24 May 2006

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Labour’s Gozo devolution only goes half way

James Debono

Gozo will still have a king or queen in a future Labour government, but the new monarch will be a constitutional one whose power is limited by a regional council responsible for implementing a plan for social and economic development for the sister island.
This emerges from Labour’s new draft policy document on Gozo.
At face value Labour is emulating New Labour in Britain which has fostered devolution of power in Wales and Scotland.
Yet rather than following British Labour’s courageous leap forward towards devolution the Malta Labour Party’s document goes only half way.
Mayors and civil society will be represented in the new council but they will not be in a position to impose their will on the government of the day even when it comes to matters devolved to the new council.
The composition of the council will have to reflect the political direction of the government of the day.
This is a clear indication that the new council proposed by Labour will have a rubber stamping official majority.
The fact that Nationalist mayors represent the majority of Gozo’s local councils could have conditioned the MLP.
The MLP’s draft policy on Gozo states that a future MLP government will include a Minister for Gozo.
This indicates a major policy shift since 1996 when a parliamentary secretary in the Prime Minister’s office represented Gozo. In fact Labour recognises that under the present speaker, Anton Tabone, a lot of progress in Gozo was made.
Yet the same document says that since 1998, the Ministry’s powers have been diluted to the extent that it has become a sheer agency or department following policies outlined by ministers in Malta.
“After 17 years the Ministry for Gozo has no competence, function and statutory role,” laments Labour.
Under a new Labour government the Minister for Gozo will be responsible for implementing the plan formulated by the regional council.
Under a new labour government, Gozo’s minister will also be responsible for the policy of Gozo channel. This seems to exclude the ministry from the actual running of the company.
Till 2003 Gozo Channel fell under the responsibility of Giovanna Debono but now the company has been taken over by Austin Gatt’s super ministry. In this way, the company’s financial performance is no longer linked to the electoral fortunes of Gozo’s minister.
The MLP’s document seems to create a distinction between policy and the actual financial running of the company, but the proposal is too vague.
The new ministry proposed by Labour will also be responsible for social initiatives like the setting up of day care centres.
In many ways some of the functions outlined in the draft policy document for the new minister are those of a mayor of a glorified local council. Its tasks ranging from day care for the elderly to recreational facilities for young people.
Like most other Labour documents, Labour’s plan for Gozo includes all sorts of fiscal incentives for Gozitan industries. But the document falls short of showing how the government will make up for its loss in revenue from taxation.
Although the document recognises that Gozo has the highest number of empty dwellings, it also proposes the identification of an area for housing estates in the centre of Gozo - an indication that under Labour Gozo will have to endure more construction and development.
Ironically this measure is presented as a way to kick-start the construction industry in Gozo at the very moment that the PN government has opened the floodgates of development in Gozo through the so-called rationalisation of boundaries.
The MLP is still committed to develop a golf course in Gozo. In this sense Labour has yet to solve a major contradiction; that of opposing residential development accompanying golf while proposing a golf course for Gozo.
Labour’s enthusiasm for a new yacht marina in environmentally sensitive Gozo, has been tampered with by giving an option between a completely new yacht marina and the extension of the present one.
Although Labour constantly lambastes the bureaucracy stifling the Malta Tourism Authority, it promises to create a parallel Gozitan Tourism Authority, which will market Gozo separately. This could offer an advantage in giving Gozo its own unique label but it could also be an opportunity to create more jobs for the boys.
One notable absence in the new plan is lack of any mention for air transport from Malta to Gozo. The MLP’s document on the environment had excluded any mention of an airstrip. Labour MP and spokesperson for Gozo Anton Refalo favours the development of an airstrip but this is opposed by the other Gozitan MP Justyne Caruana.
But the document could give environmentalists enough reason to worry by the mention of an alternative road linking Mgarr to the rest of the island.
The new road is deemed important as a measure mitigating Gozo’s double insularity. The document states that if the present road is blocked or damaged, Gozo will lose its lifeline to the world.
Labour has given Gozo 82 pages of attention. Yet it might take more than words to win a district which Labour has never won.


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