scrutinised  as is provided for in the Strategic Environment Assessment Directive of the EU. This Directive now has the force of law in Malta. It is only when this assessment has been finalised and the impacts identified are suitably addressed through changes in the draft strategy  itself (if required) that it would be reasonable to invite expressions of interest from interested parties.

Land reclamation is no magic solution to a construction industry which is in urgent need of restructuring. Even if land reclamation is permitted it cannot and will not offer a long term solution to an ailing construction industry which has been capable of contributing to an accumulating stockpile of vacant dwellings which are equivalent to 9 ghost towns, each the size of B’Kara.

The country would be economically and socially much better off if the construction industry is assisted in its much needed restructuring. It would undoubtedly need to shed labour which can be absorbed by other sectors of the economy. Retraining would  be required  to ease the entry of the shed labour force into other economic areas.

This  would certainly be much more beneficial and sustainable than land reclamation.

published in The Times  on 27 April 2013 under the title: Land Reclamation and Building

Minor footnote to 1980s talks

Much has been written about the meetings between Dom Mintoff and Guido de Marco prior to 1987 on finding ways in which to solve the constitutional crisis resulting from the 1981 perverse electoral results.

During these meetings Mintoff and de Marco undoubtedly also discussed various other matters as they considered appropriate. At one point, I too formed part of their agenda.

It was early in October 1984 and I was carrying out duties of architect and civil engineer at the then Public Works Department. Called to the office of the director, I was informed that, in view of my articles published in newspapers of the Nationalist Party, my employment was being terminated forthwith.

Being without a job was further compounded by the fact that the then Labour government had also withheld my professional warrant.

I initiated human rights proceedings claiming that my right to freedom of expression and protection from discrimination on political grounds had been breached by the Director of Public Works and his minister, Lorry Sant.

The first session of the court case was fixed for early November 1984. Witnesses were heard and submissions made.

Some time in April or May 1985, de Marco called to tell me that he had a message for me from Mintoff. My dismissal from the Public Works Department had cropped up in one of his meetings with Mintoff who had suggested that he would be prepared to take me on board as a civil engineer on the Freeport project, then under his wings and in its early stages.

However, this proposal was subject to the conditions that I had to halt legal proceedings against Sant and, in addition, I had to bind myself not to write any more articles in newspapers.

My response was a clear no.

We met a second time at the request of de Marco, presumably as Mintoff was pressing for an answer. But I did not budge. In view of my refusal, the message was relayed through two alternative routes. De Marco had asked two high-ranking PN officials to persuade me to compromise. Fortunately, they fully understood my position and did not press the matter any further.

On June 27, 1985, just weeks after receiving Mintoff’s message, the case was decided by Mr Justice Joseph Filletti. He concluded that my freedom of expression and my right not to be discriminated against on political grounds were breached by the Director of Public Works. The director, the court ruled, had to shoulder administrative responsibility for the happenings in his department on his own.

Mr Justice Filletti had exonerated the minister!

Subsequent to Mr Justice Filletti’s decision I received a phone call that a senior army officer attached to Mintoff’s office at Kalafrana wanted to speak to me.

I clearly remember that it was an August afternoon in 1985 when I called at his office. This army officer, eventually a colonel, told me that I should not count my chickens yet because, while I had a favourable first decision from the law courts, it was inevitable that it would be reversed on appeal.

He prodded me to accept Mintoff’s proposal and stop legal proceedings. I told the colonel that I had already refused the proposal and that I had no intention of changing my mind.

In the meantime, the Constitutional Court had fixed dates for hearings of the appeals submitted. I myself had submitted an appeal because, in my view, the minister should have been found responsible together with the director for breach of human rights. Proof had been submitted that the instructions for my dismissal had been issued by the minister himself.

The Constitutional Court decided the case on January 29, 1986. It concluded that Sant had, in fact, issued the instructions for my dismissal himself. It further acknowledged that proof of the minister’s direct involvement had been submitted through the evidence of various witnesses.

The Constitutional Court decided that both Sant and the director were responsible for political discrimination.

As to freedom of expression, the Constitutional Court reversed the first court’s decision and concluded that those in public employment sign away their rights of freedom of expression. By accepting public employment, the Constitutional Court held that you renounce your freedom of expression.

As it turned out, it seems that the colonel was most probably bluffing after all.

It was clear to me that Mintoff was trying to find a way out for Sant.

When my name cropped up in the de Marco-Mintoff talks it seems that I was considered as a pawn that could be easily sacrificed in the quest for the larger prize.

Fortunately, matters developed differently in this minor footnote to the de Marco/Mintoff talks.

published in The Times (Malta) 8th September 2012