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Editorial | Wednesday, 05 November 2008

Green initiatives, or hidden taxes?

British literary heavyweight Samuel Johnson once claimed that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Were he alive today instead of the 18th century, Dr Johnson might well have made the same remark about “environmentalism” instead.
A cursory glance at Budget 2009 will reveal that many of the more questionable measures have been introduced ostensibly for environmental reasons, but in actual fact are little more than revenue-generators for the government.
Before analysing a few examples, it may be worth taking a step back and assessing the apparent “greening” of the government’s credentials with the hindsight of history.
From this perspective, it is deeply ironic that the Nationalist Party – which has been in power since 1987, with the exception of less than two years – would suddenly become such an ardent environmental crusader.
This is after all the same political party that for years had pandered to the hunters’ lobby, turning bird conservation into a political football purely for its own electoral advantage. (That the Malta Labour Party did exactly the same thing is true, and equally reprehensible; but it does not exonerate the Nationalist Party of having exploited the hunters’ gullibility for so long).
It was also the PN which until recently pooh-poohed environmentalists, dismissing them as unrealistic dreamers, or worse still – as in the case of Astrid Vella – mobilising its supporters against them by means of whispering campaigns.
To be fair to Lawrence Gonzi, the bulk of the scorn to which environmentalists used to be subjected came during the reign of his predecessor, Eddie Fenech Adami, who took over the helm of the Nationalist party in 1977: long before the word “environmentalism” was even properly understood.
After Fenech Adami became Prime Minister in 1987, Malta experienced a building boom which caused untold and irrevocable damage to urban and rural environment alike. The skyline of the Sliema seafront was disfigured; village cores desecrated by ugly, soulless concrete blocks; the countryside scarred by gaping quarries; and the tranquillity of village life was shattered by jackhammers and bulldozers.
And all the while, Maghtab grew and festered largely unchecked, each new layer buried under a pile of crushed construction waste.
But even though Gonzi made the environment his own cause celebre upon assuming leadership in 2003, his first initiatives as Prime Minister were themselves equally inauspicious.
The first tell-tale sign came with the 2004 decision to increase the Outside Development Zones by an area equivalent to the size of Siggiewi: thus condemning Malta to further rampant property speculation of the kind that had already ruined its essential character. It was also Gonzi’s brainwave to turn the unspoilt Xaghra l-Hamra into a golf course: a plan he only renounced after mounting public pressure, and an expensive and ultimately unnecessary Environmental Impact Assessment report.
Since March this year, Gonzi has promised to reform the Malta Environmental and Planning Authority (MEPA); but so far, the indications have not been promising. First there was the farcical issue of the Fort Cambridge, which had evidently been approved long before the vote was even taken; and when this newspaper revealed a number of scandalous irregularities in the tuna penning industry – including one farm, owned by a personal friend of Fisheries Minister George Pullicino, which had installed no fewer than 17 extra pens without a permit – the OPM’s reaction was to justify the glaring anomaly as “business as usual”.
So when the present government touts its “green credentials”, one cannot really be blamed for being sceptical.
With Budget 2009, government has introduced a number of “eco-friendly” initiatives which, at a glance, appear to be aimed at fostering an environment-conscious lifestyle.
One typical example involves the imposition of a 15c tax on plastic bags: a variation of the previous, abortive eco-contribution introduced in 2005. In practice, however, the new scheme is more likely to increase people’s shopping bills – and therefore government revenue from VAT – than decrease the amount of plastic finding its way into the waste-stream.
In similar vein, the rebates on solar-powered water heaters and photo-voltaic systems, while commendable in themselves, are capped at a fraction of the actual costs of these expensive appliances. In some cases, the price remains too prohibitive for the rebate to make any significant difference to the vast majority of potential purchasers, keeping green technology out of reach of all but those who can afford it anyway.
Similar faults can be found with other measures, which are either aimed at a small but wealthy percentage of the population – such as the owners of yachts and swimming pools – or which are too minor in their impact to offset the huge imbalance in family budgets soon to be brought about by the new utility tariffs.
All things told, it is understandable that government would seek to maximize its revenue in these times of looming economic crisis; and weighing all the options, the budget could have been considerably worse than it actually was. But using environmental jargon to disguise a host of hidden taxes is akin to adding insult to injury.


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