The tunnel and the moon
There is no doubt in my mind that if we are serious about promoting Gozo’s sustainable development, we need to seriously tackle the issue of transport between the two islands and, possibly, between Gozo and other regional destinations. Having said this, I do not intend to – today – take a position for or against the Gozo tunnel idea promoted by lawyer Chris Said, Nationalist member of Parliament for the 13th district and Parliamentary Secretary for Consumers, Fair Competition, Local Councils and Public Dialogue in the Office of the Prime Minister. What concerns me today is this story’s subtext.
Dr Said is young – he’s 41 – but politically experienced. At the age of 13, as he told another newspaper in 2007, he used to accompany Giovanna Debono’s father, Coronato Attard, to Parliament. At 21, he was president of the Gozo Football Association. Mayor of Nadur for nine years between 1999 and 2008, he witnessed at first hand the evolution of his town’s political profile. In 1999, the Nationalist Party obtained 51.3 per cent of first- count votes at the Nadur local council election. Labour got only 27.8 per cent. Although both parties gained ground in both absolute and relative terms in this town’s local council elections between 1999 and 2008, the Labour Party’s share of the vote grew by 13.6 percentage points but the PN vote increased by only 7.3 points. Indeed, the PN vote actually fell by almost 3.9 percentage points between 2005 and 2008. That both Dr Said and veteran Mrs Debono are from Nadur makes this a locality to watch.
Although he was elected to Parliament in 2008, Dr Said fought his successful electoral campaign under a Nationalist government that had won 58.8 per cent of Gozo’s votes at the 2003 national election as against the opposition’s 40.8 per cent. Although he was elected, the PN’s Gozitan vote fell by 3.4 percentage points at the 2008 election to stand at 55.4 per cent, whereas Labour gained 2.1 percentage points over the previous elections to stand at 42.9 per cent.
Dr Said, new yet politically streetwise, must have learnt a lot from this contradictory experience. Although the Gozitan PN was in crisis and lost ground, the young lawyer advanced considerably over his 2003 results, from 1,323 first-count votes to 2,563 in 2008.
The real benchmark against which he must have measured himself, however, is Mrs Debono, his senior by 14 years. Whereas he improved his performance over 2003 by almost 98.5 percent, the Minister for Gozo sank by over 14.5 per cent. Already in 2007, Dr Said realised that Mrs Debono’s parochial, clientelistic approach was losing its effectiveness. “I believe the country needs to aim for new targets”, he told a newspaper, adding this new approach required fresh blood. The “new generation of politicians can make this quality leap”, he emphasised.
The Gozo tunnel story is being cooked according to Dr Said’s “visionary” recipe for reviving the PN’s fortunes in Gozo and in the whole of the country as well as for boosting the value of his political stock inside a post-Gonzi PN. From this perspective, it is not important whether the tunnel project is technically and financially feasible or not. It is not important if its opportunity cost makes sense for a country in our circumstances. It is not important if it is conceived within the framework of a coherent national development strategy. From this perspective, all that matters is its effectiveness as political rhetoric.
From this point of view it’s cool. Think of it. Critics will say that, knowing Malta, this project will take an eternity to complete. That’s exactly the sort of criticism I would want to hear if I were spinning this tale. It just goes on to prove I am confident my party will win the next election. We dare plan for the very long term because we know we are here to stay. We are eternal.
Is it very expensive? Of course, but we are so confident money will not be a problem, the sky is the limit. The sum involved in us ministers and parliamentary secretaries getting a double salary are peanuts next to the €150 million it will cost. A conservative figure, say you? Imagine how punier, in comparison, would be the €4 million said to have been paid in commission to the guy who got BWSC the power station contract, if I had said it would cost, say, €210 million.
In comparison to the grandness of the tunnel project everything else pales into insignificance. Mortal sins become venial. Great projects look small.
And the sky brings me to the moon. In 1961, the then 44-year-old President John F. Kennedy announced the visionary goal of sending an American to the moon before the end of the decade. It was great political rhetoric and must be understood in the context of the Cold War. Only an extremely ambitious, risky and fantastically expensive project could project the image of a superpower so self-confident, that it could dare commit itself to go – like Starship Enterprise – where no man had gone before. The propaganda value of the moon project was at least as important, and arguably more important, than its scientific value.
The great political advantage of getting everybody to look at the sky – friends and foes – is that that way they don’t look at the ground, at the here-and-now.
This article appeared on Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on February 14, 2011. You can access the original at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20110214/opinion/the-tunnel-and-the-moon