The Malta Independent 21 April 2024, Sunday
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Expect an eve of poll cheque again

Noel Grima Sunday, 25 February 2024, 06:34 Last update: about 3 months ago

The consensus generating machine is working full tilt now as we head into the European Parliament election in a few weeks’ time.

Last week we had the European Commission’s Winter Forecast which was generally positive with regards to the Maltese economy though not as glowing as the government made it to be.

We didn’t know, for instance, that the construction industry had taken a beating, persuaded by innumerable statements it was breaking record after record. So all the warnings some of us have been making about a bubble were not nonsense after all.

Looking ahead at 2025, the Forecast saw consumption, investment and net exports stabilising at slightly lower levels compared to 2024.

There is then another aspect: while the European economy as a whole is still weak, economic activity is expected to accelerate gradually this year. On the contrary, as already stated, the Maltese economy is forecast to keep growing but at slightly lower levels.

We are speaking in general terms, so far, but everyone is free to see things from his (or her) personal perspective. For most of us, reinforced by relentless propaganda on the country’s two main television stations (PBS and One) and bolstered by a fat cheque no doubt on the eve of the poll, the country is doing fine and the main issues are being addressed.

That’s the government’s twin line – we are fine and whatever is not fine is being tackled. For instance, we are being presented with two government initiatives that are being presented by two top-level ministers – Miriam Dalli blocked energy prices and Silvio Schembri came up with a scheme to push cheaper consumer products.

There is much to say about these two initiatives. Dalli’s initiative reinforces the government’s role in the economy, reinforces continued reliance on fossil fuels, does not promote less consumption, and there seems to be pressure from Brussels to wind it down.

It is too early to say if Schembri’s rather cumbersome scheme will work. Prices in shops and supermarkets change all the time and it is easy for shops and supermarkets to claim they are bringing prices down when all they would be doing is getting an inferior product.

And the Commission predicted that HICP inflation in the euro area is forecast to decelerate to 2.7% in 2024 and 2.2% in 2025 whereas that in Malta is forecast to be 2.9% in 2024 and 2.7% in 2025, again higher than the euro area. Whether Schembri’s scheme will have any impact still remains to be seen.

The point of this scheme is to persuade enough people the government is doing something about rising prices in time for the EU election. After the election, whatever the result, one can expect a general loosening of pressure. And higher prices.

The Abela government has taken some steps to, as it sees it, tackle enduring problems in the government machine. CEOs have been transferred at short notice from one ministry to another and Minister Aaron Farrugia has paid with his job.

Yet every day we hear about some guy or girl getting yet another iced bun and their wages reaching sky-high levels, sometimes getting more than the prime minister himself (though Robert Abela doesn’t seem to be doing bad himself – opening a small hotel in Gozo).

The government seems mired in corruption – or is this just spin?

What the government seems genuinely afraid of is genuine anger from those who have missed out of the bonanza portrayed every day by the main stations – those who have not managed to get decent accommodation, those who are on the lowest salary scale, those who are being investigated for taking government help when they should not have, and who are being made to pay back when the ring-leaders are still scot-free.

No amount of massaging public perception will be enough. The consensus generating machine is limited in scope. The nearer we get to election day the more the panic will rise.

In 2013 and again in 2017 the polls forecast a Labour victory and immediately the bulk of public opinion shifted to the side of the expected winner for many do not like to be on the losing side. But what will happen if the numbers even out even a little bit?

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