Our minister of finance, Clyde Caruana, is back with his lectures on history. The radical divide in Maltese history, you must know, lies between two periods: BC (Before Clyde) and AD (After Dodger).
He informed his Gozo audience that people “are beginning to get tired of cranes”. Not absolutely fed up, mind you. Nor simply outraged at cranes as an image of the destruction of inner peace, outer environment and good governance. No, he’s registered merely an onset of fatigue.
Lest people think he was blaming his own government’s policy, Caruana was quick to say that all previous governments were to blame. Apparently, it’s a deeply rooted Maltese unquenchable desire (kilba) for construction that — I swear he said this — goes all the way back to Neolithic times. Just look at the temples.
So here’s the first thing you need to know about the minister who sells himself as the architect of a shift to an environment-centred economy: He can’t distinguish between aesthetic, environmentally friendly construction and the destructive monstrosities sanctioned by his government.
Or else he’s shamelessly prepared to blur the difference. Either way, it doesn’t build confidence in his capacity to do the right thing for the environment.
The minister was also kind enough to explain to his audience what every previous government had missed. Instead of depending on construction to fuel the economy, he said, we need to invest in people — in their education. That would provide more opportunities.
Who would have guessed that Malta’s salvation lies in switching its economy from cranes to craniums?
Now that you’ve asked, just about everyone a full quarter-century ago. It was in the mid-1990s (after the Portomaso project) that politicians first concluded, publicly, that huge construction projects would no longer fuel economic growth.
Whatever the sins of the Lawrence Gonzi governments that followed a decade later — including the 2006 zoning rationalisation exercise — one thing you cannot say is that it depended on construction projects to grow the economy. On the contrary, the second Gonzi government is still blamed (in some Nationalist circles) for “losing” the support of developers.
By 2013, it was a cliched politician (and we had plenty) who said we need to invest in education for the sake of economic transformation. There’s a reason it was conventional wisdom. Investment in education had already led to various new areas of economic activity.
It was post-2013 that Joseph Muscat’s government turned the clock back as far as construction goes. Planning permits galore were granted in a deliberate attempt to put the economy on steroids.
It’s crowd-pleasing since it is true that money is put into many people’s pockets. But later you also get the misery and ruin — and what Caruana coyly described as the ‘karba tan-nies’ (the crying out of people).
So here’s the second thing you need to know about the minister. Ignorant of recent history, he promises to invent the wheel. Unless, of course, he’s ready to say anything to evade responsibility for what his own government has done.
He tells us we must take a leaf out of the economic manual of continental Europe. Now he tells us? After years of Labour scoffing at the rest of Europe for not having our growth rates?
The other Europeans didn’t have our growth rates because they are wise enough to plan long term. They think about what Caruana and his boss, Robert Abela, are now offering us as their political wisdom: “What country should we leave for our children?”
It’s important to remember the credentials of Caruana and Abela. In his Independence speech, Abela boasted that his government is qualified to undertake Malta’s environmental renaissance.
It may seem difficult to imagine for some, he said, but think of how Labour transformed the economy, health and infrastructure.
Yes, let’s think. The economy is greylisted and was force-fed construction steroids, which we’re now repudiating. Meanwhile, unemployment is kept artificially low by bloating up public sector employment.
Let’s think about the transformation of health — the corrupt privatisation of three of our hospitals.
To think about infrastructure is to think about all that was neglected — from schools to neighbourhoods — while foreign workers were imported at unprecedented rates.
The pre-budget publicity is in overdrive saying that this budget will be pro-environment. Given its flexibility with the facts, we need to see if it means more than money for solar panels and electric cars and tree planting.
The key change we need is in planning, which requires discarding Labour’s business model of turbo-patronage. Environmental spatial planning has to be rule-based and long term; turbo-patronage is piecemeal and short term.
Maybe Labour is trying to pave the way for its own transformation. Maybe the hype and homely lectures are intended to create a platform, within the Party, that legitimises a change in the way Labour does business.
I’m prepared to hold my breath. Prudently, I’ve also ordered a book on full yogic deep breathing.