The yearning for Gozitan autonomy has waxed and waned over the years. The latest to rekindle the flame was Gozo Minister Anton Refalo, who called for a regional authority with the right to impose taxes. Kurt Sansone asks if this is feasible.
Gozo did have an elected regional authority for more than a decade, before it was abolished by the Labour government in power in 1973.
Set up in 1961, the Gozo Civic Council even had the power to impose taxes, although this right was never exercised.
This allowed Gozitans to have a direct say in the running of their island, and in 1971, the civic council even sought greater powers for itself in a request to George Borg Olivier’s Cabinet.
Documented in the Cabinet minutes of April 1971, made public at the National Archives three years ago, the council’s request was, however, put on the backburner by the Nationalist administration.
The country was by then heading for a general election in June, and Cabinet decided that the Gozo council’s president had to submit a list “for further consideration” of services it wanted to administer.
The list never made it in time for the last Cabinet meetings before the election, and Cabinet papers for the period between 1970 and 1976 were not found.
It has to be the laws of the country that give it the status of a region, and by definition, a region is autonomous
However, the request for more powers is unlikely to have been entertained by the incoming Labour government of Dom Mintoff, which abolished the council in December 1973.
Gozo has not had any self-governing status since, and the closest it got to have some form of say in its own affairs was in 1987, when an incoming PN government created for the first time a Gozo ministry.
Anton Tabone, who headed the ministry at the time and later became Speaker of the House, believes Gozo should have an administration elected by Gozitans.
“I have never made a secret of it,” he said when contacted for his reaction to Dr Refalo’s idea of regional autonomy for Gozo. Dr Tabone’s thoughts follow those of his father, who was involved in the setting up of the Gozo Civic Council in 1961. He said Gozo is a region of Malta and not an extension of it.
The Gozo declaration annexed to Malta’s EU accession treaty made reference to Gozo as a region deserving particular attention, he adds, but it did not give the island a distinct administrative status.
“It has to be the laws of the country that give Gozo the political and legal status of a region, and by definition, a region has to be autonomous,” he said.
But Dr Tabone believes that having a regional government does not necessarily mean the removal of the Gozo ministry. He argued the ministry, which responds to the national government, could be part of the system of checks and balances.
According to the National Statistics Office, in 2015 Gozo’s GDP at market prices stood at €396 million, with the private sector contributing 72 per cent of the gross value added. On the other hand, regional statistics for Malta showed that the private sector accounted for 85 per cent of gross value added.
With a population of just over 30,000 and a contribution to the national GDP of four per cent, doubts could be cast on the economic viability of a more autonomous Gozo. But economist Lino Briguglio, director of the University of Malta’s Islands and Small States Institute, is not so convinced the economic argument alone is strong enough to disregard calls for regional autonomy.
He said there are many sub-national jurisdictions and even provinces around the world that enjoy a degree of autonomy regarding fiscal matters and laws relating to social and environmental matters.
“A degree of autonomy on these matters could be beneficial for Gozo if there are appropriate checks and balances,” Prof. Briguglio said.
However, he does have concerns about what he describes as the lack of an exemplary track record of the Gozo ministry over the years. Excessive political patronage and short-term decision making are two problems he highlights.
Reporting on a survey he conducted last year involving main business and social decision makers in Gozo, Prof. Briguglio said most respondents said political governance in Gozo is satisfactory overall. However, they also pointed to one major downside: the tendency of government representatives in Gozo to micromanage in order to gain political mileage.
Another of the concerns raised in the survey, he adds, was the lack of implementation of long-term social and economic development strategies despite various plans and mission statements drawn up over the years.
“A degree of fiscal and legislative autonomy can be delegated to Gozo, but before doing so, good governance institutions must be put in place and entrenched to avoid the winner takes all syndrome in the administration of the island,” Prof. Briguglio said.
But not everyone agrees autonomy is the best way forward. Former Gozitan Labour MP Lino Debono insisted Gozo and Malta are one country.
“I do not agree… more autonomy for Gozo would mean more personal pique and flagrant nepotism,” he said.
But Mr Debono is not oblivious to the problems his home island faces and argued the gap with Malta has continued to grow as progress in Gozo lags behind.
His observation is confirmed by the NSO’s regional figures, which show that Gozo’s share of the national GDP per capita dropped between 2010 and 2015 despite registering year-on-year growth. This means that Malta’s GDP per capita grew at a faster rate than Gozo’s. “This is why the government should push forward with a Gozo office in Brussels and elsewhere to bring over projects for the island,” Mr Debono said.
As for the best way to run Gozo, he believes the Prime Minister should nominate a council of three or five people on the same lines as had happened in the 1950s.
“This council would then draw up a plan of action for Gozo, and it would be up to the Prime Minister to choose the priorities from that plan according to the government’s programme for implementation by the Gozo ministry,” he said.
Mr Debono’s view contrasts with that of his own party’s Minister for Gozo, confirming the divide among Gozitans on the best way forward.
Even so, Dr Refalo’s latest foray into the debate on Gozitan autonomy shows that the flame of regionalism is still alive.
What did Refalo propose?
Gozo Minister Anton Refalo called on the government and the Opposition to come together to determine how Gozo could be given a “special status”.
He continued that Gozo could never have autonomy or a special status if it did not have fiscal powers, meaning the ability to impose taxes.
Dr Refalo said there could never be devolution of legislative powers if laws directly relevant to Gozo were not passed by a Gozo Council or the Gozo region, even if ultimately they would have to be rubber-stamped by Parliament in Malta.
Faroe Islands: Autonomy in the far-flung north
It may be impossible to envisage Gozo, an island with a population of almost 32,000 people, crafting out a future as an autonomous region.
But for geography buffs, the Faroe Islands in the far north of Europe could serve as a model. The islands, with a population of 50,000, are a self-governing territory within Denmark.
The Faroese have autonomy over most internal affairs, while Denmark is responsible for justice, defence and foreign affairs. The Faroe Islands are also not part of the EU.
The Faroese elect a 33-seat parliament and have their own government.