The two faces of Janus

In Roman mythology the god Janus was depicted as having a head with two faces. One looking eastwards and the other westwards. One symbolically looking into the future  and the other into the past.  

Unfortunately it is not Janus who overlooks the entrance to the Ministry for the Environment in Valletta. Janus could symbolically motivate environmental policy through learning through past mistakes and applying the lessons learnt into the future.  Janus could however symbolise the two political faces of government. One compatible with its declarations and rhetoric. The other with its actions.

Consider this government’s commitments in favour of sustainable development. In May 2008 the Head of State reading the speech from the throne on behalf of Gonzipn promised  one and all that :

The government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development of the economy, of society and of the environment. When making decisions today, serious consideration will be given to the generations of tomorrow.

Sustainable development has three main dimensions – economic, social and environmental. Our challenge is to ensure continuous economic development, promoted by education, social development, with particular attention to environmental protection.  When we evaluate our activities in view of these three inter-related dimensions, we would be placing every person at the heart of the Government’s actions.”

The member of Cabinet responsible for issues of sustainable development is the Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi. Dr Gonzi’s commitment towards sustainable development is not to be gauged by his rhetoric but through his actions. He excels in rhetoric but he fails miserably in implementation.

The Commission for Sustainable Development set up in terms of the Environment Protection Act has not met for almost five years, since December 2006. Its Chairman is Dr Gonzi. During its last meeting it had approved the final version of the National Sustainable Development Strategy, which it then submitted to Cabinet for approval. The main function of the commission now is to oversee the implementation of the Sustainable Development Strategy for the Maltese Islands, approved by Cabinet prior to the March 2008 election and having a 10-year lifespan (2007-2016). The strategy is half way past its lifespan and the process for its implementation is nowhere in sight.

This fact on its own speaks volumes as to government’s strategy. The National Sustainable Development Strategy was drafted after years of discussions with civil society. The Commission which in terms of the Environment Protection Act had to be chaired by the Prime Minister hardly ever met in the presence of Dr Gonzi. He delegated his responsibilities to others. When the National Sustainable Development Strategy was finalised government ignored it and commenced the formulation of another document dealing with a National Environment Policy. The information available to date about this National Environment Policy is substantially a duplication of what’s been said and written on the Sustainable Development strategy.

All this leads to one conclusion. The current government is primarily interested in talking about sustainable development and environmental issues. But when the time comes for implementation it goes back to square one. More talk and more documents.

Well it seems that the Minster for the Environment, Dr Lawrence Gonzi, needs some images of Janus at his office. It would remind him constantly that in the long run having two faces on the same head is only suited to mythology.      

 Published Sunday 7th August 2011

The Independent on Sunday – Environment Supplement


More Voodoo Planning

The proposed Mepa legislation fails to address basic issues bedevilling land use planning and environment protection. It is basically a consolidation of current legislation with some amendments. Important provisions in the Environment Protection Act, such as reference to the National Commission for Sustainable Development, are being repealed. While acknowledging that they may crop up in other legislation, the government has not to date publicly indicated its intentions.

After almost two years of consultations I expected something quite different. There has been no attempt at ensuring that appointees to the Mepa board are at least conversant with planning and environmental issues. If past appointments are any indication of what to expect we will have more voodoo planners. Appointing one Mepa board member from an environmental NGO area of influence will not solve anything. We have been there before with the appointee resigning after a few weeks.

Appointment of architects to boards and commissions is no guarantee that Mepa will function within current policy and legislation. Censurable decisions have been taken by DCCs chaired by architects. Some resigned their posts as a result.

There will always be those who err. In addition to human error, some will err as a result of incompetence and others as a result of pressures applied. In the past, some members of the DCC and the Mepa board have taken up the practice of voodoo planning: discarding their role of applying policy, opting instead to create it.

This is the result of not being aware of their role and not being familiar with planning and environmental policy.

Voodoo planning is also a reaction to pressures applied or perceived in the so-called closed-door meetings. Mepa’s executive committee, for example, has developed the role of advising DCCs as to the manner of deciding particular applications. This unacceptable intrusion into the DCCs competence does not feature in the proposed legislation. It is to date left unregulated.

Through its Select Committee, Parliament should develop the role of a permanent monitor: a spotlight focused on Mepa. It should also have a role in screening the government’s nominees to the Mepa board and DCCs, which screening can be carried out through subjecting such nominees to public hearings. Such hearings can weed out most undesirable appointees. Those with a glaring conflict of interest and those whose only qualification is their political allegiance would be the first casualties. A system through which Parliament’s Select Committee screens potential appointees can also nudge the government into discarding the tradition as a result of which competent individuals not close to the government of the day are not considered for appointment.

MPs should not be able to decide specific planning or environmental applications. Hence, I query whether Parliament should continue appointing two of its members to sit as voting members of the Mepa board. MPs would fulfil their role as representatives of the community much better if they develop Parliament’s monitoring role. Parliaments in other jurisdictions function very effectively in this manner.

Up till 2002, the government was still considering the setting up of a separate authority dealing exclusively with the environment and had, in fact, commissioned and received draft legislation on the subject.

The issue of having two separate authorities, one dealing with land use planning and the other with environmental protection, is not one of principle. It is rather one of ensuring that the environment protection function is not stifled as has been done to date. The environment protection voice has been continuously suffocated, available resources withheld or diverted, with appointments to sensitive environment posts being dished out to persons whose competence and experience was in other fields, primarily land use planning. Coupled with the appointment of boards and commissions insensitive to environmental issues, these attitudes have led to the current state of affairs.

If the government persists in its policy of retaining the environment protection function within Mepa, the least it can do is to embark on recruiting qualified personnel at all levels, thereby reversing the accumulated negative legacy. This includes the need to appoint more members of the Mepa board equipped with a suitable knowledge of environmental protection issues.

A positive aspect of the proposed reform is that the government has re-dimensioned its role in forward planning. While rightly affirming that policy decisions are the role of the politician, Mepa’s role in policy formulation has been retained. In addition, the Ombudsman’s comments on fine-tuning of the consultation process as explained in his report dated April 2007, titled The Duty To Consult And The Right To Be Consulted, have been taken on board.

Land use planning and environmental protection will always be controversial. These are surely not the paths to popularity. Parliament needs to take a more active role as an overseer. While the government has a role in leading the way, Parliament has the duty to ensure that the country’s resources are used in a sustainable manner, holding the government to account in the process.

Greens deplore Government’s stand on Bluefin Tuna


AD, stated Chairperson Arnold Cassola, strongly deplores the government’s
stand against the EU’s proposal to halt for two years the exploitation of the
Bluefin Tuna to ensure that the species is not driven to extinction due to
unsustainable pressure. The population of the breeding tuna in 2007 was only a quarter of the level of that of 50 years ago, most of the decline occuring in recent years.

The Maltese Government’s opposition to the EU Commission proposal, added Carmel Cacopardo AD Spokesman on Sustainable Development and Local Government, not only shows a lack of an environmental commitment but also exposes the government’s willingness to back short term economic profit at the expense of natural resources.The livelihood of Maltese fishermen who use traditional fishing methods is being threatened by such behaviour.

On the basis of the precautionary principle established in International Fora
and enshrined in Malta’s Environment Protection Act, the Maltese Government should have supported the EU’s proposal thereby protecting blue fin tuna from the unscrupulous exploitation by large scale industrial fishing. There is no need to wait for more detailed scientific studies, concluded Carmel Cacopardo, to arrive to the obvious conclusion that unless there is an immediate halt to bluefin tuna exploitation this species will become extinct shortly.

Ralph Cassar