The Malta Independent 5 December 2021, Sunday

TMIS Editorial: What Abela, Grech should say

Sunday, 17 October 2021, 11:15 Last update: about 3 months ago

The budget for 2022 was presented last Monday and, as usually happens each year, it was dissected by the constituted bodies and the public at large.

It has been described as a social budget, one that looks mostly at the lower ends of society, and one that sustains pensioners and the elderly. Others saw it as a mix between an attempt to help the economy recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and the need to show more concern for the environment. Then there were those who were pessimistic in their review, saying that the budget did little to address the serious situation that the country has found itself in, in particular how it is seen on the international stage.

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The government projected it as a budget aimed to consolidate what the country has achieved with a view to even better times in the future, so much so that it entitled it as a budget that seeks to lay the foundations for the Malta that “we want for our children”. On the other hand, the Nationalist Party labelled it as an exercise without a strategy or vision for the coming generations. It’s a budget just for today, while ignoring tomorrow, the PN charged.

As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between although, in this case, it is much closer to the way the Labour government is seeing the situation than the negative description given by the PN.

The next step in the whole debate on what is expected in 2022 will be the speeches to be delivered in Parliament this week, first by the Opposition Leader, on Monday, to which there will be the reply of the Prime Minister, scheduled for Tuesday.

Both Bernard Grech and Robert Abela will aspire to score as many political points as possible. They know that the country will be watching. With an election looming, the public’s attention will be focused on what the two political leaders will say.

But, aside from the taunts they will direct at each other and their respective political opponents, one expects the both Abela and Grech to really and truly address the serious issues that the country is facing.

For one thing, Grech must avoid coming across as being too negative, a label that the PN has been unable to shirk off for years. It started when Simon Busuttil was leader, but it has not improved much since. Grech must be man enough to admit that the budget as presented last Monday is good for the more vulnerable sectors of society, including pensioners and people of low income. And it would be childish of him to say that the only positive measures mentioned in the budget were those that were suggested by the PN.

Criticism is important, and it is the opposition’s duty to scrutinise the government’s work. But disparaging just for the sake of it would be wrong. The PN is far behind Labour in the polls as the election draws nearer, and it cannot afford to lose more ground. If anything, Grech should use his speech to try to appeal to the neutral voters; to do this, he must be seen as being credible.

For his part, Abela must give answers to many questions that are being asked, not by the Labour grassroots, who accept anything and everything, but by the genuinely-concerned part of the population which is seeing Malta’s reputation plummet.

Given the circumstances, including the difficulties that the country faced and continues to face because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the financial exercise of the budget as presented last Monday is one that generates confidence.

But the budget should be more than just numbers and how much money the government will be dishing out. (In this respect, the Labour Party has mastered the panem et circenses model and is always at the ready to kill any controversy by giving out a voucher or a tax rebate.) The Prime Minister’s speech following the presentation of the budget is possibly the most important occasion for him to address the most pressing issues.

One of them is Malta’s grey-listing, which hangs upon the country like a Sword of Damocles. The matter was completely avoided in the Finance Minister’s speech. It is now up to Abela to speak loud and clear on how the government intends to tackle the situation head on.

The government has been on the defensive and has also tried to belittle the effects of the FATF decision, but there is no doubt that it has had a negative impact on how the country is perceived on the international stage. If one were to add this to how Malta is frowned upon because of its insistence with the golden passports idea – the latest rebuke came only last month, in Malta, when European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen told Abela face-to-face that it is of “utmost importance” that the scheme must be stopped – then it is clear that Malta’s reputation is severely damaged.

If Abela and his government really want to lay solid foundations for the Malta “we want for our children”, then he cannot continue to ignore this.

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