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Going against one's own manifesto

This article was published in the MaltaToday on Sunday 22 November 2015

Marlene Farrugia’s resignation from the Labour Parliamentary Group should have prompted the government and Joseph Muscat to do some much-needed soul-searching. Instead, it has been met with an arrogant “we still command a strong majority and will go on doing what we are doing”.

This is the more ironic because the hair that broke the camel’s back and led to Farrugia’s resignation has been a parliamentary vote on an amendment which would have implemented Labour’s own electoral manifesto. 

First of all, what was the vote about?

Parliament is currently debating the controversial MEPA demerger. Controversial not because of the demerger itself, which is something which was proposed in the electoral programme itself, but because of how the new law proposes the authorities to be set up, and what their roles and functions are to be.

I will not enter into the details of the bills themselves. Suffice to say that what is being proposed has found the opposition and criticism of all environmental NGOs, the Church’s Interdiocesan Commission for the Environment, Front Harsien ODZ, former MEPA directors Alfred Baldacchino and Petra Caruana Dingli, former planning authority chairmen Stephen Farrugia and Christopher Falzon, Environment Commissioner David Pace, the Ombudsman’s Office and the Dean of the Faculty of Laws, Prof. Kevin Aquilina, with many calling it “a huge step backwards in the protection of the environment”.

It takes us back to the years when every permit was under the direct control of the minister and abolishes the Heritage Advisory Committee, both the one responsible for Cultural Heritage and the one responsible for our Natural Heritage. It is insane.

The Opposition moved two amendments last week. One of them was to allow three of the 10 members appointed to the Environment Board representing environmental NGOs to be directly nominated by the eNGOs themselves. The other amendment asked for the chairperson of the Environment Authority, nominated by the minister, to be approved by Parliament after a hearing at the Standing Committee of the Environment and Development Planning.

These amendments seem not to be out of the ordinary, and try to make a step forward in achieving better governance and more transparency. Why should not those representing eNGOs be chosen by eNGOs themselves? And given how much Joseph Muscat had at heart the respect towards Parliament as the “highest institution in the country” when he was in opposition, it stands to reason that chairpersons of regulatory authorities should be accountable to Parliament, and not to the government.

These amendments were actually implementing promises from Labour’s own electoral manifesto.  The first part aimed to include civil society more in the decision-making process and tried to grant the basic right for eNGOs to choose their own representatives themselves, rather than having them chosen by someone else. Further to that, Section 19 in Chapter 17 of Labour’s 2013 electoral programme promised “Parliamentary hearings for those nominated to lead regulatory functions or chair regulatory authorities”. That is exactly what the opposition’s second amendment tried to include in the new bill.

But Joseph Muscat said these amendments were not in line with government policy, and Labour’s Parliamentary Group was called to vote against.  But, among the Puppets of Parliament gracing the government benches, one stood up to be counted and chose to stand by what she and her own party promised to the people before the election. And between voting as the leader commands, and voting for what was promised to the people, Farrugia chose to stand firm with Labour’s manifesto and with the people, even if that meant sacrificing her political future.

That is what a representative of the people is elected to do in Parliament. To stand up to the government when it tries to trample on people’s rights, to vote against proposals that go directly against what the people were promised. We need more representatives who, like Marlene Farrugia, place their loyalty to their constituents and the electoral programmes they are elected on before their loyalty to their party, their leader, their pockets and their position.

The only pity is that the Parliamentary Committee for Planning and the Environment has lost a very committed chairperson. Simon Busuttil has challenged the government to amend the law being discussed to allow the chairperson of such a committee to be an independent Member of Parliament and not necessarily a government MP, nominating Marlene Farrugia to continue chairing this committee. Joseph Muscat is stubbornly refusing. He is not willing to walk his talk of more modern, European governance.

People, like Marlene Farrugia, are realising that Muscat is delivering the opposite of what he promised, and that the Nationalist Party led by Simon Busuttil is moving closer to the people’s aspiration for a real, positive change to transparency and accountability. 

The cracks in this government are now clearly showing. The contradictory promises made to all and sundry before the election cannot be conciliated for long. 

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