How relevant is the budget?

The annual budget speech and the measures announced in it are obviously a fiscal exercise.

It is an indication of the country's economic health and how the government of the day intends to ensure that the country keeps on the right track, naturally after taking stock of what has been achieved.

Yet, it is impossible to divorce the budget exercise from the political situation. It is therefore hard to accept the notion mooted by the Prime Minster on Sunday when he assured his audience of party faithful that the budget presented last Wednesday was not an electoral exercise.

In a memorable address in parliament in November 1986 delivered in reply to the budget speech of that year, Eddie Fenech Adami - then Leader of the Opposition - had started off by saying that in the political circumstances of the time, the budget itself was irrelevant. Instead, he chose to speak about the problems the country was facing because of the political stance of a Labour regime that refused to recognise that it did not have a popular mandate and was using all sorts of unacceptable methods to cling on to power. Fenech Adami's stance translated into the impossibility of one calmly and objectively discussing budget measures announced in a speech that ignores the overriding circumstances caused by the actual political situation of the country.

Sure enough, history is not repeating itself. But there is a parallel of sorts, as far as the relevancy of the budget exercise is concerned. Whatever the Prime Minister says, it is impossible to divorce the budget from the unofficial electoral campaign that has been going on in this country for so long. The accusation has been made that the budget measures consciously and cunningly target sectors of the population that would normally vote PN but are at present disgruntled and undecided as to how they will vote. This may well be true, but there is more to it than just the usual pre-election electoral ploy.

The present circumstances are strange indeed. I do not know of any situation - locally or abroad - where a government knowingly presents a budget that stands a big chance of not being approved... leading to the resignation of the government and to the Prime Minister asking the President to call an election. That the prime minister chose to go through the motions notwithstanding is, in itself, a political statement. Hence this budget is an electoral exercise: not just in the sense that it contains a number of measures intended to lure the electorate to vote for the incumbent political party but in another, quite extraordinary, sense.

The Opposition's vote is always expected to disapprove the budget. It cannot do otherwise as voting with the government would be tantamount to a vote of confidence in the administration. That is hardly the Opposition's job! So this cannot be an awkward moment for Joseph Muscat. He has cleverly 'promised' to retain and follow up on the budget's good points, assuming Labour will win the election brought about - somewhat prematurely - as a result of it not being approved. Doing politics is not an exercise in logic, of course.

It is, however, horribly awkward for the recalcitrant government MP who had preannounced his decision to vote against his own party's administration for reasons that do not have anything to do with what the Finance Minister would announce in the budget speech. I have called it Franco Debono's 'Samson moment' because when Samson brought down the temple, he ended up dead and buried under the debris caused by his own actions.

The budget measures announced last Wednesday are mostly positive and many would approve them, albeit some might regret that areas that they would have liked to see reformed were left untouched. Overall, it indicates the country is in good shape economically and sends the message that things can get better; without the government having to go over the top by being irresponsibly and capriciously generous, as it would be tempted to do in the last budget before the election. The announced budget measures make sense in the present economic circumstances of the country and would be normally approved by most citizens. Yet there is an underlying undeclared nagging truth: on paper the budget speech ignores the current political circumstances!

I can only conclude that the country is going through a surreal moment, with government presenting a budget as if it is the normal thing one would expect at this time of the year and using it to force Franco Debono to chose between doing the unthinkable or acting in the manner that most of his voters expect him to act. This is the ultimate political exercise, of course. No more, no less.

Incidentally, Franco Debono's playing the martyr's card last Wednesday had more than a touch of the surreal. This is not to mean that threats, anonymous or otherwise, can ever be condoned. I am referring to the attitude he opted to adopt and nothing else.

Tonio Fenech's record as minister responsible for finance is undoubtedly a positive one, and the budget last Wednesday continued to confirm this from a purely economic standpoint. Even the Opposition finds it difficult to criticise the present administration's record on the economy and has chosen to limit its attacks on the perceived lack of cash in the pockets of the ordinary man in the street. Silly billboards saying that under a Labour government people would have more money in their wallets have provoked yet more silly billboards saying that Labour's promises will be financed by money taken from people's wallets! Political billboards tend to lose their sense of humour when the topic becomes money in one's pockets!

Economic well-being or not, one cannot ignore yet another electoral circumstance. By coincidence or not, Fenech delivered his speech just two days before the PN councilors were to vote to elect a new Deputy Leader for their party by choosing between Tonio Fenech and Simon Busuttil. Tonio Fenech's article in The Times last Thursday was uncanny: he wrote of 'the responsible choice' - not the one he made when preparing the budget he had read the day before, but that to be made by the PN councilors electing their party's Deputy Leader! Can we really divorce Tonio Fenech's budget speech from these circumstances as well?

What is the more telling issue here?

The measures announced in the budget speech or Tonio Fenech's bid to be elected Deputy Leader of the PN?

The measures announced in the budget speech or Franco Debono's threat to bring the government down?

Good budget. Pity that it is irrelevant.

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