Our lasting impressions of people often have less to do with their words than with their body language and tone of voice. For me, it was like that with Mario Tabone, who died on Saturday.

I was introduced to him in my youth and, years later, got to know him better when I became president of AŻAD (2001-2009) and needed his advice as one of my predecessors (1992-96).

Imagine two dogs, a spaniel wagging its tail as an older retriever tells of the latest prize dragged in from outside, the smell of the new gardener and where best to hide household shoes. Whether we had arranged to meet or simply bumped into each other, it was always the same: Mario’s head would tilt slightly to the side, leaning in, with a faint conspiratorial smile and twinkling eyes, as he told me what he was currently reading or the latest thing he was up to.

It was characteristic that, one day, he sent me a copy of a book he liked because he thought I too would find it interesting. A juicy bone is shared.

As AŻAD president, Mario (in partnership with his director, the late John Camilleri) set the Christian Democrat think-tank a new set of challenges to consider, an agenda for the 1990s.

Under Ċensu Tabone (1976-87), with directors Richard Muscat and John Schranz, the main task before the Academy for the Development of a Democratic Environment was to contribute to the recovery of a democracy that was sliding into thug rule.

Under Giovanni Bonello (1987-92), with director Lou Bondí, the agenda was to consolidate that recovery by promoting a rights-based political culture and considering questions of new rights and duties that are raised by, say, environmental issues.

Mario relaunched AŻAD’s journal in magazine format. Nowadays we’d call it a forum for long reads and slow conversation. Even then it was apparent that the restored freedom of the press and airwaves didn’t bring with it a sufficiently large readership to guarantee a future for the Maltese equivalent of, say, Prospect, Le Monde Diplomatique or l’Espresso.

If you’re wondering why I chose centrist and centre-left European magazines for comparison, it’s because in those days, Maltese Christian Democracy, and the Nationalist Party, were the only progressive political force with a mass following. They had a continental European horizon. They led the way, as a moderating force in a future-oriented politics, instead of aping the right-wing nationalism of their adversary and taking their cues from US conservatism.

Under Mario, AŻAD organised an international conference (in conjunction with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung) on European relations with the Islamic world, attracting the participation of, among others, Egypt’s Al Ahram (a think tank, not just a newspaper) and the leading scholar, Mohammed Arkoun.

By this time, the idea of a ‘clash of civilisations’ had already grabbed attention.

The AŻAD/KAS conference recognised that the secular Arab nationalism which had predominated in the second half of the 20th century was on the wane, bankrupted by its corruption. One formidable challenge was a roar for justice articulated in Islamist language.

Mario’s most original contribution, and his most personal one, was to domestic policy- Ranier Fsadni

Through this conference, AŻAD initiated – around a year before the EU’s launch of the formal Barcelona Process –its own thinking about how relations with Malta’s southern neighbours could change and what kind of cooperation was faithful to the vision for Europe’s neighbourhoods that had been articulated by the founders of united Europe.

Mario’s most original contribution, and his most personal one, was to domestic policy. The early 1990s were the first years of Malta’s planning authority, an attempt to take politics and direct ministerial intervention out of the planning process. Mario urged a more radical approach.

He used to call it a ‘space policy’. It was a vision for how spatial planning, integrated resource management, environmental justice and economic policy could be integrated.

Rather than conceive of planning as, essentially, restrictive regulation (not a bad thing in itself), Mario saw that it could fuel aesthetic and engineering creativity as well as economic growth.

He argued that, before you drew up regulations, you needed to broaden the perception of what was possible. If you’re going to discuss building heights, then don’t just consider how high the top floor should be; think about whether you want the first floor to levitate.

Mario liked to point out that if Sliema’s Tower Road had made way for apartment blocks built on stilts (anticipating the way, two decades later, Renzo Piano designed the new parliament), even the eyesores would have looked better. The promenade would have been airier, more convivial, better shared.

Decades ahead of most of us, he was urging consideration of an underground road linking north to south (not necessarily by rail). He discussed offshore islands not merely as playgrounds for developers but as part of a strategy for new economic services that would free up the existing coastline for leisure use.

He evidently was not influential enough with the decision makers. But someone did notice how radical his proposals were. They added up to more than a laundry list of fancier ways of utilising scarce space.

Peter Serracino Inglott, with his genius for one-line synthesis, summed up what Mario was urging: the next big evolutionary step for Malta after Independence and EU membership.

Independence emancipated us to participate in decisions concerning Malta. EU membership emancipated us to participate in decisions concerning our continent’s destiny.

A properly grounded, democratic, spatial politics could never be purely technocratic. Done well, it would change the way we think and argue. It would restructure how we deal with scarce space and robber barons. It would lift the biggest single constraint on our civic ability to pursue our aspirations without destroying the public interest.

Of course, that means rediscovering the public interest as a common good that’s not just the sum of private interests. It means articulating a vision for public goods – from the environmental to the informational.

It’s there for the picking. All we need is a Damascene moment for the gang in government or the sect in opposition.

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