As Parliament yesterday continued to debate the Budget Measures Implementation Bill, all eyes were on Government MP Franco Debono as he chatted to the Opposition leader on the bench and dismissed an approach by PN whip David Agius.
Dr Debono and Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat, who sat next to him, chatted for about 15 minutes. Earlier, Dr Debono had dismissed government whip David Agius over a television appearance in the morning. Speaking on TVAM, Mr Agius said the government intended to invite Mr Cachia Caruana to answer questions in the Foreign Affairs Committee, a move which seems to have irked Dr Debono.
Mr Cachia Caruana is being accused by the PL of rushing Malta into a Partnership for Peace project. The government says the PL had misunderstood a Wikileaks cable, which became public last year. After abstaining in the no confidence vote in the government earlier this year, Dr Debono is saying he would not accept the Budget Measures Implementation Bill before two pending motions on justice and home affairs, which he and the Opposition had separately tabled months ago, are discussed.
Defeat for the Budget Measures Implementation Bill would mean the end of this legislature.
On Tuesday, the PN parliamentary group met to discuss the situation and in comments following the meeting, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said the Bill in discussion is the most urgent issue to be addressed in the interest of the country, right now.
Budget Implementation Debate
The debate saw speakers from the government benches describing the good work their ministries are doing, while Opposition spokesperson Carmelo Abela criticised the government about discussions never leading to decisions and action being taken being too little.
Tourism, Culture and the Environment Minister Mario de Marco spoke about the scheme to help regenerate old, vacant buildings.
Over the past 20 to 30 years, families preferred to live in new buildings on the outskirts of villages and many buildings in the village cores were left vacant.
Recently announced incentives aim for the consolidation of ownership, to facilitate conservation and maintenance, and to prevent the structure of towns and villages from being lost.
Over the past two months since the scheme opened, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (Mepa), received over 640 enquiries about it and 75 applications for benefits. This shows the need for such a scheme, Dr de Marco said.
Further initiatives and schemes to enhance ownership consolidation will be launched in the coming weeks.
Our small country is the smallest in the EU with the highest population density so resource efficiency is more important for us, Dr de Marco noted.
Meanwhile, further government policy stresses tourism is to remain an important sector in the economy.
“We need to build on the successes we’ve had and the ever increasing numbers of tourists,” Dr de Marco said”. Last year € 1.2 billion in revenue resulted from tourism.
Culture is also very important and a number of incentives to encourage creativity are being given. Heritage Malta is also doing a lot of work, but its greatest job will be the restoration of Fort St Angelo, he said.
He added that carnival enthusiasts will finally have a facility in Corradino and funds have been budgeted for this.
Parliamentary Secretary for the Elderly and Community Care Mario de Marco said life expectancy for Maltese women continued to increase from 81.9 years in 2008 to 83.6 years in 2010. This means we have the third highest life expectancy in Europe, after France and Spain.
For men, it was 76.9 years in 2008 and 79.1 years in 2010, classified second in Europe, only after Sweden.
This is a testimony of success and that standards of living are improving but it also brings challenges.
Responsibility of caring for the elderly is primarily on families but the government is doing what it can to increase beds in hospitals and homes for the elderly. Efforts are however focused on community care to help people live independently for as long as possible.
He pointed out that the book ‘In- Nannu nesa X’isimni’, of Trevor Zahra that explains in a simple story what happens when people are suffering from dementia, has been very successful and was printed for the third time, in a matter of weeks.
Carmelo Abela said he agreed with the two speakers before him in principle, but the government has been leading the country for 24 years, with the exception of two years between 2006 and 2008. We have also been EU members for eight years and, while promises keep being made, action is too limited.
“Carnival is sometimes more serious than the way this parliament is being run,” he emphasised. There are 16 Bills on agenda and they keep changing”.
“Parliament discusses and discusses but never decides,” he added.
The Budget Measures Implementation Bill has now become an urgent matter for the government – four months after the Budget has come into practice. The word “ghaqal” (good sense) is one of the cliché words used a lot in the last Budget. The way things are being run is definitely not in good sense, he believes.
While the government was delivering its Budget speech, the European Commission was telling us to cut down and eventually, the €40 million cut resulted. The government had kept tight lipped about this despite the Opposition’s questions.
Meanwhile, the government has not even discussed where the money for a main project- that at City Gate, the new Parliament and the theatre, will be coming from.
He insisted that this attitude cannot go on for any longer.
Our debts are continuing to grow and these need to be paid one day.
The government also said it wanted to help families in need, but some measures being taken are not helping those who really need. Assistance to the middle class is good because it was hit worse with taxes, middleclass people are not the most in need.
The government did not have the right costings when announcing certain measures. Moreover, the issue of poverty is being forgotten at all.
“Minister Chris Said, responsible for families, cannot simply come here and speak as if the government’s propaganda secretary, ignoring what people are going through,” he said.
Poverty is not mentioned in the budget speech or any other policy and is definitely not being addressed. He congratulated Caritas for its report and said people leading the country cannot just meet and discuss issues with the report’s authors.
“What action will be taken?”
Very little has changed since the Prime Minister was Social Policy Minister and he much fears promises will again be made before the election and not kept. Families living in poverty need assistance and education to climb the social ladder.
He believes the sectors of family and education cannot continue to be abused by the GonziPN system. The challenges need to be properly prioritised and addressed. The €3 million spent on the bridge to nowhere could have been given to the social welfare agencies that had their budgets cut.
Concrete action that is just with everyone, is necessary, he noted. At times laws are changed quickly but the problem lies with implementing them properly.
PN MP Robert Arrigo said in tourism, occupancy is getting better but according to operators things were slow to pick up.
He also said that open top buses are being very popular and there are some 150 people on pavements selling tickets for these trips. He doubted whether these ticket sellers were giving receipts and following regulations.
Prices vary between €5 to €15 and operators change prices there and then to win clients and he fears the situation is getting out of proportion. Meanwhile, the tours are taking people away from places of cultural heritage which show our identity – a matter of concern in itself.
Jean Pierre Farrugia (PN), said when we look at the way our country managed to bring down the deficit to below 3% in a crisis, while the Dutch government collapsed because its deficit went up to 4.7%, we realise our government was wise enough to keep the economy on track.
In the adjournment speech, Jose Herrera (PL), said this week there were two bomb scares at the courts the work was totally disrupted. Bomb scares at the courts take place too often when this is one of the main organs of the state.
He believes the deterrent, which at this stage is up to a year imprisonment, needs to increase. Security at the courts too should increase and it might be good to have a team at the courts to deal with such threats so that they are sorted out in the most efficient and effective manner possible.
Government proposes to invite Ambassador to answer Committee questions
After the Opposition last week said it would present a parliamentary motion calling for the resignation of Richard Cachia Caruana, Malta’s Permanent Representative to the EU, after a wikileak which, according to the PL, showed he was working for Malta’s re-admission in the Partnership for Peace, the government has proposed inviting Mr Cachia Caruana to reply to questions.
The debate cannot be held in Parliament, so, if the Opposition agrees, he would be invited to a Foreign Affairs Committee meeting to answer any questions which the Opposition might have.
Dr Gonzi said on Sunday the Opposition incorrectly interpreted a leaked US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks. He said that the 2004 cable concerned efforts to ensure Malta could access documents related to national security issues, and that the country had no plans to rejoin the Partnership for Peace back then.