Beyond the parliamentary drama
Now that both the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition have laid bare their arguments on Malta’s economic performance during their budget replies, it is time to ask: What of the questions and uncertainties that remain hanging in mid air?
On poverty, the political class made a meal out of the figures presented to the public by Eurostat and by Caritas Malta. The government made it a point to focus on those at risk of poverty in this budget but when crunching the numbers: What will change in the lives of those that can hardly make it till the end of the month? Budget 2017 will help this group of approximately 65,000 people, but it’s far from enough to make a difference in their daily life. One would have expected the Prime Minister to speak of the ‘living wage’, a pre-electoral concept which remained just that: A concept.
On the other hand, Dr Busuttil, in an attempt to reposition the PN to the centre, came out lambasting the government for not doing enough for low-income workers. But, in the meantime, he failed to come up with tangible solutions in this regard while squirming around the minimum wage issue so as to not irk employers by asking for a straightforward increase of the national minimum wage.
Throughout the debates, ‘energy’ was the Prime Minister’s weakest show of all. Simon Busuttil took full advantage of the situation, with international prices of oil at a record low, the FSU LNG tanker sitting in the middle of
Marsaxlokk Bay and a report published exclusively in our sister Sunday newspaper, which shows that the Electrogas power station will cost the country at least an additional €70 million each year. This was followed up by The Times on Monday, which quoted from the Environment and Resources Authority report that points at a situation in which the government will ultimately sideline the interconnector to fulfil its promise to purchase the country’s energy needs from Electrogas at a stable, yet significantly higher, price.
The Prime Minister and the Labour Party’s media platforms fell dumb on these arguments. The leader of the Opposition, who tried his best but failed to convince us all that his party was never against lowering energy tariffs, on the other hand, made very strong arguments that cast serious doubt on the true intentions behind Labour’s new power station and its power purchase agreement.
What the Prime Minister describes as an agreement that underlines stability in energy tariffs has been tainted by a shroud of secrecy on whether or not the country needed this facility after all.
Dr Muscat is correct in saying that the new power station was an electoral pledge, which found the resounding approval of the electorate, but so were the removal of VAT and the freezing of the EU application by his predecessor in 1996. Both were revised over a mere two-year stint in power. Of the arguments brought forward by Simon Busuttil, that concerning the environmental assessment is probably the boldest. It is more than pertinent to ask, what happens if it is determined inadequate to have a floating storage unit so close to towns like Marsaxlokk and Birżebbuġa? Would the government rethink the whole project and risk being taken to court by the business concern that invested heavily on the premise that nothing will stop the gas goldmine they minted four years ago?
On the same basis, Simon Busuttil is pledging that should he make it to Castile he will remove the FSU from the bay and stop purchasing energy from Electrogas. On what basis is he making these claims? If he, and we have no reason to doubt him, hasn’t seen the contracts between the government and Electrogas, how can he declare that he will not make use of the new power station which is to start operating in the coming weeks?
Yet again, we’ve already experienced a Prime Minister (Alfred Sant) who promised to dismantle the new hospital, only to be faced with legally-binding contracts that pushed him in the direction of building a bigger hospital than that planned by the previous administration.
If only our politicians would stick to the basic rhetoric without resorting to caricatures to strike a chord with the section of the electorate that enjoys the political drama rather than political substance.