The peo­ple ex­pect bet­ter of us, but they ex­pect noth­ing from you – PM tells Op­po­si­tion

Malta Independent - - FRONT PAGE - He­lena Grech

De­liv­er­ing his of­fi­cial Bud­get 2017 speech be­fore Par­lia­ment last night, Prime Min­is­ter Joseph Mus­cat took a num­ber of swipes at the Na­tion­al­ist Op­po­si­tion. La­belling the Op­po­si­tion “emo­tional ter­ror­ists against the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple,” Dr Mus­cat said last night, “the peo­ple ex­pect bet­ter of us but they do not ex­pect any­thing from you.”

Dr Mus­cat last night re­vealed that a Mem­o­ran­dum of Un­der­stand­ing has been signed with the Bank of China and an in­ter­na­tional travel ser­vice called Beijing Caissa Touris­tic, which he said will bring 10,000 tourists to Malta by 2018, and 50,000 by 2020. He also ad­dressed a num­ber of crit­i­cisms lev­elled against him by Dr Busut­til.

Re­spond­ing to ques­tions put for­ward by Op­po­si­tion leader Si­mon Busut­til in his tra­di­tional bud­get re­ply on Mon­day, Dr Mus­cat said he firmly be­lieves that the vast ma­jor­ity of Mal­tese and Goz­i­tans are bet­ter off to­day than they were three and a half years ago.

“Ev­ery per­son in Malta can come to their own con­clu­sions about this gov­ern­ment. Is this coun­try head­ing in the right di­rec­tion?” he asked.

“There is con­sen­sus that the coun­try is mov­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

He said that this gov­ern­ment sym­pa­thises with all those who are fac­ing the daily grind and liv­ing on lower lev­els of in­come, adding that this coun­try is in the mid­dle of the road when it comes to rais­ing the stan­dard of liv­ing for all.

“Our as­pi­ra­tion is that after a year and a half, they will be liv­ing even bet­ter than they are to­day. We want to as­sure pros­per­ity for all, and not for the few.”

Not just S&P, Malta’s fam­i­lies have up­graded our rat­ing too

“It is not just Stan­dard and Poor’s that up­graded our rat­ing, but also the Mal­tese and Goz­i­tan fam­i­lies,” he said.

He said that it is no longer time for just con­cen­trat­ing on cre­at­ing new work, but im­prov­ing the type of work avail­able and the con­di­tions.

Dr Mus­cat re­ferred to the pro­vi­sion of chil­dren’s al­lowance two weeks be­fore schools started in or­der to help them out at a cru­cial mo­ment.

He said that it is use­less to give peo­ple rights if it is just on pa­per, speak­ing about the high num­ber of women who have en­tered the work­place.

“Giving peo­ple, such as women, in­de­pen­dence in prac­tice translates into giving then fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence and op­tions to choose what they want out of life.”

Dr Mus­cat spoke of how the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion said that

the out-of-stock medicines prob­lem was un­solv­able – “but this gov­ern­ment solved it”

Th­ese are the re­sults of touch de­ci­sions taken by this gov­ern­ment, a gov­ern­ment that is not afraid to tackle the bull by the horns, he said.

Tack­ling the is­sue of ben­e­fits abuse, he said this gov­ern­ment continued to take tough de­ci­sions, pos­si­bly at the cost of votes, by strik­ing so­cial ben­e­fit abusers off the list.

“We are proud to have been the gov­ern­ment to bring into force civil unions and adop­tions by ho­mo­sex­ual cou­ples,” he said.

We did not just change the di­rec­tion of Malta, he said, but also of the bud­get by spread­ing pros­per­ity to all.

Dr Mus­cat as­sured the pub­lic that the mea­sures de­liv­ered by this gov­ern­ment will con­tinue to be de­liv­ered for years to come.

Crit­i­cis­ing the pre­vi­ous Na­tion­al­ist Party ad­min­is­tra­tion, he said the sit­u­a­tion in Malta was very dif­fer­ent, with things de­te­ri­o­rat­ing rapidly.

On is­sues of pub­lic fi­nances, he slammed the PN for in­creas­ing pub­lic debt, the gov­ern­ment deficit and the stag­nat­ing GDP.

He quipped that Dr Busut­til must have cre­ated some new eco­nomic the­ory, be­cause of the Op­po­si­tion leader’s state­ment that pub­lic debt is not cal­cu­lated on per­cent­ages.

A to­tal of €7 mil­lion is go­ing to be saved through in­ter­est as a result of the re­duced pub­lic debt, he ex­claimed.

Dr Mus­cat said that peo­ple’s con­cerns do not re­late to the di­rec­tion Malta is tak­ing, but to their qual­ity of life. Op­po­si­tion leader Busut­til was lam­basted for be­ing overly crit­i­cal, with Dr Mus­cat say­ing that even when things are go­ing well, the Op­po­si­tion con­tin­ues to act like a wet blan­ket.

Dr Busut­til had slammed the gov­ern­ment for not pub­lish­ing the im­ple­men­ta­tion report of the bud­get mea­sures on Mon­day in Par­lia­ment. Dr Mus­cat picked up that very report and asked Dr Busut­til how it was pos­si­ble to have missed such a big vol­ume.

The big­gest wealth re­dis­tri­bu­tion in liv­ing mem­ory

Re­fer­ring to this gov­ern­ment’s three full bud­gets, Dr Mus­cat said: “In the first year, we cre­ated jobs, in the sec­ond year we made work pay and now this third year we have dis­trib­uted wealth and helped those who are gen­uinely not keep­ing up with life. This is the big­gest move­ment of wealth re­dis­tri­bu­tion and wealth gen­er­a­tion in Malta’s liv­ing mem­ory. This bud­get took from no­body and gave to those who needed it.

“There is one de­scrip­tion for this bud­get: A so­cial bud­get. I am not con­tent with just cre­at­ing wealth, but see­ing that it is de­liv­ered to all. There is gen­uine crit­i­cism to be made, but I can­not un­der­stand some other points that were raised.”

He made ref­er­ence to the bud­get mea­sure in which those on min­i­mum wage, to­gether with the cost of liv­ing ad­just­ment and sup­ple­men­tary ben­e­fits will be re­ceiv­ing €4 more per week, say­ing that this is un­prece­dented.

He also made ref­er­ence to the re­moval of in­come tax on low-pen­sion earn­ers. Turn­ing to min­i­mum wages in Malta, Dr Mus­cat said that very long dis­cus­sions have been had on the is­sue. He said that the gov­ern­ment feels that the cur­rent min­i­mum wage is not sat­is­fac­tory to keep up with daily life. He spoke of dis­cus­sions with so­cial part­ners and called for a gen­uine and mean­ing­ful discussion on whether to raise min­i­mum wages.

“I am con­vinced that if this gov­ern­ment does not do it, it will never hap­pen. I un­der­stand the ar­gu­ments of the em­ploy­ers and the unions – let us find a mid­dle road. This gov­ern­ment be­lieves there should be a raise, so let’s have an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion where the pros and cons are made known. “

Turn­ing to pen­sion re­form, he lam­basted the PN for not rais­ing pen­sions over a to­tal of 25 years.

Pen­sions of up to €13,000 for sin­gle per­sons are no longer taxed, and tax on div­i­dends has also been re­moved.

Dr Mus­cat then spoke about the means test changes pro­posed in Bud­get 2017, where the thresh­old was changed in or­der to as­sist more peo­ple who are gen­uinely in need.

He then turned to the al­lowance adults who choose to look after their elderly par­ents, in view of “the ser­vice to so­ci­ety” they are car­ry­ing out will be getting.

“We dou­bled the sub­sidy for rents, reach­ing a max­i­mum of €160 per month. It can­not be that the gov­ern­ment sub­sidises a per­son’s rent, and the home­owner does not de­clare their rental in­come. We want to in­cen­tivise peo­ple to live hon­estly, but we can­not al­low prop­erty own­ers to profit off tax pay­ers.

“With th­ese mea­sures in place, how can you not be in favour of this bud­get?” he said.

Ad­dress­ing crit­i­cism about the €50 mil­lion so­cial hous­ing project that fea­tured in last year’s bud­get as well as this one, Dr Mus­cat said that it is not so sim­ple.

Tar­get for no un­der-16s to live in poverty

Our tar­get is that in three years, no child un­der 16 years of age that lives in a low in­come fam­ily, will be liv­ing in poverty.

We are proud to have been the gov­ern­ment to bring into force civil unions and adop­tions by ho­mo­sex­ual cou­ples

We ad­min­is­tered a fund to help chil­dren in need, and not by giving them lunch in class in front of ev­ery­body, but in a way that gives them dig­nity.

Dr Mus­cat lam­basted the PN for hav­ing such a neg­a­tive at­ti­tude on the Car­i­tas poverty report. He quoted from the report:

“The min­i­mum es­sen­tial bud­get for a de­cent liv­ing is achieved.” He also out­lined a num­ber of ex­penses, such as gas, food and elec­tric­ity that have gone down – more so for those at risk of poverty due to the added ben­e­fits they re­ceive.

He cau­tioned against politi­cis­ing Car­i­tas, how­ever he went on to quote the so­cial sup­port en­tity’s of­fi­cial re­ac­tion to the bud­get: “This bud­get speaks for the lit­tle man. This is just the first step, and I think this is the bud­get that needs build­ing on, with mea­sures build­ing on the ones we saw to­day. We need the gov­ern­ment to in­ter­vene be­cause eco­nomic growth alone will not help the vul­ner­a­ble.”

Car­i­tas cau­tioned against ris­ing food prices, but praised the pen­sion re­form.

List­ing a num­ber of in-work ben­e­fits, and how al­lowances have im­proved fol­low­ing this bud­get, Dr Mus­cat said that “this is the way to build a new mid­dle class”.

Crit­i­cis­ing Dr Busut­til’s state­ment where he said that the gov­ern­ment should in­tro­duce the sec­ond pil­lar pen­sion sys­tem, which forces em­ploy­ers and em­ploy­ees to make pri­vate pen­sion con­tri­bu­tions, Dr Mus­cat said that this is in ef­fect in­creas­ing so­cial se­cu­rity pay­ments.

Busut­til’s ‘car­di­nal er­rors’

“Dr Busut­til made some car­di­nal er­rors in yes­ter­day’s speech. He de­manded more medicines, when his party should have en­sured there were no out-of-stock medicines. He crit­i­cised this gov­ern­ment’s use of generic medicines, but he fails to un­der­stand that the sus­tain­abil­ity of Malta’s health sys­tem de­pends on generic medicines which are of the high­est stan­dards.

“Dr Busut­til wants to know about Vitals, but I do not have to tell him, he can ask Al­bert Fenech,” Dr Mus­cat said.

Vitals is the com­pany which won the tender for the pri­vati­sa­tion of St Luke’s hospi­tal and Karen Grech. Mr Al­bert Fenech was the head of car­di­ol­ogy at Mater Dei hospi­tal and a Na­tion­al­ist MP but re­signed from Par­lia­ment after be­liev­ing that he was forced out of his po­si­tion. He is now re­port­edly work­ing with Vitals.

Turn­ing to Dr Busut­til’s crit­i­cism about blank pages from the Vitals con­tracts re­cently pub­lished by gov­ern­ment, Dr Mus­cat spoke of the Liquigas and Malta In­ter­na­tional Air­port con­tracts that con­tain clauses which pre­clude them from be­ing pub­lished in their en­tirety. He said that while he is not cast­ing doubt on th­ese con­tracts, it shows that Dr Busut­til’s claims of cor­rup­tion hold no ba­sis in view of pre­vi­ous prac­tices in Malta.

Two Mem­o­randa of Un­der­stand­ing signed

Dr Mus­cat an­nounced that two Mem­o­randa of Un­der­stand­ing have been signed re­cently – one with the Bank of China and an­other with an in­ter­na­tional travel ser­vice called Beijing Caissa Touris­tic that will bring 10,000 tourists to Malta by 2018, and 50,000 un­til 2020.

“Had we lis­tened to the Op­po­si­tion leader re­gard­ing elec­tric­ity prices last Septem­ber, we would have had to in­crease elec­tric­ity prices for this bud­get by 50%,” Dr Mus­cat said.

The en­ergy and LNG de­bate

He then turned to the LNG tanker is­sue and the new Elec­tro­gas power sta­tion. Dr Busut­til yes­ter­day quoted the cost of buy­ing all the elec­tric­ity from the new Elec­tro­gas power sta­tion ver­sus a com­bi­na­tion of the in­ter­con­nec­tor and the BWSC sta­tion.

“What Dr Busut­til failed to do is fac­tor in op­er­a­tional costs, con­ges­tion costs and a num­ber of im­per­a­tive ex­penses. How could you trust th­ese peo­ple (the PN) to gov­ern?” Dr Mus­cat quoted a London School of Eco­nomics report where it said that the in­ter­con­nec­tor would not nec­es­sar­ily re­duce the cost of elec­tric­ity for the con­sumer and fails to en­sure a stand-by stock of elec­tric­ity that is so nec­es­sary for any gov­ern­ment to have.

All Labour MPs slammed their hands on the ta­ble chant­ing “shame” to­wards Dr Busut­til after Dr Mus­cat quoted PN doc­u­ments that say cheap elec­tric­ity will lead to high lev­els of waste.

This prompted in­de­pen­dent MP Mar­lene Far­ru­gia to call across the room to the Prime Min­is­ter, ask­ing him whether he has no shame, fol­lowed by a state­ment which was in­audi­ble over the slam­ming of desks by the MPs.

Dr Mus­cat ques­tioned the rea­son­ing be­hind Dr Busut­til’s crit­i­cism of the LNG tanker berthed in Marsaxlokk Bay. He said that the tanker is equipped with state-of-the-art tech­nol­ogy, made ref­er­ence to an EU law passed in favour of gas and also said that we should close the air­port be­cause planes are also dan­ger­ous.

Gov­ern­ment’s good work be­ing over­shad­owed by cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions

On con­cerns over cor­rup­tion, Dr Mus­cat said: “What an­noys me most is that the good this gov­ern­ment has done will be over­shad­owed by sit­u­a­tions where the per­sons in­volved should have known bet­ter.”

On the crit­i­cism that no one was held re­spon­si­ble for the Panama Pa­pers rev­e­la­tions, although he stopped short of say­ing the phrase ‘Panama Pa­pers’, he said that as re­gards the oil scan­dal which took place un­der the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion, “ev­ery­body got off scot free”.

On a num­ber of ar­gu­ments raised by Dr Busut­til on Mon­day, Dr Mus­cat said that peo­ple agree with him, but they do not place their trust in him be­cause he per­son­ally lacks cred­i­bil­ity, more so within the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal con­text.

On the is­sue of traf­fic, Dr Mus­cat con­ceded that the num­ber of cars added to the roads each year means that se­ri­ous action must be taken.

Dr Mus­cat said that in­struc­tions have been given to his min­istries to not build on Out­side Devel­op­ment Zone land, and that it is un­ac­cept­able for a pri­vate per­son to ap­ply to build on ODZ land that is not his. He said that the En­vi­ron­men­tal and Re­sources Au­thor­ity is there to cor­rect such griev­ances that have taken place in the past.

Dr Mus­cat con­cluded by re­peat­edly ask­ing who the peo­ple trust with the econ­omy, with the qual­ity of life in Malta, with the dis­tri­bu­tion of wealth and with their fu­ture.

Dr Busut­til’s claims of cor­rup­tion hold no ba­sis in view of pre­vi­ous prac­tices in Malta

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