The spin-meis­ters of Castille

I have ab­so­lutely no doubt that the fu­ture is all writ­ten down and planned by the spin-meis­ters at Castille.

Malta Independent - - DEBATE & ANALYSIS -

We have had the Bud­get Speech and all the ac­com­pa­ny­ing dis­cus­sions about it. That has now ebbed and at­ten­tion has started to pall so it is time to come out with a new ar­gu­ment for pop­u­lar dis­cus­sion.

We have to go back to March of this year when the Panama Pa­pers rev­e­la­tions shook the world. The lo­cal im­pli­ca­tions of th­ese rev­e­la­tions, es­pe­cially when they re­garded Min­is­ter Kon­rad Mizzi, se­ri­ously dis­turbed the Mal­tese pub­lic. The polls showed that at this point the pop­u­lar­ity of Joseph Mus­cat and the Labour ad­min­is­tra­tion dipped.

So the spin-meis­ters got one over-rid­ing di­rec­tive: get the peo­ple to for­get Panama.

This was done by first of all block­ing any more rev­e­la­tions from Panama and then by cre­at­ing all sorts of is­sues around the Op­po­si­tion that had peo­ple for­get­ting all about Panama. Mainly, how­ever, the ‘damna­tio memo­riae’ was car­ried out by sim­ply not men­tion­ing Panama at all. Peo­ple for­get.

There was then the pop­u­lar out­rage when the Plan­ning Author­ity in a cal­lous to­tal mis­man­age­ment of news, in one and the same day al­lowed four tow­ers at Mriehel and one taller one at Tigné. This is­sue, how­ever, even if it is very real, ap­peals mainly to what we may call the elites, so the dam­age caused was limited.

At the same time, Air Malta was fly­ing into a cloud of un­cer­tainty as ter­ri­ble dead­lines drew near but a strat­egy of fudge and generic prom­ises was al­lowed to cloud the is­sue which, even to­day, re­main un­solved.

This was then the time when the an­nual bud­get was draw­ing near and the gov­ern­ment, able fish­er­man, played it out to the max, first by al­low­ing ev­ery or­ga­ni­za­tion to come up with its sug­ges­tions and then by del­ug­ing an en­tire na­tion un­der such a wel­ter of de­tails as to wash out the out­line de­lin­eations of the eco­nomic pro­gramme.

In this, the gov­ern­ment was lucky due to the Stan­dard & Poor’s up­grade just be­fore the Bud­get Speech. This con­firmed, what later be­came the gov­ern­ment’s leit mo­tif that the econ­omy is do­ing well, very well, bet­ter than the other coun­tries.

This claim, later taken on by all speak­ers in the yet un­fin­ished bud­get de­bates, hid from peo­ple’s eyes some deep struc­tural flaws and some very im­por­tant de­fi­cien­cies.

Only a few soli­tary voices of rea­son pointed out, for in­stance, that the bud­get does not con­tain an iota of strat­egy with re­gard to the roads sit­u­a­tion, though we grum­ble about them day in, day out.

The Bud­get Speech then was full of mea­sures aimed at the lower end of so­ci­ety, with so many mea­sures an­nounced at one go that peo­ple were over­whelmed by de­tails and could not get the wider picture. They got the main drift, how­ever, and this will be­come clear in the next poll. Whether it will be­come as clear by the time the year is over is quite a dif­fer­ent thing, as th­ese prom­ises tend to va­por­ise over time.

It was not this bud­get but the one be­fore it that was called a busi­ness-friendly bud­get and with rea­son for right in the mid­dle of the bud­get de­bate, the World Bank’s Ease of Do­ing Busi­ness re­port came out and our daily pa­per re­vealed that Malta re­mains the worst place to do busi­ness in the EU.

Malta ranked 76th out of 190 coun­tries sur­veyed. The main sore points are in the ar­eas of reg­is­ter­ing prop­erty (147th), get­ting credit (139th), start­ing a busi­ness (132nd), re­solv­ing in­sol­vency (84th), deal­ing with con­struc­tion per­mits (82nd) and get­ting elec­tric­ity (77th).

Even be­fore this, there were other in­di­ca­tors that things were not well with our com­pet­i­tive­ness, but when I asked Min­is­ter Sci­cluna on Bud­get Day what the Speech said about im­prov­ing com­pet­i­tive­ness, he an­swered by list­ing the For­eign In­ward In­vest­ments into Malta, which does not quite an­swer the ques­tion.

The Bud­get Speech did not re­fer to Brexit and its im­pact on Malta al­though one may per­haps read the Prime Min­is­ter’s an­nounce­ment of thousands of Chi­nese com­ing to Malta as a sort of re­place­ment.

All through this time the gas tanker was com­ing, and then it ar­rived and was wel­comed by na­tional angst. Just three days be­fore its ar­rival the gov­ern­ment hur­riedly came up with a counter-spin and an­nounced a gas pipe­line from Si­cily. It has since fleshed out this in­for­ma­tion a bit but noth­ing con­crete has since been done.

There are all kinds of coun­ter­spins on this sub­ject alone. To­gether with re­as­sur­ances on safety fea­tures in case of storms, etc, we have had counter-ar­gu­ments on the land­side gas tanks in Birzeb­buga which have been there for ages without mishaps. That’s dif­fer­ent from the gas fill­ing plant at Qa­j­jenza, which soon found it­self crowded in by build­ings with peo­ple hold­ing BBQs on the other side of the wall from it.

I quite liked the quote, I think by Min­is­ter Kon­rad Mizzi, that the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion must have con­tin­ued with fossil fu­els be­cause it suited some­one to do so (well, the rest of the world which con­tin­ues with fossil fu­els to this day, must be on the take too). So how are we to judge this gov­ern­ment’s fix­a­tion with en­ergy prices and costs as if it and it alone con­tains the se­cret of eco­nomic growth?

Other peo­ples can teach us: the real mo­tors of growth in to­day’s world are: ed­u­ca­tion, pro­duc­tiv­ity, com­pet­i­tive­ness, con­nec­tiv­ity, and cut­ting red tape. And we ex­cel in just one: con­nec­tiv­ity.

ngrima@in­de­pen­dent.com.mt

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