Petra Caruana Dingli at The Shift News
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Standards are set at the top

The construction industry disaster has briefly opened a dark window.

Collapsing blocks of apartments, and building site injuries or deaths, are terrifying. Safety procedures are now hastily being rewritten, papering over the cracks. The government is scrambling to shut that dark window. A beast lies inside, an ugly monster with a long tail.

These tragic incidents are happening in a context. Buildings are visible, the inconveniences of construction are tangible, and the industry has gone haywire. But the back story is bigger. Falling buildings are the tip of the iceberg, the bit of the cup that flows over, just a glimpse of the long tail behind the window.

Inside the darkness there is a mentality, an attitude. It makes friends, by inviting snouts to the trough, for as long as the swill lasts. It has little sense of civic responsibility, of caring for the greater good of the country and its future. It is selfish and anti-social.

It has a smooth, forked tongue and tells useful stories. It forgets right and wrong. Rules only count, if they do, when explicitly written down. Any unspoken rules about behaviour can be disregarded. When cornered, it muddies the waters, deftly shifts the goal posts and slips away.

The government believes that, as long as money is being made, people can generally do as they please. The Opposition is not sure what it believes, and right now nobody is listening anyway.

The disasters of the construction industry would probably have been welcomed as a public relations gift from the gods by the PL in opposition. I remember a time when, in the years before the 2013 election, then shadow minister for the environment Leo Brincat would hold weekly press conferences and successfully slam the government. Parliamentary Secretary Roderick Galdes, then a MEPA staff member, would regularly create scenes in the media about some government decision as opposition spokesperson for planning.

People lapped it all up and rose in anger. Brincat and Galdes were, of course, riding on an established wave of discontent. Everyone was fed up of the same government, then already in power for practically a quarter of a century, and stressed by overdevelopment. The two also had the support of their political party.

Today, overdevelopment is even worse. Whatever the environmental sins of the past were, today they are greater. Air quality is deteriorating with increased traffic congestion and more cars on the roads, and polluting cruise liners in the harbour. The dust from building sites threatens good health, as do the toxic clouds released by fireworks in summer. Land is being gobbled up and new buildings are multiplying. The place is noisy and dirty. Waste remains a huge problem.

If the PL were still the Opposition, they would be having a field day.

But the PN as Opposition Party does not get any mileage out of this, and environmental matters seem to be sidelined at the top. I doubt whether the spokesperson for the environment, Jason Azzopardi, has felt that his back is watched, so to speak. On the contrary, his Party Leader Adrian Delia has openly knocked him. In such a situation, if Azzopardi trips up he would probably be on his own. That is hardly a motivating scenario primed for success.

This approach was on display when part of the Egrant inquiry was published. Instead of standing by Simon Busuttil at this tense moment, Delia immediately tried to push his predecessor out into the thundercloud alone, and only relented when pressured to do so by PN colleagues. Delia’s own close advisor, Pierre Portelli (who resigned on Monday) was also closely involved in the developing Egrant story. But this did not seem to matter much to Delia.

On the other side of the divide, Muscat takes a completely different approach. Nobody in his circle is shown the door, and life floats on in free-for-all mode. Some make hay while the sun shines.

Besides the obvious contenders for dismissal, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, both Manuel Mallia and Michael Falzon had to resign but were received back in the fold quite soon after their public scandals (the first about a shooting incident involving Mallia’s driver, and the second about the Gaffarena property deal).

The offensive gaffes of more minor figures connected to the government, like Tony Zarb or Mario Philip Azzopardi, are shrugged off. Cyrus Engerer, linked to revenge porn, is a treasured ally.

Which takes us back to where we started. That dark window. Peering through the shutters, the lack of enforcement and proper regulation of the building industry, turning it into a playground for cowboys and rogues, forms part of a wider picture.

Cowboys and rogues can be seen all over the place, not only on building sites. The example of maintaining high standards must be set at the top. The construction industry, and everyone else, will follow. As the Maltese saying goes, ‘il-ħuta minn rasha tinten’ (a fish rots from the head down).

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