NEWS | Sunday, 25 November 2007

Old and new collide in the green uprising

The encounter between the old nobility and the radical greens exposes the sort of growing floating vote that the big parties will have to face in the next election. By MATTHEW VELLA

The timing of both the Stricklands’ heirs planning debacle, and the rekindling of the Lija white dust case in the European Commission this week (see opposite page), throws some curious light on the evolving role of Alternattiva Demokratika in the changing political landscape that is moving to the staid centrist politics we are growing accustomed to.
The owners of the 18th century palatial home of Villa Bologna, the former residence of Lord Gerald Strickland, are objecting to the Central Local Plan put forward by the Malta Environmental and Planning Authority because it designates parts of Villa Bologna’s grounds and the overlying street for development.
The de Traffords are fighting what they say was lack of consultation over changes to the local plan – the planning policy that guides MEPA on what sort of development should or should not be allowed – and have possibly surprised some people by turning to Alternattiva Demokratika and their newly acquired potential candidate, Carmel Cacopardo, to mount their offensive.
MEPA’s former audit office investigator, feared for his tenacity and whose appointment was never renewed for the same reason, Cacopardo could be termed a “celebrity” architect – the man who took MEPA head on and is not scared to do it again.
Through AD, the de Traffords want to contest the plan which has approved development of up to three floors in the overlying Lorenzo Manche street in Attard, when it was previously designated as a green area, and to have it scheduled.
Beyond the planning technicalities, it is an interesting “marriage” of sorts – the relatives of the illustrious Counts of Catena, a title bestowed by Grand Master Pinto in 1745, with a party radically set apart from the conservatism of the old nobility.
This might not be so surprising considering AD’s dedication to the rule of law and justice as a foremost principle of its fight for environmental reforms. On its battle against the antiquated rent laws, the Green Party has already taken on the mantle of alienated landowner: a class of people who, once again, may be set apart from much of the progressive agenda of AD.
In this context, the Stricklandian connection with AD may serve to highlight some similarities. Yesterday, AD leader Harry Vassallo posted a blog in his Facebook profile on the ‘famous White Dust Case’ which featured regularly on the Times of Malta in the 1960s:
“Almost a child at the time, I had a grandstand view of the debate since I had a relative who was responsible for industrial safety. I asked him why nothing was done about the dust which covered the trees in Lija, and invaded the homes and lungs of Lija residents. His expert technocrat’s opinion was that it was technically possible to prevent the pollution. It was also legally possible to oblige the operators to take the necessary measures. However, the cost of the investment involved would be too much of a burden on the operators. I was not satisfied then and I am not satisfied today.” 3
7 The Stricklandians of today are no longer political animals, but here they are, turning to Alternativa Demokratika as a credible form of opposition to stand up to the deterioration in planning priorities at the heart of MEPA – an institution whose shortcomings will forever be associated with the very government which gave birth to it.
Like AD, the Constitutionals also militated from within the great Labour and Nationalist divide. Maybe here there is a faint nexus of historical continuity from the Constitutionals to AD, a green party but more importantly a “third party”, born out of values germinated inside the vacuum of the party duopoly of the late 1980s and early 1990s – values vaguely termed as ‘post-materialist’, beyond bread and butter, labour and money. Values of liberty, but not necessarily liberalism; of rights and justice, of a sense of State and community that does away with patronage and clientelism.
And maybe in this respect, AD like the PCP before it, looked beyond the shores of a sea-bound Mediterranean people towards a greater, emancipatory force: for the Greens, it was its support for European Union membership from its inception in 1989. For the Constitutionals, it was integration with Great Britain that served as the beacon of progress for Malta.
Such vague similarities shed some light on the sort of new allegiances a substantial group of voters will be looking for come the next election: those finding affinity with the “quality of life” discourse of AD, and those alienated from big party politics which today offer no ideological direction except for a cold plate of technocratic concerns.
These concerns, already the flavour of the coming election, are over who will be the better CEO for the country: will it be “safe hands” Gonzi, or “managerial” Sant?
Clearly, both parties have failed to address the silent “revolution” created in a vacuum of bad environmental and planning decisions. This became all too visible over the last year. It took government 12 whole months to heal the rift with NGOs and environmentalists on the extension of development zones, choosing instead to revoke the controversial Ramla l-Hamra permit and forgo the golf course at Xaghra l-Hamra. Labour’s stand on the environment is also unclear, not for being cagey about its green vision, but because many view the party to be sitting on the fence between environmentalists and big contractors and developers.
If you take people like Astrid Vella and Harry Vassallo as the face of the new green movement, you have a picture of the strong middle class that feeds these new political demands. They are not just greens, but now also “pale blues”, former Nationalists whose loyalties have been compromised. They are less concerned with Gonzi’s and Sant’s technocratic drivel and statistical duelling, than they are with a standard of living that is intimately tied to the quality of their environment.
They are more concerned about the uglification of Malta’s villages, and the towns like Sliema, sacked by concrete crusaders, than they are with economic growth. Civil society, in the political form of this group of voters suspicious of big government parties, is turning away from the traditional duopoly.
Even if they are not the majority, they are the floaters, and the third-party voters – a growing statistical thorn in the side for party pollsters.


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