The Times, Friday, 13th November 2009
Will the Budget improve my quality of life? This is the question that many of us ask come Budget time. It remains to be seen whether Tonio Fenech's second Budget will improve the quality of life of middle and low income earners. A main reason for this is that, although the Budget has various positive proposals, one can only guess on their effectiveness or actual implementation.
For example, the government has stated that it will increase investment in childcare centres. In itself, this decision is positive, yet the government's expenditure in this area is still very much on the low side and, according to the recently-published European Commission report entitled The Provision Of Childcare Services, childcare services in Malta "are extremely limited and virtually non-existent".
Policies on childcare centres should be a national priority, thus ensuring that childcare services are both affordable and accessible to parents who work. This is essential if our society wants to promote a healthy work-life balance, especially for young parents who would like to meet their employment and family responsibilities. Such parents should be rewarded for their efforts, thus making work pay.
Similarly, the government has a vague and, at times, contradictory approach on the use of solar energy. On the one hand it is positive that the budget for photovoltaics has increased. Similarly, one can only applaud the recent decision to make the use of rooftops of public buildings available for such energy.
But it is surely negative that the government will restrict help for solar water heaters only to certain groups, who probably do not afford such an investment in the first place. Besides, many people who live in apartments are denied the right to use solar water heaters due to the development of penthouses. In this regard, it is pertinent to note that, in a recent seminar held by Friends of the Earth, it was stated - by an expert in the field - that Malta needs about 50,000 solar heaters to meet its energy targets.
The government is also stating that it will see how drainage waste water will be re-used, yet fails to say how. The same can be said for the government's proposals on the reduction of hospital waiting lists. As noted by a representative of the Malta Union of Nurses and Midwives on a TV programme, the reduction of waiting lists requires not only much-needed cash but also other resources. Improved management is a key factor in this regard.
There are various positive aspects in this Budget that merit clear support. To begin with, one can only welcome the government's increase investment in education. AD is four-square behind the government's proposals for a more comprehensive educational system, which is aimed at having more equality and less drop-outs from schooling. Here, the government is matching goals with funds.
The government's increased assistance to foster carers is also a socially-just measure which helps people who are doing an essential social service based on responsibility and love, towards children in need.
It is also very positive that small businesses shall benefit from various incentives such as microcredits and that workers shall receive the full COLA revision, as is theirs by right. The increased expenditure in research is also welcome, but one augurs that this is actually carried out, unlike previous years where funds sometimes remained unspent.
On the negative side, the government has confirmed that it will keep penalising people who are careful in their use of water and energy because the compensation proposed for utility bills does not seem to be realistic in relation to people's needs.
It would have been better if the government commissioned a scientific study that establishes clear benchmarks for different households, businesses and organisations, thus enabling penalisation for wasteful practices and support for those who make responsible use of water and electricity.
The recent statements by Minister Austin Gatt on the increase in utility tariffs are also causing stress and tension to families and businesses alike, thus possibly neutralising "feel-good-factor" proposals meant to affect the economy in a positive way.
Another negative aspect of the Budget deals with public transport. It is disappointing to read that the government has confirmed that it will encourage use of old Euro 3 buses rather than the cleaner Euro 5 vehicles.
Also, the government seems hell-bent on doing away with public transport subsidies, thus risking the creation of a new system that excludes unprofitable routes and times. Besides, public transport reform seems to be missing from Eco Gozo, thus implying a big contradiction.
Green proposals, which are totally missing from this Budget, include an increase in the minimum wage and the generating of government revenue through taxing speculation of vacant properties (from the third vacant property onwards), taxation on banks' windfall profits and introducing meters for those who extract water illegally from boreholes. These proposals encourage sustainability and could help provide the missing link for a balanced budget... But is there the political will to implement such reforms?
The author is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika - the Green party.