Feeling down and out? Here’s a cheque for you

Robert Abela stood up on that podium and without blinking an eye started handing out cheques like a belated Santa Claus, €100 there, €200 there

Prime Minister Robert Abela
Prime Minister Robert Abela

You have to hand it to the guy: Prime Minister Robert Abela sure has chutzpah.

He got up on that podium and without blinking an eye started handing out cheques like a belated Santa Claus, €100 there, €200 there. Well, actually he hasn’t handed them out yet, but he announced them, and that was all some people needed to hear to break into virtual applause.

Others saw it for what it really was: a nice, convenient gimmick which confirmed that the election will probably be held sooner rather than later. It was also an answer to those who were wondering why he would hold it on 12 March (as is being rumoured) when things are not exactly going that well for him right now. Rather than a ‘feel good’ factor, at the moment there is a ‘fed up’ factor prevailing on our isles.

We’re fed up COVID, fed up of restrictions, fed up of the biting cold in our homes, fed up of our increased energy bills and most of all, fed up of the rising cost of living. In fact, there you have it… the rising cost of living (which economists are predicting is set to rise even higher) explains it all.

I imagine that the consensus at Castille was that if people are complaining about high prices now, they will be complaining even more in a few months’ time. The economy is always the barometer for any politician and when things are booming you can bet the incumbent will probably be re-elected. Let’s not forget that Muscat won by an even bigger landslide in 2017 despite all the political scandals and swirling allegations because everyone was living the good life: on the surface, Malta had never had it so good. It was like there was cash on tap and no one really cared where it was coming from.

However, Abela has not been so lucky. He took office and had to immediately face not only a pandemic and the fallout from Muscat’s reckless administration, but now a possible recession. When people’s quality of life starts to slide downhill at an alarming rate and they start feeling the pinch because they cannot afford their previous lifestyle, they look around restlessly for a scapegoat. That scapegoat is usually whoever happens to be leading the country, even if (as in the current scenario) the latter is not technically to blame.

No one could have foreseen a virus which would halt production and manufacturing of every conceivable product around the world, bring a halt to global tourism and which would require Governments to fork out millions to stave off mass unemployment. We are just now beginning to see the ripple effects of all this, as freight costs and prices of containers have soared. Ironically, despite our worst fears we did not experience any food shortages during the peak of the pandemic, and it is only now that we are seeing depleted supermarket shelves because certain items are out of stock.

The PM’s answer to the nation’s grumpy mood is to dole out cash because he is relying on people’s short term memory. I suppose he is banking on the fact that they will receive a cheque in the post and that physical manifestation of the Government’s largesse will make voters look fondly at him again just before he announces the election date. It is such a brazen, blatant attempt at buying people’s goodwill that it’s almost funny.

As an aside, Abela clearly did not get the memo that banks are trying to discourage people from using cheques. Having said that, a cheque makes more of a PR statement than a silent banking transaction, especially among those who are not Internet savvy. Abela seems to be so enamoured of cheques that he also announced that tax rebates (in the form of more cheques) have already started being posted in our letterboxes. Maybe his election slogan should be, “You’ve got mail”.

The problem with these quick fixes which try to throw money at a problem is that €100 and even €200 won’t get you very far these days. The former is the average bill for two people at a restaurant while the latter might buy you groceries for one week for a family of four, or maybe two weeks if you are very frugal.

Once these government hand-outs have been spent, then what?

The bills will keep coming with relentless predictability: mortgage, insurance, mobiles and Internet, water and electricity, groceries, petrol, pharmacy needs and other basic necessities. School fees and children’s expenses are an inevitable part of life for many families. Extra-curricular activities continue to eat away at salaries which can only go so far, while emergency expenses always seem to come in threes, because cars and appliances have a nasty habit of all conking out at the same time.

Abela described the government cheques as “a cash injection in the economy to generate economic activity.” They are reminiscent of the vouchers which were distributed after the lockdown, but this time we are in completely uncharted waters.

I agree that the vouchers definitely helped people to get out there and spend to help local businesses and kickstart the economy to prevent a recession. With travel put on the back burner, people were happy to have staycations and spend their Euros here instead. Now, however, the scenario is different. Those who can, are travelling again, but those who have been hard-hit whether because of unemployment, a lower income or because they are simply unable to cope with how prices have gone up across the board, are having to cut back not just on travel, but to the way of the life they had become used to. Inflation cannot be curbed by a few hundred Euro because the price hikes have been so steep and there appears to be no end in sight.

Of course, Malta’s situation has to be seen within the context of an island which depends on imports for practically everything, and what we are experiencing is not unique to us. Global energy prices are hurting everyone. Every day on UK morning shows there are financial experts advising people on how to save money so that they will not have to choose between buying groceries and heating their homes.

However, in our case, what Abela is not taking into account is that the news that more money is being splashed out from our taxes has jarred with parts of the electorate for various reasons. Every day we hear of more and more instances where money is squandered through the awarding of direct orders and consultancy fees which make your eyes water.

One of these consultancies happened to be for Abela’s own law firm which represented the Planning Authority in the years before he became PM: in 2013 the retainer for services was €7,300 per month which rose to €17,110 in 2019. In the light of this, many wonder whether the Prime Minister can relate at all to the common man or woman struggling to get by on average salaries. This disparity was highlighted this week by a father and his son who protested outside of Parliament because his parental benefits have been cut from €480 to €48 monthly. Although it was not explained why his benefits were cut, the message against Abela’s lavish income was made clear in the handmade signs.

Another sore point is the fact that those on social benefits will be receiving €200 whereas those in employment will receive €100. While it is not clear whether this also includes the unemployed, this type of discrepancy sets people’s teeth on edge and does nothing to dispel the notion that those who work are always propping up those that do not. How healthy is it to keep perpetuating the freebie culture in the long run?

The crux of the matter is that, rather than throwing money at us in the form of a one-off cheque, there need to be more socially conscious measures which will help those who are struggling in the form of subsidies. The government also needs to set the right tone by sorting out its priorities, rather than spending hundreds of thousands on glamorous events which could be better used elsewhere. The reality is that even those with relatively good salaries are finding it more and more difficult to make ends meet while those at the lower end of the spectrum will soon become desperate.

I know it’s a tall order, but the PM needs to forget that he will be campaigning for re-election, leave aside the gimmicks, and concentrate on what is best for the country – and who knows, by doing so, it might actually win him more votes.