When considering the draft National Environment Policy some patience is required. On one hand it is a detailed document covering a substantial number of environmental issues. However, its exposition of the issues to be tackled contrasts starkly with the government’s environmental performance throughout its long term in office.
The draft policy says more about the government than about the environment. It collates together the accumulated environmental responsibilities the government should have been addressing throughout the past years. The draft policy tells us: this is what the government ought to have done. It further tells us that in the next 10 years, the government will try its best to remedy its past failures by doing what it should do.
The government’s words and action are in sharp contrast, as I have been repeatedly pointing out in these columns. In late 2007, Cabinet approved the National Strategy for Sustainable Development, which, although being less detailed than today’s draft National Environment Policy, says practically the same things. It also covers a 10-year period (2007-2016), half of which has elapsed without the set targets having been addressed. Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi is the Cabinet member politically responsible for this failure. Having failed repeatedly, I find it difficult to think how he could be trusted to deliver on environmental or sustainability issues.
On the basis of this experience, it is reasonable to dismiss the government’s media circus at Xrobb l-Għaġin where the draft National Environment Policy was launched as just another exercise in rhetoric.
It is definitely not a sudden conversion in favour of environmental issues that moved the government to act. The present exercise is the result of society’s metamorphosis, which came about as a direct consequence of years of environmental activism in Malta. Civil society has pushed a reluctant Nationalist-led government to this point.
No one in his right senses can quarrel with the proposed National Environment Policy in principle. Yet, it is a fact that the environment has always been the Cinderella of government business. All talk and little walk. A clear example is the adjudication process of the Delimara power station extension. When the submitted tenders were adjudicated, it resulted that the submissions that were technically and environmentally superior were considered less favourably than the tender that was perceived as being economically more advantageous. When push comes to shove, environmental issues are not given priority, the adjudication criteria being skewed in favour of perceived economic gain.
All this contrasts with the declarations in favour of green procurement in the draft National Environment Policy. In defending the decision on the use of heavy fuel oil in the power station extension, government spokesmen are in fact stating that while the environment is the government’s political priority it still retains the right to have second thoughts whenever it takes an important decision.
When the government plays around with its declared environmental convictions with the ease of a juggler, it sows serious doubts on its intentions. Even if the Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment is doing his best to convince that, under his watch, the environment carries weight it is clear to all that he has not succeeded in wiping the slate clean. He is still conditioned by the attitudes and the decisions taken by his boss and colleagues in the recent past. Their attitudes have not changed at all. Old habits die hard.
On a positive note, I have to state that the process leading to the draft National Environment Policy submitted for public consultation was one which involved civil society. A number of proposals submitted by civil society, including those in an AD document submitted to Mario de Marco, were taken on board. I also had the opportunity to discuss the draft policy and AD’s views with Dr de Marco on more than one occasion. The discussions were, in my opinion, beneficial.
The problem the government has so far failed to overcome is that it preaches one thing and continually does the opposite. The only times when it carries out positive environment action is when it is forced on this course by EU legislation or by threats of EU infringement proceedings. Within this context, declarations that Malta aims to go beyond the requirement of the EU’s acquis are, to say the least, hilarious. It would have been much better if the basics of the EU environmental acquis are first put in place.
The environmental initiatives taken during the past seven years have been mostly funded by the EU.
They would not have been possible without such funding.
By spelling it out, the draft National Environment Policy defines the government’s past failures. Hopefully, it also lays the groundwork for the required remedial action. The environmental destruction the government has facilitated and encouraged will take a long time to remedy. In some cases, the damage done is beyond repair.
Beyond the entertainment value of the media circus at Xrobb l-Għaġin, these first steps are just the beginning of a long journey. For the sake of Malta’s future generations I hope that the government does not go astray once more.