The Malta Independent 5 December 2021, Sunday

A Christmas box of promises

Noel Grima Sunday, 24 October 2021, 08:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

The whole budget procedure has become, over the years, turgid, repetitive and predictable.

By the time the actual speech was read in the House, we would already know it all including the details. Then, once the speech was over, there would be innumerable press conferences or statements by political parties and constituted bodies repeating what they had said innumerable times before. No wonder we have stopped paying attention.

This year's speech was everything we had expected it to be. A budget from the government of continuity announced everything would continue to be just as it is now, with a tweak here or there. These tweaks were then inflated through billboards and massive spin to appear as if something substantial was about to be done.

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The aim, in these pre-election months, was to reassure that there is no threat to our economy, that there will be no new taxes, that people can rest assured that the coming times will be good for the country. At least until the election.

The result of this massaging of public consciousness can be seen in the past and future opinion polls - a coming massive vote of confidence for the current administration.

Such being the situation, the task facing the Leader of the Opposition as he stood to deliver his reply this week was predictably a formidable one. Bernard Grech had no shortage of advisers to help him craft the reply.

But to my surprise (at least to me, I do not know of any others, bar the usual hacks on government pay) Grech's speech was a very far cry from what it could have been and from what it ought to have been.

It consisted of what I can best describe as a Christmas box of promises, helpfully itemized and listed in paid adverts on Facebook.

I can understand why this was done - it helps target specific groups of voters and offers them target-specific solutions or incentives. In other words, it segments the electorate and offers specific solutions.

We will soon see through the coming opinion polls if this approach works. The hours after the speech saw many Opposition MPs going on Facebook to praise the speech. Well, maybe I ought to rephrase that: the Grech groupies got in their comments that very same evening while others came up with rather lack-lustre comments on a rather lack-lustre speech by midday the next day. Some support!

My main gripe is that Grech perhaps unconsciously imitated the sector specific approach of the government party and thus ended up competing and trying to promise more to each sector.

What the speech offered to the sectors then had to be cross-checked against the cumulative impact of such promises on the national accounts. One would have expected to have heard what savings would have been made elsewhere to pay for the additional expense.

But this is only a minimal part of what the country needed to hear. The country is now beginning to feel the impact of grey-listing. We know what the budget speech said, or did not say, about concrete steps to emerge from the grey-listing. We know now the impact, at least so far. The Opposition's boast to get Malta out of the grey-listing in three months is risible, at least without additional details and commitments.

There are now the results of the Doing Business survey announced by EY which showed a plummeting decrease of Maltese competitiveness.

Bernard Grech avoided hot rhetoric, which is acceptable, but then he did not come as clean as many would have wished on the dramatic situation of the Malta 'fior del mondo' of the Muscat myth. It is right not to scare people but then it is wrong to play around with petty solutions while the building is collapsing.

The coming months may be dire for us all, with oil prices and inflation on the rise. Malta has one of the worst deficit situations in the EU and any incoming government will have to face up to it (or be made to by the other states). Can you find any clear information on this in the budget speech? Or in Grech's one? This is what the Maltese population wants to hear about, at least those interested in where the country is going as against those who above anything else want to know what's in it for them.

This is not to say the Grech promises are not good in themselves. They are, at least as far as I can see. But the macro aspect is the real priority. People, perhaps unconsciously, miss this if it isn't there. It may account for the recent polls decline.

Some people may find all this maybe too much ado but what this country needs at this point are strong words and commitments on combating fraud and corruption, straight talk about the environmental degradation, less heavy government bureaucracy and opening new areas for development (not land-use) and innovation.

But above all what people want to hear is how are they to live in times of rising prices and still inadequate pensions. My friend, Joe Zahra, has been documenting the straight improvements of the PN governments putting paid the government's claim PN did not increase pensions. Do you find this in Grech's speech or on the PN media?


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