Prime Minister Robert Abela promised a “new prosperity” for Malta, and pledged not to stop fighting while people remain left behind.
Speaking in Parliament during his own Budget-replica, Abela ran through many of the main proposals announced by Finance Minister Clyde Caruana last week in the Budget speech and fired numerous broadsides against the Opposition throughout his two-hour speech.
Most government MPs again chose to flaunt Parliamentary regulations which recommend the wearing of face-masks while Parliament is in session.
During his speech, Abela said that the budget was built upon the fact that Malta was able to come out strongly from the pandemic. He said that not everything had been promised – it would have been irresponsible to promise everything: “I prefer to leave irresponsibility to others,” he said in a veiled jab at the PN’s raft of measures announced.
The question now, he said, is how to be better next year than this year – even when this year saw the highest ever level of social security investment in the budget that this country has ever seen.
He said that the level of social security investment is double that which the PN invested in the same sector when they were last in government, as will the level of investment in the environment.
“They chose austerity when they were last in Cabinet. They chose to increase the weight on everyone’s shoulders… and they chose to increase their salaries!” Abela said of the PN.
Abela said this budget is the basis of a new prosperity which will provide the building blocks for the future of the country.
The Prime Minister harked back onto the government’s achievements in the vaccination programme, noting that the PN had said that Malta would only get 40,000 vaccine doses but that the country had now administered 835,000 doses and that while the PN said that Malta wouldn’t get a vaccine dose before April, the government had started vaccinating people five months prior.
“They think that everyone works with their own mediocrity and lack of ambition,” he said before noting that in the last pandemic – that of Swine Flu – the PN hadn’t even managed to get vaccine doses for Malta and had to beg the Dutch for their leftovers.
He lambasted his counterpart Bernard Grech’s criticism of “over-spending”, saying that he was not surprised of Grech’s criticism, considering that the PN leader had called the economic measures which saved thousands of jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic “over-spending.”
Abela said that the PN had criticised the fact that the deficit had gone higher than projected.
“Half of that was after spending on public health. Would it have made sense that in the middle of a global health crisis to get cheap with people’s health? That’s what you’d have done – like you did in the past. We will continue to invest,” Abela said.
He criticised Grech’s “insensitivity” in calling Health Minister Chris Fearne “impotent” during his speech yesterday. “But we’re used to their arrogance and insolence now,” Abela said of the PN.
Noting that the Budget had increased the number of medicines which were available for free, and questioned which of those medicines the PN would have removed from the formulary to cover for the government’s apparent “over-spending.”
Turning to the environment, Abela admitted that the environment had been pushed to the side – perhaps in favour of economic growth – in recent years.
He sifted through the measures pertaining to properties in Urban Conservation Areas announced by Finance Minister Clyde Caruana in his Budget speech, and said that he would open the tax incentives which were set out for UCA properties to all properties and not limit them to those which had been vacant for 7 years.
It’s a point which was contested from the other side of the house. “Don’t go red, come on,” Abela said, chiding his political counterpart. “Your problem is that you didn’t read the budget, and you read only what they told you to say,” he continued.
He reiterated what was the government’s keynote environmental measure; the planting of over 50,000 trees in Inwadar for the creation of a new national park the size of Buskett.
Abela continued by saying that the PN has no credentials on the environment, mentioning the infamous 2006 rationalisation exercise as an example.
“The person closest to you… back then he was George Pullicino’s right-hand man, and now he is yours. With a stroke of a pen – and one which we can discuss in peace and quiet to understand the motives of how it was done – ODZ land the size of Siggiewi was made developable, and are today apartment blocks,” he said as an example of how the PN lacks environmental credibility.
Speaking about the proposal for a metro – which was announced before the Budget – Abela said that a discussion had started on the country’s transportation future, and on concepts such as land reclamation – something he said that he believes has to happen “today before tomorrow.”
Abela was here heckled with remarks about the government’s debts, to which he responded: “If you want to talk about debt, we can speak about the €4 million owed to ARMS by the PN”, citing the PN’s well-documented financial troubles.
Abela admitted that they may have been over-confident at times with economic measures, but noted that he did not want the country to revert back to the situation it was in in 2013.
Turning to the PN’s criticism that Gozo had been forgotten in the Budget, Abela said that Gozo is at the “heart of every decision we take – not like you, where you’d leave it to the last chapter of the Budget. Gozo is there at the beginning and end of every decision we take,” he said.
“We have already said that Gozo is going to be the pioneer for the major changes we want to make – it will be the digital heart and environmental heart of our country”, Abela said, noting that Gozo had been given a record allocation of funds – the biggest increase out of any sector.
“Your immediate reaction to the Budget was to put up a billboard to say that the country was in the biggest recession in history,” Abela began.
“So, if you’re right, how do you explain that in your time – when the economy was supposedly better – you didn’t do anything besides increasing electricity bills, fuel prices, and increasing the country’s deficit and national debt?”, he questioned, to hearty table-banging from his colleagues.
“So the natural conclusion is that you’re either not saying the truth in saying that this is the biggest recession ever, or that you were completely incompetent in leading this country… and quite frankly I think that both are true,” Abela said.
He said that the reality around Malta is that the cost of living is increasing. In one neighbouring country, he said, electricity bills are set to rise by 30%. And yet, the government had chosen not to increase any bills or taxes.
The PN would – like it had done in the past – have increased the prices like everyone else is around the world, Abela said.
Now, Malta has the lowest electricity bills in the Eurozone, Abela said, quoting Eurostat, despite the Opposition saying that the country is following a failed system on this sector.
It’s the same story for fuel, according to Abela, as he went on to elaborate at how fuel prices had gone up everywhere besides Malta.
“Had they been governing, they’d have chosen the easiest road: increasing the prices for everyone,” he said of the PN, using the opportunity to say that not only was the government not increasing fuel prices, but it was making public transport free for everyone.
Abela said he believed that the government had done everything possible for the benefit of the people, noting that they had spent €70 million a month on the wage supplement – money which other countries had also spent but which they were now asking to be repaid.
Instead, the Labour government had given the country another budget without tax increases, Abela said before adding that they had even created new schemes so that businesses are encouraging to invest.
Furthermore, he said, Malta now has the lowest unemployment rate in its history.
Abela said that upskilling and digitisation are now key areas which need to be worked on in order for the country to achieve greatness, which is why the government had invested in education, apprenticeships and in students in the Budget.
Turning to the raft of social measures introduced in the Budget, Abela said that the government will not rest on its laurels.
“While there is one person who needs help, we will keep fighting. We have made mistakes like everyone else have, but we have never left anyone to fend for himself,” he said.
Abela said that he wanted to see a Malta which is just from every aspect, where everyone has the opportunity to move forward.
“You will always find those who tell you that you will move forward depending on who you know, not what you know. That’s it’s a cultural thing in the Mediterranean. I disagree,” he said, before advocating for a sense of fairness to be one of the core principles for the country.
He said that the country’s institutions are ready to rise to the occasion, and that in less than two years a “revolution” had been undertaken in good governance.
Despite the Opposition’s scaremongering about the country losing investment, Abela said that this had not been the case.
Moving onto the matter of the country’s FATF grey-listing, Abela said that he would not be drawn into making “infantile and irresponsible declarations” such as saying that Malta would emerge from the grey-list in 90 days, as the PN had promised.
He said, after chastising the Opposition for “ridiculing” the issue with its comments in the House, that licenses had been given to 12 iGaming and 15 financial services companies since the country’s grey-listing.
Coming to a conclusion, Abela said that he would look to fiscal morality – a subject he said would be an uncomfortable listen for PN leader Grech, a reference to his well-documented issues with the taxman in the run-up to his election as Nationalist leader last year.
While promising that there would be no “witch-hunts”, Abela said that Grech – whom he described as a “serial tax evader” – had no authority to speak about this subject.
With time not on his side as his speech came to an end, Abela ran through a number of other measures, while also mentioning the country’s Recovery and Resilience plan, which he said that Ursula von der Leyen described as one of the “greenest plans we have”.
Abela said that he wanted to leave a country which was fairer than what he found, something which had to be done together. He said that the country has challenges which could either create a ton of new opportunities, or could result in the collapse of the country’s good work.
“Since what we mentioned today is wasted money for the PN today, nothing can be taken for granted. The choice of whether this Budget is carried out or not is in the hands of the people,” Abela said referring to the upcoming general election, whenever it may be in the coming months.
He called on people to come forward and offer what they could to the country.
“With us you know where we are. With this Budget we showed who we care about,” he said as he again trumped up the Budget measures, saying that Malta can be an example of dynamicism, justice, and sustainability.
Photo: Miguela Xuereb