The Malta Independent 18 July 2024, Thursday
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Mired in short-term policies

Mark Said Friday, 14 June 2024, 11:53 Last update: about 2 months ago

They may look good and reassuring on paper. Sure, we have quite a few long-term policies and strategies in many areas. Yet, in reality, on the ground, they eventually all fall back and transform themselves into short-term policies devoid of any meaningful vision.

By the time someone is elected to office, they have a short amount of time to create policies that will shape our nation. Long before we are able to see the positive or negative effects of that legislation, they are faced with a reelection campaign.

In order to create a stronger, more unified society, our leaders and policymakers, especially those in government, need to think about both the short and long term at the same time.

Nowhere is government short-termism more prevalent than in the education system. Policies from both sides of the House have been applied to a system that, as a result, has become worse than it has ever been. All of our schools need to provide a first-class education, and they do not today. If we want great opportunity for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic class, race or where they live, we need an education system that gives all children the foundation they need to be successful.

If we consider the national debt, we are spending at a rate that is creating a deficit that is climbing to levels not seen since quite a long time ago. The money that is being put into circulation today will haunt future generations. We needed to spend in the short term to work our way out of the COVID-19-caused recession. But the long-term problem of our debt is not being addressed.

Our government is fundamentally set up to promote short-termism. Our political divisiveness has exacerbated this issue to the detriment of the Maltese people. Without leaders who are willing to put politics aside to develop and pass long-term solutions that are focused solely on serving the long-term health and well-being of the Maltese public, we will perpetually be stuck in a cycle of short-termism that will continue to present challenges that Malta will struggle to overcome.

Arguably, democracy encourages political short-termism because it rewards political parties for placing a narrow focus on what they need to do in order to win the next general election rather than thinking about what impact their policies are likely to have over the much longer term. Raising taxes, for instance, is never popular; it loses votes and loses elections. It is easier for governments to borrow money to be paid off in the long term than to fund spending in the short term.

Pension promises are another good example of short-termism. The Maltese government currently has a heavy burden of pension liabilities. The cost of these is rising thanks to the fact that the post-war "Baby Boomer" generation is now entering retirement and people are living longer in old age. Until recently, generous government pension promises have been based on the assumption that the economy,and with it the income from taxes, would grow enough in the future to cover the costs. But this cannot last long, according to long-term projections.

So the incentives for politicians are weighted very heavily towards pursuing short-term policies. What can be done to stop them? Fortunately, there are several mechanisms that can compel governments to think about the future more systematically.

Take the natural environment, for example, over which, it can be argued, each generation has a clear duty of stewardship towards future generations. In this context, the PN’s move to make the enjoyment of the environment an enforcable human right was definitely a step in the right direction, albeit belatedly.

Again, a good transition to a green economy will require changes to the current short-term nature of the political system. Our democratic society finds it hard to solve long-term problems. We are stuck in a situation where the short-term costs of climate action hinder meaningful action, action that will improve the quality of life for people later in this century but provide little benefit in the meantime.

This is because the short-term costs are very visible and very real for the majority of voters, who actively oppose wise action, even though they will receive their fair share of the benefit in the long run. The vast majority, who will neither pay any short-term costs nor receive any short-term benefits, remains indifferent. As a result, the majority takes the floor and stops meaningful action. This is why politicians do not dare propose the obvious solutions to the climate problem for fear of losing votes and being squeezed out of office.

We need to strive to find common ground in short- and long-term politics that will safeguard the well-being of our descendants. We need to have a first Ombudsman for future generations, with a role to act as an advocate for the rights of future citizens within the legislative procedure of our parliament, including the power to propose amendments to laws that may threaten those rights. Hungary has already made that bold move. The United Nations is similarly considering establishing the post of High Commissioner for Future Generations.

Unfortunately, there appears to be far too much evidence of politicians only looking ahead as far as the next election rather than thinking about the next generation. The mood needs to change, and the need to factor intergenerational concerns into policy-making must become increasingly accepted.

 

Dr Mark Said is a lawyer

 

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