Sunday 04 December 2022

Who’s really running this country anyway?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Sometimes I read statements by politicians and I wonder if it is them who are living in a parallel universe, or me.

Just this week, the Prime Minister Robert Abela came out with this ingenious statement: “Workers and their families deserve more open spaces to relax after work.”

It is as if what has been happening to the country’s environment has nothing to do with him, but he is simply an innocent bystander. Or better yet, he sounds like the righteous voice of the people, our very own super hero, who is always championing the little guy.

But, last time I looked, it is precisely Abela who is in charge of running the country – so what is he on about? The Planning Authority is busy rubber stamping development permits for all the world as if we had the same wide open spaces as Australia or New Zealand. And who ultimately approves the appointment of these PA board members but the Public Appointments Committee (made up of 3 Government MPs, 3 Opposition MPs, and a chairman who is also a Labour MP). And who do these Labour MPs answer to, if not the PM himself? After all, no one is under any illusion that the PA board is autonomous and the plethora of outrageous permits which have been granted are proof of that.

It really makes me laugh (but in a bitter, rather than a joyous, way) when those who call the shots act as if their hands are tied. It is so convenient to pass the buck on issues such as the environment when meanwhile, in so many other areas of our lives they have no problem with springing unilateral decisions on us overnight.

In another example of saying one thing and doing another, Finance Minister Clyde Caruana said in an interview this week that he plans to slash €200 million in public spending. Yet, just the day before, we learned that the contingent accompanying Robert Abela to New York for the UN General Assembly, numbered 30 people at a cost of €140,000. Did all those people really need to be there or was it a case of grabbing the opportunity to visit the Big Apple for free?

Then there is the surreal attitude of Ministers who seem oblivious to what hits the news headlines every day, even though it falls under their portfolio. This last week has been another tragic one when it comes to traffic accidents: a 21-year-old was killed, a woman, aged 62, waiting on a bus stop is in danger of dying and a four-month-old baby sustained grievous injuries. This is apart from the others involved in the separate accidents who also suffered injuries. Yet, when I looked at Transport Minister Aaron Farrugia’s page, all he has been posting about is the setting up of WhizzAir Malta, the registration of a new luxury private plane in Malta, and his presence at the Monaco Yacht show. A blitz of PR with not one word about all the accidents.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that the Minister should be held personally responsible for all the accidents, although the never-ending roadworks could be a factor. Then there is human negligence and error, using a mobile, speeding and driving under the influence which all could be contributing to the constant collisions. However, the fact that people’s broken bodies are being collected daily from our roads and there is not a peep from the Transport Minister about what is going to be done to avoid further accidents and fatalities, again points to lack of leadership. It is not acceptable to read about numerous accidents while everyone continues to sit on their hands and mouths platitudes. “Jaħasra” and “RIP” will get us nowhere.

In one case, there definitely needs to be ministerial accountability as the authorities had been repeatedly warned about the potential danger. Qrendi’s Mayor David Schembri, whose own sister was one of those injured at the bus stop when a car crashed into them, said he had personally contacted Transport Malta, the police and LESA calling for speed bumps, speed cameras, a pedestrian crossing or any deterrent that would make the roads safer. Schembri was reported as saying:

“The road is used like a racing track…Every week, we have a nasty accident and, yet, nothing is done. And we’re not just talking about late-night speeding. This is all day, every day. I have been trying to do my best but, apart from the occasional inspections by LESA officers, our warnings have fallen on deaf ears,”

Schembri’s impassioned plea is echoed all over the island. Too many drivers are a menace because of their F1 complex and their impatience to overtake (and what for? they won’t get there any faster because of traffic anyway). For careful drivers and pedestrians, commuting has become like a real life video game as they try and avoid the maniacs behind the wheel. At the bare minimum, a widespread educational campaign should be launched and hefty, on the spot, fines need to be imposed on reckless drivers. Roadworks need to be properly lit and barricaded, with adequate signage warning you what is ahead.

Construction accidents are another area where the silence from authorities is deafening. A worker falls, we publish his name and maybe his photo from Facebook, we quote his family and colleagues who praise what a good man he was and then, it’s ….OK, next? Nothing ever changes, and even if there is some press conference promising all sorts of new regulations and safety procedures, we all know, with a weary heart, that they will not be consistently enforced. I recently read about how many inspections the OHSA (Occupational Health and Safety Authority) has carried out at these sites, and yet the statistics are meaningless if we keep waking up to the news of yet another construction worker plunging to his death.

And finally, in yet another case of “No shit, Sherlock”, it seems that the hotel industry has finally realised that the golden goose is well and truly a dead duck. The MHRA commissioned a report, carried out by Deloitte, which concluded that because of all the additional storeys being added to various hotels, the industry will have almost double the number of rooms that it had in 2019. Therefore, in order to achieve 80% occupancy, the country needs to attract 5 million tourists over the next few years. Those kind of numbers are sheer madness.

Granted, the onus is once again on the authorities to stop issuing such permits, but I also wonder about the mindset of the respective entrepreneurs. I frequently pass by a certain hotel in Qawra which is building more storeys and I keep wondering who is going to fill the rooms. The MHRA President himself in a recent interview pointed to how unfeasible and unsustainable this all is, so I have to ask myself, are all these hoteliers not doing their market research before building more storeys? He kept blaming the government for not having a plan (and to some extent he is right), but shouldn’t the industry itself also be acting more sensibly when it comes to what it can feasibly accommodate?

And where are all the auxiliary staff coming from when the country is already experiencing staff shortages in the hospitality sector? It has long been established that there are not enough Maltese workers to fill these vacancies, so the arrival of more EU nationals and TCNs is inevitable. Then people will complain about “too many foreigners” and that the country is too crowded, too many cars, too many scooters, too much uncollected rubbish – it is a tiresome vicious circle which can be traced back to the Muscat administration. The buzzwords were always “economic growth”, “wealth” and “prosperity” because they knew that the key to people’s votes was through filling their pockets (and who cares whether it will ruin the country in the process?).

Speaking about the boom between 2017-2019, entrepreneur Philip Fenech was correct when he said, “Some wanted to make their own Manhattan in Malta and everyone started investing without anyone looking at the bigger picture….Nowadays, if you build something in Mellieħa, it will impact St Julian’s.”

Where he is not correct is when he added, “Change was happening too fast for anyone to realise what was happening and this is where we are now.”

Actually, many did point out, over and over again, that this would all end badly, but those raking it in were too drunk with making money hand over fist to care. Live for the moment, make hay while the sun shines, let’s make the most of it….the quotes blared out at us each day, illustrating the very short-sighted mentality which prevailed.

The result of that mentality can be seen all around us, yet no one seems willing to take the bull by the horns and really take charge of the country.

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