by Petra Caruana Dingli

The application for development at Ta’ Ċenċ in Gozo has haunted the planning authority’s corridors for 20 years. It lurks in dark corners, occasionally startling nervous planning officers by appearing on a desk, or opening an old file or cupboard like a resident poltergeist. It has courted controversy and been opposed by the public at every stage.

The latest odd twist in the saga was the referendum for Sannat residents organised last Saturday, intended to guide the Sannat local council on what position to take when the project will finally be decided, which is presumably quite soon.

This was hardly Brexit, but still, one would expect any referendum to be preceded by an information campaign for several weeks in advance. There must be open and full discussion about a referendum question, and on the implications of the vote going one way or another. The facts should be presented by both sides of the debate, with opportunities for questions and answers.

Instead, the press only found out that a referendum was being held a few days in advance. Residents received a notification in the post. The question was unclear and not even factual, referring to the ‘first heritage park’ in Malta.

On the day, the majority of Sannat resi­dents who cast their vote were against the Ta’ Ċenċ project. There was a low turnout, with only 22 per cent of eligible voters taking part. The developer immediately tried to argue that all those who did not show up could be in favour of developing Ta’ Ċenċ. What a farce!

As the majority of voters on the day were against the project, the local council should now obviously endorse this position when they take their seat on the planning board during the hearing.

Besides the result, however, the entire process raises many questions, particularly the involvement of the Electoral Commission in such a poorly organised and unpublicised vote.

Ta’ Ċenċ is not only of interest to Sannat residents, it is of national interest. It is also a Natura 2000 site and of international importance.

Aren’t there any basic requirements for information and debate when a referendum is held, to ensure that the result is as fair and representative as possible? And what about a minimum period of time between announcing the question to the public and holding the vote?

The result cannot just be shrugged off as irrelevant, as in that case why would a public entity organise a vote, and spend public funds on it, in the first place?

The Ta’ Ċenċ referendum is now sealed, but this dubious initiative has flagged the possibility of other badly prepared referenda being overseen by the Electoral Commission. It deserves a post-mortem by the relevant authorities or parliamentary committee, to uncover what went wrong and to ensure that such initiatives are handled better in future.

26th June 2016