Malta risks losing its soul

It is astounding that the finance minister’s honesty regarding our economy was met by panic from within the Labour Party. Clyde Caruana’s warnings should have sparked an honest national debate. This should have been the perfect opportunity for stakeholders to meet and recognise that there are very few people who are happy with the country’s direction. Unfortunately, instead of acknowledging the harsh reality our country is facing, the Labour Party infantilised the finance minister, denying his expertise and ignoring the elephant in the room.

The elephant in the room could not have been more visible in the prime minister’s article in Times of Malta (June 11) about what he dubbed the “next phase of prosperity”. Despite ticking the boxes for all the usual catchphrases, even mentioning the need for a more sustainable economy, Robert Abela omitted any real mention of improved planning or quality in the construction industry.

The Malta Chamber of Planners recently held a conference in which they dissected our economic model and its consequences. We are importing migrant workers with the simple intention of exploiting them. We are packing these workers in dormitories and charging rents which are pricing the Maltese out of the market.

While planning should serve the common good, we are creating an underclass, stuffing them in ghettos and producing social tensions.

The pressure on our infrastructure from the increasing population is matched by an ever-increasing rush for more tourists. An MHRA study revealed that Malta will need to increase its annual number of tourists from the pre-pandemic 2.8 million up to 4.7 million in order to accommodate the planned increase in hotel capacity, should all pending permits for new hotels be approved.

The irony is that many new hotels are destroying our heritage and environment, degrading our tourism product. Given how our infrastructure is already buckling, it is easy to see that these projects are not in the national interest. We need higher quality tourism and Malta runs the risk of an oversupply of hotel accommodation.

The Malta Chamber of Commerce’s proposal for a moratorium on new hotels is both bold and necessary. An exception should be made where new accommodation is limited to cases where heritage is completely renovated, without adding new floors or distorting the building with policy loopholes. This could automatically lead to a better-quality tourist product.

Malta’s economic strategy must be one that moves towards value-added. While the government may pay lip service to this idea, so long as Malta’s planning system remains intentionally loose and weak, to appease certain interests, then achieving an economy that puts quality before quantity will be impossible.

This desire for quality, especially in terms of quality of life, is a vision shared by many. The problem lies in defining what quality means. Many developments which are socially and environmentally destructive hide behind the buzzword of quality, while feeding the overdevelopment of the country. We need a quality which translates into quality of life for people who already live here.

We desperately need planning which restores the notion of the common good as a central principle, rather than serving neoliberalism, and the loss of everything we hold dear, to line the pockets of a select few. When too many individuals break the rules or seek their own short-term interests at the expense of the majority, then society reaches suboptimal outcomes.

Achieving a new economic model is an opportunity because it can benefit everyone. However, that requires understanding first that this change is possible and then getting all stakeholders around a table.

The government should not shy away from this challenge, otherwise, it will plunge the country further down a path where Malta loses its soul. It should instead rise to the occasion and work hand in hand with all stakeholders in good faith.

If it refuses to do so, then the people must eventually elect somebody who will.

Sandra Gauci
ADPD Chairperson
Published in The Times of Malta – Sunday 18 June 2023