Politicians are frequently favourite targets for criticism of all things and trust in political parties is quite low. Indeed, the most recent Eurobarometer survey for Malta shows that 60 per cent of the Maltese people do not trust political parties.
Yet, I find it quite interesting that, paradoxically, discourse that deserves thorough analysis and critical debate is sometimes taken as gosepl truth. The recent resurrection of the tunnel proposal is a case in point.
During the Budget proceedings in Parliament, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and Finance Minister Edward Scicluna announced that the government will withdraw the proposal for a bridge connecting Malta to Gozo and will instead opt for an underground tunnel, which, according to them, is more feasible.
The same proposal had been put forward by the previous Nationalist government and is supported by the Gozo Business Chamber and most Gozitans. On the other hand, opponents so far include environmentalists and greens and most tourism operators in Gozo.
Given that the project will impact both Gozo and Malta, it would be worthwhile to evaluate the positions of other voices in Maltese society.
Gozitan sponsors from both parliamentary sides have entered the debate, including Labour’s Franco Mercieca and Chris Said from the Nationalist Party. They were invited to speak during the launch of a front which aims to “to bring together those Maltese and Gozitans who believe that, in the best interest of the citizens, a tunnel is to be built between Malta and Gozo”. Interestingly, this civil society initiative is so far characterised by what seems to be a political truce between the two parliamentary parties.
Amid all the futuristic designs and pleas about Gozo’s isolation from the Maltese mainland, it would be worthwhile to evaluate what is not being said by the pro-tunnel movement.
First, how important is the ecological aspect in the feasibility studies which are being referred to? Carbon geologist Peter Gatt has made it clear that a lack of geological studies could have a significant impact on the safety and cost of the tunnel. He also noted that the seabed between Malta and Gozo is not straightforward.
Hopefully, scientific facts will not be seen as just another voice in a cocktail party of opinions
Second, what further studies are envisaged to be carried out? For example, who will foot the bill for the construction, operations and maintenance of the tunnel? What impacts will the tunnel have on existing landscape, on niche industries in Gozo, on the Gozo channel, on the possibility of new maritime operations between the islands? What will the social and environmental impacts of the project be?
Third, how will the governance process take place? Will Malta experience other examples of deficit goverance, as is the case of the non-American non-university of the Jordanian Sadeen Group and of the public transport muddle? Will the government ignore proper consultation and scientific processes in the name of populism and PR?
Fourth, in a world of scarce resources, limited finance and policy priorities, are there better alternatives to this project? For example, should residents of Gozo and Malta keep enduring the very low quality of many roads? Should other options of connectivity, such as alternative maritime operations, be considered?
Fifth, why has the pro-tunnel front already taken a maximalist position for the project before all factors considered above have been discussed and evaluated? Doesn’t this sound more like ideological rigidity than informed policymaking?
There are ample arguments both in favour and against the development of the underground tunnel between Malta and Gozo, however, at this stage, that it is not the point. The point is to verify whether having a tunnel is really viable and sustainable and to put all the cards on the table so that civil society can properly evaluate what the project entails.
Hence, the tunnel debate should move on from fantastic PowerPoint presentations and political pomp to an open, transparent, informed and democratic dialogue. I hope that, in this context, scientific facts will not be seen as just another voice in a cocktail party of opinions.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.