‘Majority rule’ is not democracy

A majority may indeed value ‘cars’ more than ‘trees’… but is it in their long-term benefit to have more of the former, and less of the latter? 

Transport Minister Ian Borg is within his rights to quote a recent TM survey indicating that an 85% majority supports the Central Link project. But there is a danger in using that statistic as an argument to justify the project as a whole.

All too often, we tend to interpret the ‘majority rule’ clause as the main definition of democracy… but this overlooks the ‘representative’ part of the system, which implies that majorities elect governments as designated representatives to take decisions on their behalf… and in their interest.

In this case, it is clear that the commanding majority enjoyed by Labour, did not give a specific mandate to implement the Central Link project. And while a majority may still be happy with the decision itself, this does not tell us whether it is in Malta’s interest to pursue this policy direction to its bitter end.

The Central Link project is not, after all, happening in isolation. It is happening amid Malta’s largest ever property boom, and a breakdown in trust in the planning process, marred by what are increasingly seen as self-serving interests.

Widening roads to accommodate cars, at the expense of trees, is a good example of this in practice. A majority may indeed value ‘cars’ more than ‘trees’… but is it in their long-term benefit to have more of the former, and less of the latter? At a time when world health authorities are beginning to acknowledge the existence of a link between mental well-being, and exposure to the countryside?

Likewise, a majority would doubtlessly prefer faster moving traffic, with fewer bottlenecks today; but how many are aware of warnings, by Transport Malta itself, that this policy will bring about more traffic congestion in future?

These are among the reasons why the ‘majority rule’ principle cannot be made to apply to this, or any other single issue or context. It is, indeed, why we elect governments in the first-place; so that decisions such as this are taken in a wider context, which involves the input of experts and regulatory authorities.

In this case, the decision flies in the face of government’s own traffic management plan. Pointing towards a majority – no matter how big – does not justify ignoring all expert advice on the environmental and logistical impact of the Central Link project. 

Even if one should not underestimate support for road projects, there is no reason to ride roughshod over the misgivings of the minority. Government should, above all, be wary of not responding to what is also clearly an emotional appeal. The uprooting of trees may pale in significance to the loss of 50,000sq.m of agricultural land, which is the most negative aspect of this project.

But one can never underestimate the symbolic aspect when analysing protest movements. Centenarian trees give this movement a powerful motif. It would be a mistake to underestimate the connection between trees that are perceived as part of our cultural heritage, and our own sense of national identity.

Resistance to the Central Link project is not limited to environmentalists concerned with air pollution, or climate change issues. Even people who do not identify as environmentalists would be outraged at the loss of a beautiful tree they remember from their childhood.

By the same token, the act of uprooting those trees to make way for roads, becomes a powerful symbol for greed wantonly destroying beauty for all the wrong reasons.

This issue has unexpectedly created a reference point to a collective angst that has been steadily mounting in recent decades. In this case it has attracted a wide demographic, which includes apolitical segments: floaters and even some PL voters.

Ironically Labour’s victory in the MEP elections may well have created the perfect climate for an environmental protest movement to grow. One should not forget that nearly one-third of the eligible voters did not vote in MEP elections, a figure which may well contain within it floating voters and the non-partisan segment which was so vital for Labour to win in 2013.

Moreover, the government is no longer facing two audiences composed of a loyal herd of government apologists, pitted against those who are bent on opposing anything for partisan reasons. One factor government seems to ignore is that a growing bandwidth of non-partisan people – to which it owes its own majority – is getting restless at the constant bulldozing of the Malta they know, and are trying to preserve.

In the absence of a viable Opposition party, the Labour government may be sowing the seeds for a new political movement that, even if small, may upset the political balance in future.

For these and other reasons, government would do well to suspend the Central Link project, go back to the drawing board, and come up with more innovative, long-term solutions to Malta’s burgeoning traffic problems.

Nor does it make any sense to shift the blame onto previous generations, for failing to bequeath to us a functional multi-platform public transport infrastructure.

Innovative solutions are not limited to subways or monorails; Malta must work towards a decrease in car-use, and to defuse the timebomb caused by importing more cars than our infrastructure can handle.