The Sunday Times of Malta, 30 November 2008 – Editorial

Austin Gatt seems to have forgotten in a more complete sense than most of his Cabinet colleagues – and in some cases their sense of amnesia has been pretty acute – that the Nationalist Party won the last election by just 1,500 votes.

That result happened for a reason: the electorate were saying as loud as they could that they were sick of not being listened to, and tired of incomprehensible decisions from people in authority. Voters were not more vociferous only because the Labour opposition offered no viable alternative. Effectively there was no choice. Yet still the result was wafer-thin close.

That should have led to a change of mentality even in Dr Gatt, who, admittedly, has never been known for his diplomatic skills.

It may be that he was buoyed by the public support of his tough stance against the bus drivers when they unjustifiably caused mayhem last summer. Yet he made a profound mistake – and one in recent days that the government has sought to pull back from – in treating the social partners in the same manner; as they sought to discuss the steep, and immediate, rise in water and electricity rates. People were on their side this time.

He has now gone and done it again with environmental groups and the owners of the Danish Village complex over a proposal to replace the existing Ghadira road with another which would run through countryside behind the bay.

During a press conference, the message he sent out was that people could choose from a range of options. However, not one of them includes their pleas to retain the existing road. Which means they effectively have no choice at all.

The minister argued that the new road would be built to stop sand erosion on the beach. Yet even if this were a strong enough reason to justify such a massive construction project, he admitted – astoundingly – that there are no studies to back up this claim. And, as Din l-Art Helwa and environmental groups have pointed out, going ahead with the project would be at the expense of blighting the Foresta 2000 project site behind.

But Dr Gatt’s blatant disregard is not just in relation to their points of view. When it was put to him that the project is likely to have an adverse effect on the Danish Village complex – a model for development that attracts 30,000 tourists a year – his flippant response was that if they decided to sell they would find a buyer straight away.

That could well be the case, but it is hardly an appropriate response. Especially when the Danish Village owners know that a hotel down the road is likely to benefit from their loss. Even there, he was unable to allay fears over whether the Seabank Hotel – so far the only proven gainer from this project – would be permitted to claim a piece of public beach as its own.

The public has a right to know this. Before any commitment is made by the government, the public also has a right to know whether the project – this should be a big ‘if’ rather than Dr Gatt’s unacceptable ‘when’ – makes any sense.

This can only happen if it has had the opportunity to see published studies on the effect to the beach if nothing is done, and the effect on everything else if something is done. Until then the EU funds should stay where they are.