According to the government, the upcoming Budget will be targeting ‘prosperity with social justice’. Finance Minister Edward Scicluna has stated that government’s aim is to keep reducing the deficit while guaranteeing a decent standard of living for everyone.
Scicluna has also highlighted that Malta’s economic growth rate can determine how soon Malta can converge with major European economies.
An objective analysis of Malta’s performance in this regard can highlight various strengths of the current direction of the economy: more people are entering gainful employment, unemployment is on the decrease, the deficit seems to be under control and growth rates are in the EU elite league. This is no mean feat, especially when one considers the economic and social angst faced in most of our southern European neighbours. Welfare-to-work schemes ranging from free childcare for working parents to training seem to be paying off, though fine-tuning is always required. Publication of data and social-scientific analyses on all welfare-to-work schemes would shed more light on their individual performance.
What is less certain is whether Malta’s energy direction will reap what was promised by Konrad Mizzi. It is still unclear whether the new power station is really required given the supply of energy from the interconnector between Malta and Sicily. In this regard, one should also keep in mind Malta’s international energy commitments on emissions and energy use.
Another characteristic of Malta today is unevenness in various sectors. Our transport sector is a laggard in aspects ranging from emissions from junk cars to poor maintenance of infrastructure. Local councils are underfunded, and evidence-based policy making is not mainstreamed.
The Maltese economy is also over-reliant on construction projects, and the decision-making process is tilted towards the demands of oligarchs and partisan priorities over the longer-term good. Prof. Scicluna himself recently warned against over-reliance on construction projects.
All in all, it seems that there is a lot of anticipation for progressive social measures in the upcoming budget. This does not only result from the government’s declared priorities, but also from what is being demanded by various voices in civil society.
Indeed, despite Malta’s positive economic performance, there are concerns that that the results are not inclusive enough. An increase in the minimum wage and pensions could help out those who do not seem to be benefitting as much as others from Malta’s positive economic performance. Pensions’ long-run sustainability should also be given priority.
It seems that there is a lot of anticipation for progressive social measures in the upcoming budget
Yet there is no universal consensus on the need for such increases, and this does not only include opposition from employers’ associations, but also from some major trade unions. Their main argument is that Malta can lose out on competitiveness should such increases take place.
In this regard, the least that one expectsis a comprehensive discussion withinthe Malta Council for Economic andSocial Development, where clear evidence is put forward to help inform sustainablepolicy-making.
Government can also consider upward revisions in tax brackets for low-income earners as well as commencing a process to update Malta’s cost-of-living and pension indices. Here one should keep in mind that despite its EU-approved methodology, the rate of inflation calculated by the National Statistics Office does not correspond to the inflation rate experienced by low income earners.
Government should also introduce concrete measures to tackle precarious employment, which also includes the exploitation of foreign workers in the black economy. Here one should keep in mind that there are workers in areas ranging from ‘Chinese’ massage parlours to the collection of waste whose jobs are beyond the reach of trade unions. Such workers do not seem to be benefiting from decent working conditions.
Another area which is seldom referred to but which requires much attention has to do with low pay in caring jobs. The situation becomes worse when workers are employed on a part-time basis. It simply does not do justice to have high responsibilities and low pay.
Last but not least, the time has come for the government to address affordability discrepancies in the housing market. Again, I hope that MCESD discusses this issue in an informed way.
Notwithstanding MCESD discussions, however, the fact that Malta is moving closer towards a general election will probably influence the timing of certain budgetary decisions.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.