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.

Malta Independent - - DEBATE & ANALYSIS - ngrima@in­de­pen­

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.

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