Thursday, 7th October 2010
Cabinet ownership of the environment
Alfred E. Baldacchino
The first consultation phase of the National Environment Policy (NEP) held on September 17 was indeed an opportunity for stakeholders to air their differences. The concept of the policy, the discussions and the opportunity of rubbing of shoulders was also of great help. Such a “conflict” of ideas can only contribute to more healthy, holistic and strong decisions.
Without any doubt, the opening speech by Environment Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco was indeed a breath of fresh air. It was a genuine speech with a vision, reaching out for support so that the NEP “can be built on the wide consensus”, an approach so much lacking during the last couple of years. Considering that Dr de Marco is a newcomer to these responsibilities, his introduction to the subject is even more welcomed.
The number of stakeholders present, who did not disappear after lunch, is one observation that shows the strong prevailing interest in the environment. Their input, comments, suggestions and constructive criticism, both during the various workshops and the plenary, are all valid. Even when Dr de Marco’s body language showed he was a bit hot under the collar, nobody was called any names, despite the fact that some comments and criticism did not sound music to the government’s ears.
Another strong conclusion surfacing from both the workshops and the plenary was the fact that the report is compartmentalised and fragmented. There is need for a much more holistic approach and strategy. The official side (through no fault of its own) lacks the experience and some the complete knowledge of the subject matter, so obvious when faced with comments and questions from the gathering. This is the obvious result of the way the environmental set-up was mishandled over the last years when experienced personnel left disheartened, others fell by the wayside and others are marking time for better days. This is not going to be solved by such a NEP.
To make matters worse for the official side, many experienced personnel are either derided or emarginated, thus making the official side much more weak and denuded in terms of in-depth knowledge of the subject, to the extent that one is not blamed for asking whether this is part of the strategy. The rumblings of the effectiveness of such a fragmented NEP can be gauged by keeping one’s ears to the ground.
Another glaring observation was the conspicuous involvement of some NGOs or quangos, either because they were completely absent or because they preferred to act as wall flowers or as silent as a grave. Some representatives of environmental, legal, academic, trade unionist, religious, commercial and other entities, together with those of various ministries and departments, did not utter a word. And the participants present could not comment on such entities’ views. This may also lead one to think that such entities, especially ministries and government departments, are either not interested or not concerned once this is the responsibility of the minster under whose umbrella the environment falls, that is the Prime Minister.
The above observation was also echoed both within the working groups and also in the plenary. This could also be concluded by the awkward position of the official side, at times at sixes and sevens, especially when faced with comments and questions on negative environmental impacts resulting from other ministers’ decisions and undertaking and for which the minister overseeing the environment is responsible to enforce, control or report to Brussels from where such national obligations arise.
One particular question constantly asked is why embark on a NEP when there is the National Sustainable Development Commission (NSDC), chaired by the Prime Minister himself, and incorporating all ministries. Admittedly the NCDC has been dormant for the past three years. Embarking on a separate isolated, fragmented NEP is laudable but its implementation is a failure from the word go. This is just a waste of time and resources and only contributes to procrastination in implementation.
The Prime Minster only needs to give the kiss of life to the NSDC and set it in motion to implement such a task. Only this can restore the official handling of the environment to its 2004 credible level.
I do not think it is either just or fair to lump all the environmental responsibilities on a junior minister while some of his senior colleagues either do not bother or do not feel the collective responsibility of environmental matters and may also conveniently believe that this is the responsibility of the minister in charge of the environment – the Prime Minister.
There was wide consensus at the consultancy meeting that it was a wise government decision to set up the NSDC, chaired by the Prime Minister, to ensure everyone shoulders one’s responsibility.
Nonetheless, Dr de Marco should be encouraged, helped and given all the necessary assistance in the difficult task that has been bestowed upon him. From the consultation meeting it is very obvious he has the support of most of the stakeholders and the public as confirmed from the results of the 2008 public attitude survey drawn up by Ernst and Young (2010). Just one quote summarises all such expectations: “More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of respondents held the view that the environment was equally important as the economy. The environment was considered to be more important by 23 per cent of respondents while eight per cent held the view that the economy was more important” (NEP Consultation phase 1 – issue paper page 44)
Most of all, Dr de Marco desperately needs the help of his Cabinet colleagues. And this can only be achieved if the Prime Minister resuscitates the now long dormant NSDC to give more clout to environmental responsibilities. Dealing with such matters in a piecemeal manner can only contribute to more borrowed time, which can be convenient for some but certainly not for the environment.