The Baġit ritual
For us jaded members of the media, who have seen Budget Days come and go for the better part of 20 years or more, there is an unchanging ritual about the occasion that has indeed changed but which keeps many of its customs.
One thing that has changed is what we used to call the ‘conclave’. They used to shut us down in the cellars of the Ministry, take away our mobiles and give us hard copies of the Budget, which we used to fall upon and begin working on until they let us out – which would be at around the time the minister began to speak in Parliament.
This is no longer done. We still go to the Ministry (the catering arrangements this year were the best in recent years) and the minister gives us a briefing before he rushes away because ‘the President is waiting’.
There is then the ritual of the minister arriving at the Palace and being ushered into the presence of the Head of State to present the Budget Speech. Then it was on to the Chamber.
When Parliament was still housed in the Palace, this meant a short walk down the corridor. But now Parliament is at the other end of the city. My colleagues aver that last year Minister Scicluna walked from the Palace to the Parliament. I find this rather difficult to believe, seeing that he would have had to carry the famous Budget box with the seal and all. I believe this year he was driven.
Budget Day still preserves its aura and the media frenzy it has acquired over the years, from the times when it was a state secret and on it depended the months to come for vast sections of the population.
There were times when the Budget was prepared in great secrecy. John Dalli would call the social partners to a sort of retreat in a Gozo hotel, complete with Mass and all, to hear their views on the Budget.
In recent times, successive ministers have taken to starting the process at a very early stage, through the publication of a pre-Budget document, then discussing and elaborating on it at countless breakfasts with the constituted bodies and practically anyone who may be interested in getting to know.
This has spurred many bodies, including the Opposition in the past two Budgets, to come up with their own type of preBudget documents, which are a sort of sectoral wish-list.
In very recent years, the present Prime Minister has taken to holding a briefing for jounalists at the Auberge de Castille. Something I remarked on this year – and it may have been true in previous years – is how he offers a better grasp of the essence of the Budget Speech than his own minister, whose presentation, a short time later, was too lost in details to make sense to the majority of the journalists present who – anyway – had not been at the Prime Minister’s briefing.
Then it was on to the reading of the Speech itself. I remember endless discussions among us over whether we were allowed to broadcast this or that decision or measure before the minister had actually read it out. I also remember how, on one evening when they had sequestered our mobiles, as soon as we were let out, we began calling our offices and shouting the most salient measures to break the embargo (and serve them right for having shut us up for so many hours).
Even here, it is instructive to see what has changed due to the spread of online news services, news feeds – the lot. Where we had just one feed, with the minister droning on and on, we now get the polyphonic approach with so many news portals summarising, people commenting online and, this year, with the Chamber of Commerce commenting live at various points.
You would think that, at the end of the Speech, that would be it and everybody would troop back home, but at the end of the Speech the fun and games begin.
The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition hold separate press conferences. These used to be rather impromptu affairs but have now become elaborate, with the Prime Minister speaking from an elaborate stage in front of Castille that had taken many workers the better part of the day to erect.
Meanwhile, the constituted bodies would be meeting and coming up with their own statements and assessments of the Budget Speech.
If you expect the population of Malta to take in, absorb and digest all this mass of information, you are very wrong. In fact, the day after this year’s Budget we had some very ludicrous episodes, with people coming to believe that the price of toilet paper was going to increase (the minister had only mentioned ‘toiletries’).
The public is not to be blamed for the very structure of the Budget Speech, and the micromanaging of the economy by means of so many minute measures is at least half the reason for this lack of understanding.
This was the result of the government’s decision to help the lower classes through changing and amending the Social Security structures and regulations.
One of my criticisms of the Budget Speech was exactly this: that it gave undue importance to micro-measures but little information as to what Malta will do to face up to the very real problems that Brexit will cause us.
People, in other words, did not understand the Budget Speech because it was too long and complicated for them to grasp. And maybe, if they switched to the Liverpool v. Manchester United game halfway through the speech as many did, they understood it even less. As the minister was hurrying out of the briefing we told him not to go on beyond 8.45pm.