Michael Falzon | Sunday, 13 September 2009
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The greening of Lawrence Gonzi

I was intrigued last weekend to read a piece on The Malta Independent on Sunday about the effect of the action of environmental NGOs on the economy (Environmentalists’ action ‘causing great harm’ to economy – Stephen Calleja). Put in a nutshell, the argument went that the Victor Scerri Baħrija development incident provoked by these NGOs has sent a negative message to would-be entrepreneurs and investors to the detriment of the Maltese economy at a time when Malta is striving to get out of an economic recession.
The author alleged that as a result several plans for development projects by the private sector have now been shelved. Nobody wants to risk his money in a scenario where a few ill-advised tree-huggers can have their way all the time.
While agreeing that recent incidents on this front have done more harm than good, I do not, for one, believe that these NGOs are doing this economic damage purposely – unlike the situation that prevails within the party in Opposition, of course. Nor do I believe that in order to avoid such harm, NGOs should be asked, or even required, to keep mum on any development with which they do not agree. Malta is a democracy and NGOs have every right to express their opinions – however silly and shortsighted they may be – and organise protests to highlight their points of view.
It is the mishandling of these protests by Lawrence Gonzi and his acolytes that is responsible for the mess that has ensued, and not the NGOs as such. As a result of this appallingly poor mishandling, the Prime Minister has come across as someone who cowers whenever the likes of Astrid Vella and Lino Bugeja open their mouth. This is actually not true at all, but truth is irrelevant in this game. It is perception that counts.
For me, the most striking aspect of the Baħrija development incident is the Prime Minister’s evident lack of the determination and resolve that are a sine qua non to the manner in which a leader behaves. Playing the game that the PM is above the issue, and that this will be dealt with by the system, does not wash. Not when MEPA has been under Gonzi’s direct responsibility for over a year as a result of an election promise. Not when the person – of undoubted honest and integrity – appointed MEPA Chairman was a personal acquaintance of the Prime Minister who, in the past, was a colleague of his working for the same private employer. Not when MEPA is still not yet ‘reformed’!
The decision to revoke Victor Scerri’s permit could not have been taken without the PM’s acquiescence. Nobody believes that this decision was prompted by the ‘irregularity’ that was spotted in the processing of the permit only after the issue became a political controversy. Nobody believes it was the MEPA Board that actually took this decision in a meeting open to the public; and that this meeting had not simply rubber-stamped an already agreed position, making a mockery of the open official hearing during which it was supposed to have been taken. And hence, also making a mockery of the accountability that the PM himself touts as one of the four pilasters of the impending MEPA reform.
An indomitable leader would have explained to the citizens he leads, that MEPA had approved a large number of permits similar to the one issued to Victor Scerri and hence asked why the NGOs had picked on this particular one, if they were not being politically motivated. He could agree that the policies that allowed for such permits to be issued need to be tightened – as indeed they do – but making a scapegoat of Victor Scerri simply because he was an official of the political party that the PM leads should never have been on the cards. Instead the Prime Minister and his acolytes decided to ditch Victor Scerri, myopically thinking that in this way they would save their blushes. How wrong they were!
Is it any surprise that many Nationalist supporters feel dismayed that the PM has let down ‘one of our own boys’, and entrepreneurs have concluded that ‘If the Nationalists cannot defend one of their own, just because a few environment-conscious people try to disrupt a project, then they will certainly not defend others who have no political connection.’
The net result is that government appears weak, making people conclude that NGOs supported only by a few hundred people have ‘a big influence on the way the government thinks and the way the Malta Environment and Planning Authority reacts’ – as Stephen Calleja put it last Sunday.
Following the St John’s Co-Cathedral museum extension fracas, this incident has continued to exacerbate the perception of a weak government continually losing its resolve by bowing to pressure of whoever screams most.
In that infamous case, Astrid Vella played perfectly the ‘Chicken Licken’ role, panicking everybody with the news that the sky was going to fall, only to lead all those who believed her imaginary dangers straight into the fox’s lair. In that case, Astrid Vella and her well-meaning but misguided band of followers were used by an unholy political alliance that was more interested in playing the eternal game of harassing whoever is in power, than in safeguarding Malta’s historical heritage. The NGOs ‘won’ simply because they – willingly or unwittingly – consented to become disposable pawns in a political chess game.
And the only way that Lawrence Gonzi could save his blushes was to decide that the project should be withdrawn just a few hours before the House of Representatives was scheduled to discuss a motion on the issue. Even in that incident, Lawence Gonzi tried to play the game that he was above it all and that the decision to withdraw the proposal was taken by the St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation.
Being Prime Minister while at the same time avoiding being the protagonist in uncomfortable situations and hiding behind existing legal set-ups makes for a perception of weak leadership, and this is where the mishandling of protests by NGOs has led Lawrence Gonzi.
With hindsight, the Prime Minister probably thinks that the idea of his ‘safe pair of hands’ taking over MEPA directly under his responsibility must have been the worst electoral promise that the PN has ever made. At the time this promise was made, the PN must have thought that this was a sure way to regain lost votes, even though it put the Minister who had been hitherto responsible for MEPA unnecessarily in a bad light.
The greening of Lawrence Gonzi is now taking its toll.


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