This article is an explainer piece meant to accompany this investigation.
Among the questions one may reasonably ask themselves after reading this website’s investigation about Santa Luċija, you may think of something along the lines of ‘why focus on Santa Luċija specifically, a relatively small locality representing a tiny fraction of the country, when there are so many other developments going on elsewhere?’
Besides circumstantial factors like good sources reaching out with reliable information – which was the case with this investigation – the main reason for my interest in this particular locality is precisely the fact that it is a small, relatively sheltered locality with a unique history that intertwines with the history of the Labour Party.
As the headline of the story implies, what immediately struck me as the dominant angle for this investigation is the fact that the country’s collective, government-enabled addiction to property development has become so severe that not even the most ‘untouchable’ parts of the Labour Party’s territory are off limits.
It is the quintessential ‘nothing is sacred anymore’ kind of story, one that deliberately attempts to capture people’s imagination along those lines because the most important tool a storyteller has is direct, emotional engagement. It is a story that speaks of the invasion of people’s personal spaces at the behest of the same kind of ‘robber barons’ that former Labour Party leader Alfred Sant used to talk about so much.
Most crucially of all, it is a story that indiscriminately strikes terror and anger in the heart of anyone who’s heard the all too familiar noise of heavy machinery on their doorstep.
Another important aspect of the story is the fact that all the individuals who I interviewed come from a background where the myth of the Labour Party’s history as a militant, socialist party is pervasive. It is rooted in the brick-and-mortar of the houses that Santa Luċija’s residents have lived in for generations, in the gratuitous distribution of parcels of land which their families then built their lives upon, and in the essence of the aesthetic that adorns the town.
Even in the kind of territory where historical context fuels the Labour Party’s electoral staying power, hundreds of people are up in arms against development which is being proposed by a generally complacent (if not downright hostile) Labour-led local council, a development that is being fronted by the party’s deputy leader, and a football complex proposed by a club that counted a Labour councillor among its ranks and seems intent on becoming a fully-fledged commercial enterprise at the expense of everyone else’s peace of mind.
While the destruction and chaos that results from this dodgy overlap between public and private interests is widespread across the Maltese islands, Santa Luċija had somehow remained relatively unscathed throughout the peak of the construction boom. This fact brings to mind the suffocating notion that space for us to breathe and exist is running out, to the point where the same powerful individuals who are gobbling up that space are now setting their sights on pristine areas which had so far escaped the worst of their depredation.
I must admit that, while I’ve certainly been around the block when it comes to facing off with the Labour Party and its financiers, I wasn’t expecting a total wall of silence from every target entity in this story. While this is not the first time I sent questions and didn’t get a reply, the fact that nobody – not the local council, not the housing authority, not the developer, not the Labour Party’s deputy leader – as much as bothered to at least send a generic statement or acknowledgement speaks volumes.
Usually, there would be some sort of an attempt at distancing themselves from the central claims being made in the story, or an attempt to attack the narrative and evade it at all costs, even if it means saying something ridiculous which nobody will really buy into. At this point in time, nobody expects the Labour Party to bother with putting on the mask that slipped off its increasingly grotesque face a long time ago, but one would certainly expect a developer who has a strong financial incentive to sway public opinion to respond to serious accusations of abuse and corruption.
Bear in mind that residents accused the developer, the Labour Party, and the authorities controlled by that same party of colluding together in a process which effectively implies the development is all sewn up and ready to go – in other words, residents believe that the PA’s approval will amount to a rubber stamp for a predetermined decision, a belief that is widespread across Malta due to the mountains of evidence documenting such collusion in other major development proposals.
Plausible interpretations for this silence, besides the desire to cause as little noise as possible for a decision that has already been agreed behind closed doors, include either the possibility that the party’s top brass concluded that the questions that were asked were difficult to rebut and so were best left ignored, or that it was simply a case of cynically exploiting the fact that this website does not (yet) have influence that could compete with the collective firepower of a complacent and sometimes downright complicit press. Why bother speaking to the independent media when you can just book an interview with Saviour Balzan?
My open, defiant hostility towards the Labour Party also means I have far less access to the corridors of power than other journalists have, which should also tell you why the story’s methodology stands up to scrutiny. It does not depend on unnamed government sources whispering secrets to further their own personal agenda. It is grassroots work, plain and simple.
In fact, the major positive outcome from this otherwise infuriatingly unfair situation is the way in which Santa Luċija’s residents, rightfully concerned about a locality that feels like it is under siege, banded together to fight back, demonstrating an exemplary level of coordination, determination, and consistency in their approach. In a place where the Labour Party expected to find the path of least resistance – and there is no doubt these decisions were made along those lines – the resistance is not just present. It is unified, angry, and ready to fight until the last minute.
Eight years ago, I couldn’t have even dreamed of the possibility that, thanks to the actions of a group of residents and activists, a Labour-led local council would be pressured into calling a protest against a major development that is being spearheaded by a party financier who hired the same party’s deputy leader as his architect. I wouldn’t have ever been able to imagine a supporter of disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat giving me an interview to talk to me about how his party betrayed his family and his neighbourhood.
There is hope for the future, and it lies in our ability to believe that we are powerful agents of change and that together, we are able to stand up for our right to breathe, our right to feel the sun on our skin when we walk about our streets rather than the shadow of a tall pencil building that ruins the skyline, our right to live in a space that is planned well and is respectful of basic human needs.
Santa Luċija’s residents already believe in themselves. What’s your excuse?