This year’s budget is a peculiar creature. It promises that 2022 will be Year One of Malta’s transformation into a country worthy of our children. But its assumptions aren’t worthy of our intelligence.

It treats the children’s parents as children, too. It tells a fairy tale where everything is bound to go our way. The world will accommodate us, even as globally it braces for economic turbulence. It will trust us, even while our reputation is under a cloud.

Many have already said its spending plans rest on the most optimistic growth figures in the face of warning signs about the global economy. If it were that alone, we could perhaps cross our fingers. Things got so bad during the pandemic, there’s plenty of room for growth.

The budget doesn’t just assume rapid growth, however. It rests on the idea that present trends will be reversed.

The world (or, rather, the OECD) is moving towards a minimum international corporate tax, which will be three times Malta’s current tax, a key factor explaining our previous attractiveness to foreign investors. However, the budget does not make any allow­ance for such a radical change.

We’re literally banking on persuading OECD countries to make an exception for us. Yet, until recently, Labour told us the prominent OECD leaders were against us. Bad international coverage because of the Panama Gang? It’s driven by envy of our success.

The Council of Europe castigating us over rule of law and justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia? Suckers who swallowed what the opposition says, with help from a venal rapporteur whose reports were driven by partisan animus.

Greylisting by Moneyval? Unfair, very unfair. Driven by ulterior motives.

Ah, but that was months ago. Now, our budget promises are based on the belief that these envious, unfair, malicious suckers will behave benevolently and make an exception just for us.

Even though we don’t expect them to trust us enough to get Malta off the grey list soon. Somehow, they’ll be dubious about our financial governance but ready to make an exception on tax that will attract more funds to our doubtful jurisdiction.

That’s one of the major budget assumptions, folks. The world will shed its envy and become benevolent. It will retain its double standards but, this time, in our favour. And why not? Only a doubting traitor with no faith in Malta could think it’s improbable.

What if you think that the world was never envious or unfair? In that case, you should doubt anything that the Labour government tells you about how good things are now.

It didn’t just lie to you then. It was defending a particular business model based on what might be called (borrowing from the politics scholar, David Runciman) dictator envy. It’s a model that boasts of decisiveness while scorning democracy’s checks and balances, accountability and transparency.

The reason we grow out of fairy tales isn’t that we cease to be optimistic. It’s because we cease to be satisfied with tales of pixies and chocolate trees- Ranier Fsadni

Robert Abela, like Joseph Muscat, is still at it. When he boasts of his decision-making he’s boasting of decisions taken by ministers that are routinely unrestrained by benchmarks of good governance. Direct orders for cronies are the rule; they run into millions; the ministers are unpunished and unchastened, ignoring questions from the independent media while state-controlled broadcasting is a ventriloquist’s puppet.

This business model is the reason why Malta’s reputation has suffered. We were greylisted because of a lack of political will to see that money launderers and other crooks are prosecuted. How could they be, without implicating their political friends?

Even Konrad Mizzi, disgraced everywhere, kicked out of the parliamentary group, was not kicked out of Labour itself. Up till Tuesday, his former colleagues continued to protect him from parliamentary censure. Meanwhile, the budget “for our children” says nothing about the undisclosed obligations they have been saddled with, thanks to Mizzi’s power station and hospital deals shrouded in allegations of corruption.

The finance minister has earned some praise for rediscovering the conventional wisdom that reigned prior to 2013: that Malta’s economy must focus on education and turn away from dependence on construction. That’s a very low bar.

Surely, the budget – if it were truly strategic and future-oriented, rather than tactical and election-focused – would have charted a way forward to transform our education system. A 20-year project to give Maltese schools the reputation enjoyed by those in Finland (which managed its education turnaround in roughly that amount of time).

We have the resources to do it. There is the consensus that it is economically (and culturally) critical. Instead, our moonshot is an underground metro whose design seems oblivious to the buried sites, of high cultural and archaeological value, it will have to destroy.

What a Malta for our children!

The promise is now to make it the best in the world. But to be the best you need to do what the best are doing and then track your progress.

There is little doubt about who the best are: the countries that top the world rankings are also those that are most transparent and accountable. In other words, the very indices where we are sliding down.

The reason we grow out of fairy tales isn’t that we cease to be optimistic. It’s because we cease to be satisfied with tales of pixies and chocolate trees and worlds that bear little resemblance to the ones we live in.

Let’s stop criticising the budget for its optimism. Let’s start asking questions about how its assumptions square up with what Labour previously told us. Let’s ask about how being best in the world squares up with cronyism and state control of public broadcasting.

These are not niceties. Cronyism has a record of generating crises that it’s unable to solve.

If we really want to talk about an attractive, resilient, affluent Malta for our children, we need to begin with strategic realism that measures us up against the world’s best, not escapist fantasy.

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