Dissecting the Bahrija Scandal

Beyond the puerile bickering, vociferous attacks and pleas of innocence that characterise all scandals there is something far more interesting at play in Bahrija. With some effort one can note a hint of intelligence which inspired me to write this piece when I would otherwise have just steered clear. Mind you everybody loves the odd scandal for the human affection for drama seems limitless. But scandals are becoming so commonplace nowadays that they've merely become part of normal day to day events in the bitter-sweet life of politics.

What prompted my trail of thought was a guest post by an anonymous journalist on DCG's blog, entitled 'Guest Post: The Victims of Megaphone Posturing'. It has a lot to do with the rule of law, democracy and individual rights, namely the right to private property. The author's first of many scruples is with the environmental NGOs or the green lobby - call it what you will. The latter has proven itself to be the greatest nemesis of the current government despite the fact that (as many commentators before me have said) in the 2008 elections one of the focal points of the Prime Minister's campaign was the environment. There was much talk on sustainable development and the Prime Minister himself proposed to assume responsibility for MEPA, which responsibility he occupies today. The author, like DCG (and the former PN president), equate the green lobby with mob-rule. He or she argues that 'Loudspeaker-wielding lobby groups have made mincemeat of the rule of law'. So powerful have they become that their 'loudspeakers' are, metaphorically speaking, above the law. Ironically however, it is the law itself which gives them the right to gather and have their say. I'm sure that the author fully agrees with me that such rights are inalienable. Just as much as certain comments made by the MEPA auditor in his assessment of the Bahrija scandal may seem outrageous, so to is the comment that environmentalists are no less than mobs. In my opinion, this rhetoric speaks volumes both on the fundamental rights of association and expression as well as the government's environmental credentials, to whom both the guest author and the blog owner are sympathetic.

The crux of the author's argument is that there has been a lack of equality before the law. It's time for a little rewind. Not so long ago, the Prime Minister uttered a bold statement: "ODZ is ODZ" meaning that development on ecologically sensitive land, legally dubbed as 'Outside Development Zone', is to cease once and for all. We took his word for it - why shouldn't we? After all, pristine valleys are very scarce on an island the size of Malta and it is common sense as much as an obligation towards future generations that we should preserve what little we have. For me at least, it is common sense that development (existing or potential) in ODZs should be strictly controlled if not outlawed. The author argues otherwise, claiming that "In this case, what was normal and legal for other citizens - to build a home on the footprint of an existing building in an ODZ - was ruled out for someone who happened to be a PN politician, by a ‘people’s court’ that is taking on disturbing similarities to something proposed by premier Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici as a substitute for due process."

To be honest I very much doubt whether the development was a mere reconstruction of an existing building. I think the author was being economical with the truth here. The massive crater we have seen on the papers seems to suggest otherwise. And if others are allowed to reconstruct and develop an ODZ in such a manner than the law is wrong for an ODZ is no longer an ODZ.

Through the author's reflections I also sense that very same paranoia that not so long ago (and perhaps still does) haunted the Opposition, i.e. that the applicant, being the president of the PN, was willfully and maliciously targetted by environementalists with a personal and political agenda. He or she argues that they have turned a blind eye to other similar developements made by equally prominent politicians. I have no idea what specific permits the latter had obtained and I have a suspicion that the author doesn't exactly know either. But let us assume that they were equally heinous and that the lobbyists did not know about them or turned a blind eye. Does this justify the continued degradation of the island's habitat? Is it a case of 'if they did it, than I can do it to' ? This defence has become so conveniant - the laws can be flouted left, right and center on the premise that 'in the 80's it was worse'. Remember that the author is making a stong defence for the rule of law. Quite contradictory, don't you think?

Equally interesting is the author's little thesis on the individual right to private property. There's far more political and philosophcal debate involved here. He or she claims that "The right to enjoy one’s private property is being undermined consistently now by megaphone-driven outbursts.." and "Anything that impinges on his property rights impinges also on ours." Granted that the author is dismayed by the fact that Victor Scerri lost his battle prematurely with the green lobby and not in the halls of justice where, he or she argues, it should have been fought. But here's a little flash news: if ODZ is a 'misnomer' so too is the right to private property. As much as you wish it to be so, you cannot do as you please with the things you own and this for good reason. For individualism has to be reconciled with the concept of the common good, a.k.a the public interest. The aim of the law is to strike a balance between the two concepts which have stirred the intellect and provoked anger centuries ago. That is democracy, that is the rule of law. Either extreme, be it individualism or collectivism does no good to the individual nor to society in general. It has now long been recognized both in domestic and EC legislation that certain areas of ecological importance are to remain unencumbered by man. The green lobby wanted to drive this point home and they were succesful in their endavour. Now they are being hounded not because of some malice or personal crusade but simply because they (together with the Opposition's media) exposed and made popular something which should have been kept under wraps.

However, Victor Scerri is still at liberty to take legal action in the courts of law.

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