Raăhael Vassallo | Sunday, 12 July 2009
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A promise is (sometimes) a promise

Ah, joy. Like Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith before me, I love it when an electoral promise comes together.

And not without good reason. After all, it’s not exactly what you would call an everyday occurrence. For instance: I seem to vaguely remember something about a “revision of income tax bands” among the 353 promises contained in the PN manifesto last year.
Anyone else suffer from the same hallucination? Or am I the only one to vaguely remember Lawrence Gonzi promising to “put more money in our pockets” – which, I suppose, is a rather glamorous way of saying that he would be relieving our pockets of slightly less money each month than we are all used to?
Oh well, never mind. Guess I must have imagined the whole thing. Like I imagined that a change in PN leadership after 2003 would usher in a “new way of doing politics”; or that six years after placing “the environment” as one of its three main “pillars”, the government might somehow have found a way to produce more than 0.0002% of the nation’s energy from renewable sources...

But no matter. Who cares if the income tax brackets have not changed one iota, with the result that the amount of money gingerly pilfered from our pockets has remained exactly the same since March 2008? After all, by way of compensation we are all being given five free energy saving light bulbs – worth a grand total of €20, if my calculations are correct – in a one-off, never-to-be-repeated manifestation of Gonzi’s undying generosity.
Or that’s what we’ve been told, at any rate. According to official press releases, the distribution of the light bulb vouchers is already under way, having begun at the end of last month. But then again, I must be particularly unlucky. Apart from suffering from acute memory loss, it seems I also happen to reside in the only locality to have been accidentally overlooked in this grand, illuminating gesture of environmental electioneering. Either that, or the local Ta’ Xbiex postman really can’t tell the difference between a letter-box and a Resources Minister’s backside...

And just when we were recovering from the shock of a fulfilled PN electoral promise... when along came Renzo Piano with his designs for a “City Gateless” project: prompting the Nationalist Party’s spin department to claim that the Valletta developing constitutes “yet another” of the 353 promises from the PN’s “Yes, Together Everything is Populist” manifesto last March.
Hmm. Maybe it’s a premature onset of Alzheimers’, but I can’t for the life of me remember this particular promise either. Is it just me, or was there something in that manifesto about spending €85 million to build a massive new House of Parliament in Freedom Square? At a time when the Finance Minister claims he can’t afford to effect a measly €55 million refund on illegally collected VAT on second-hand cars? And when the European Commission is forging ahead with infringement procedures against the government, precisely for failing to control its capital expenditure...?

But wait a minute: could it be I’m looking at the wrong manifesto? Of course! It must have been a promise made by Eddie Fenech Adami way back in 1998... you know, when we were also promised a law on cohabitation, which never quite materialised in the intervening nine years. Or maybe it was in 1987, when the same Eddie Fenech Adami promised us a reform of police interrogation procedures – complete with the right of access to a lawyer while in custody, still denied to persons in detention 25 years after Nardu Debono’s murder – during a televised debate with Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici (now available for confirmation on Youtube, in case you still don’t believe me).

Oh OK, I hear you all groan. So electoral promises are there to be broken. We all knew that already. What’s the big deal? Who cares if the PN breaks the occasional ‘weghda elettorali’, when the only important thing is that Labour never, ever, ever gets into power (thereby getting the opportunity to break a few promises of its own)?
And of course you are all entirely correct. It is indeed immaterial if government disregards the occasional electoral promise... when the consequences of actually keeping them are invariably so much worse.

Yes, folks, this brings us crashingly to the electoral pledge of the millennium: the unleashing of Lawrence Gonzi’s Grand MEPA Reform Document, downloadable in PDF format from an OPM website near you.
And yet, despite the undeniable fact that this marks the single most important reform this country has witnessed since Napoleonic times, we were all far too busy experiencing multiple orgasms on account of the aforementioned Piano project to have even noticed its release. Which is arguably just as well, because I’ve had a close look at the document, and... oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy.

OK, let’s start with the obvious. Punctuation. Sorry, folks, but I honestly can’t stress the importance of this issue enough. Take as an example the following sentence, lifted verbatim from Chapter One: “Consequently, the centre of Government should be built up and strengthened in its policy-formulation capability, including the ability to identify areas for improvement, as well as, current shortcomings that need to be remedied.”
I mean, for heaven’s sake. If a planning authority can’t be trusted to put even a comma in the right place in a simple sentence... how on earth can it be expected to know where to site a 12-storey, 16,000-unit mega-development project – consisting of luxury apartments, office and retail space, as well as an underground carpark capable of concealing the entire US Sixth Fleet... on what is arguably the most severely overdeveloped island nation in the whole universe?
Well, by my count there must be around 7 million commas in that MEPA reform document, and exactly 39% of them - roughly the same percentage of “questionable” ODZ permits, according to the same document – have been stuck in the wrong place.
A little bit like tower cranes, come to think of it. We all know that only one is actually needed to get the job done... but it only costs €23 euros a day to block a road with a crane, so (predictably) you will find around seven of the damn things clustered around any given building site, with their little red lights flashing at night just to remind you that you’re living in a constant construction danger zone.

Small wonder MEPA has lost the public’s trust. This is after all the same authority that liberally allows the use of semi-colons, where a simple full-stop would suffice. By the same token, can anyone really be surprised when MEPA issues an ODZ permit for a four storey, 380-acre villa, complete with four tennis courts, a swimming pool and a private horse racing track plus grandstand... when all that was actually applied for was a extension to a tool-shed?

Moving onto objection number two: Words.
Yes, I know they’re horribly annoying little things, which tend spectacularly to fail you when you need them most. But they are sort of necessary for communication, so it is important to get them right. And sorry, folks, but there is no such word as “responsibilised” (used around 12,000 times in this document). And quite frankly there shouldn’t be, either, so don’t even think about applying to have it retroactively sanctioned. After all, it;s a word... not an illegally added storey to a Polidano hotel.

And finally, objection number three: Lawrence Gonzi.
Look, Mr Prime Minister: you’re a nice guy and all that, and I’ve no doubt you mean well. But you’re not exactly ‘Maciste Contro Tutti’, if you know what I mean.
Sure, it’s terribly generous of you to sacrifice so much of your quality free time to personally underwrite each and every single MEPA policy decision... but when some of us complained about MEPA and its dodgy decisions, what we actually had in mind was less political involvement, not more.
Besides: no offence or anything, but coming from someone who has yet to implement another electoral promise – remember that little allusion to a “party financing law” around two years ago, by any chance? – this offer of yours remains a little on the unclear side. How exactly does the leader of the Nationalist Party intend to reassure us that he will devise planning policy for the greater good of the environment – when practically all Malta’s major developers and building contractors publicly boast of financing the same PN... in cash or in kind?

So tell you what Dr Gonzi: first introduce the party financing law that everyone’s already forgotten about... and leave the MEPA reform until such a time as we can trust you to take decisions in the national (as opposed to Nationalist) interest.
How’s that for a compromise?


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