Rich or poor, everyone is ostensibly equal in this country, but the Prime Minister does not appear to think so.

At a conference organised by the Church Environment Commission, Opposition leader Simon Busuttil offered his party’s support should the government take the bull by the horns and tackle once and for all the problem of the illegal shantytowns (so-called boathouses) that make a mockery of the rule of law on these islands.

Dr Busuttil said: “I will give you all the necessary support so that the government will tackle the illegal boathouses... We will not oppose. We will instead support all the actions you deem fit.”

The Opposition leader made the invitation after admitting his party’s own failings in government in addressing the issue of illegal development. Joseph Muscat’s reaction was populist and reflected the terrible quandary the Labour Party has found itself in after promising everything to everyone before the last election: “I think that first I need to tackle the millionaires who have grabbed land illegally and become rich and not some people on low income who have done wrong and built an illegal boathouse.”

It is a fallacious argument for many reasons. Firstly, whether it is a plot of land in Armier, stolen from the country by “people on low income” or some millionaire running an unlicensed zoo at Ħal-Farruġ makes no difference. The perpetrators are both equal before the law, whether they are rich or poor. They have broken the law and must face the consequences.

What is offensive to law-abiding citizens is that, as Dr Muscat readily admits, abuse is followed up with blackmail. Big business threatens discharges of staff, boathouse owners threaten with their vote. They are, in effect, identical. To differentiate between lawbreakers on grounds of wealth is to fail to seek the common good of society. Faced by blackmail, the solution is not to accommodate the abuser, or to negotiate until some arrangement is reached. Lawbreakers should never even be around the negotiating table.

The Opposition leader is well aware of the danger, and temptation, of pre-election promises behind closed doors. He admitted as much at the conference, saying he hopes not to make the same mistakes as Dr Muscat.

The controversy over the relocation of the Valletta monti to Ordinance Street is a case in point. It was a pre-election promise by Labour that turned out to be impossible to implement because of the public uproar it provoked.

Providing the squatters with electricity supply to stop them stealing was the worst message this government could have sent earlier in this legislature. The end result now is that boathouses built on public land are being rented off as holiday apartments with a sea view.

Given the prices being asked for, Dr Muscat’s low-income abusers are suddenly not so badly off after all. It is the country that is worse off, because that is public land being shamelessly exploited by people with no morals at the expense of the public good.

In his pledge of support on the boathouses issue, Dr Busuttil offered the Prime Minister a poisoned chalice. Labour’s environmental credentials are at their lowest ebb following MP Marlene Farrugia’s falling out with the party. Moving against the boathouse squatters would see the government losing at both ends, voter wise.

The only hope that the Prime Minister would pick up the gauntlet is the temptation that in moving against land abusers, Dr Muscat would move from being a self-declared salesman to a statesman.

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