One common theme in the Nationalist Party and Labour Party electoral campaigns is that they want to project themselves as pro-business parties. Gone are the days when social democratic and Christian democratic themes were contrasted to win the electorate’s support. Today’s political leaders prefer to engage in bickering and trying to outdo their political rivals.
In a question-and-answer session organised by the Chamber of SMEs, business people could hear what the political leaders were proposing for the business community. They wanted the next prime minister to go beyond uttering soothing sound bites and clichés. Still, both PL leader Robert Abela and PN leader Bernard Grech repeatedly pledged that they would not increase taxes, social contributions, nor VAT if elected to government on March 26.
Abela promised several micro measures aimed at convincing entrepreneurs that the PL would continue to be the pro-business champion it has been in the last nine years. No acknowledgement was made of how he would address the problem of state capture that characterised the administration of his predecessor Joseph Muscat. A commitment to cut all perverse ties between corrupt elements in politics and business would have gone some way in convincing local and foreign institutions that Malta has indeed turned the page in public governance.
The prime minister took a page from his predecessor’s book who, in 2016, hammered the banks for not being accommodating enough to businesses who wanted to set up shop in Malta. Abela said: “I find it difficult to understand banks’ level of bureaucracy.” He also mentioned that the Labour Party pledged to set up a credit review office that arbitrates and gives recommendations on processing business loans.
Abela knows that banks are regulated by the European Central Bank and not by himself. All bank directors and key function holders have to be approved by the ECB. This is not just a formality.
Grech reiterated the central plank of the PN’s economic strategy by repeating that, if elected, he would invest in 10 new economic sectors based on cutting-edge technology. But, like Abela, Grech never commented on the challenges the country would face to achieve this pledge due to the depressingly low education achievement levels.
Many will argue that the electoral programmes of both parties lack the substance needed to make them good blueprints for the economic regeneration required to diversify the economy sustainably. The backdrop to the incoming administration is an economic scenario made increasingly challenging by the consequences of COVID-19 and now the Ukraine war.
Both parties are pinning their promises on an abstract future of economic regeneration when the concrete reality beyond our shores is increasingly pointing in the other direction. In these circumstances, arguing that the multitude of pledges being made to the business community and various other sectors of society are achievable without burdening taxpayers’ pockets is simply not credible.
The president of the Chamber of SMEs, Paul Abela, was right when he argued that the challenges facing the business community and the country would not be over when Malta is removed from the FATF grey list. As expected, the chamber’s officials highlighted some areas that need to be addressed to ease the pressure on SMEs, such as “unjust competition from Sicily”.
The impact of COVID and Ukraine has so far been absorbed by government subsidies to the business community and consumers. The time will soon come when the next prime minister will have to reveal how his administration is going to balance the books while stimulating economic growth and supporting the vulnerable in society.
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