What is on the ballot?

This government has been far from perfect. Mistakes were made… but it has delivered on many fronts

On 3rd June, the decision is simple – a continuation of these achievements under Joseph Muscat, or the alternative
On 3rd June, the decision is simple – a continuation of these achievements under Joseph Muscat, or the alternative

When I look back over the past four years, I think the one moment which started the economic upturn of the country came in November 2013. In our first year in government, a lot of people expected a tough budget. They expected us to tell them that we couldn’t abide by our promises to lower taxes and increase business incentives.

People were used to tough first-year budgets. It was the norm, it’s even explained in political science classes as the obvious. However, what was presented on Budget Day was the complete opposite. Income tax was lowered as promised, and most of our manifesto was enacted in that budget. I remember Simon Busuttil telling us that we ‘did not have a vision nor a plan’ about employment.

We looked at each other in disbelief, because what was presented to the country was the largest programme of pro-business and pro-employment policies Malta had ever seen. Indeed, it was the start of a revolution in the employment sector, with ambitious active labour market policies to be delivered within the first 12 months. This included tapering measures and free childcare for working parents. 

I think that that period defined what was yet to materialise – an economic boom to strengthen our economy, expansion of our labour market and a feel-good factor which is still on the up and up. Among the priorities we set out to end abuse in the unemployment register. We made it very clear that those registering for work had to be serious about finding employment. We prepared back-to-work and training programmes for those genuinely interested in finding work. We’ve invested a lot to make sure people had the right skills to be able to find a job and be productive. Those that were on the register simply for the cheque, were quickly shown the door. 

The introduction of ‘making work pay’ policies was equally important. In the past, the difference between staying at home on benefits and working a minimum wage job was minuscule. Many people chose the benefits route. Through measures such as tapering and the in-work benefit, we made sure that the gap expanded. We had to make it worthwhile to work. We did this without creating any injustices – those who have socially-difficult situations actually had their benefits increased. 

We have helped people with disabilities find a job through legislation, and the results speak for themselves – a record-breaking 1,000+ people with disabilities found employment in the past four years, where in the past it was fewer than 100 a year. The labour market expanded as more women got into employment, be it part or full-time, and productivity increased. Businesses expanded, new industries came to Malta and today we are in a situation where people from other countries come to Malta to work. The supply of workers is simply not enough to meet the demands of employers. This is a good problem to have.

We have come a long way since November 2013, amid the pessimism of others. We beat expectations then, and we continue to do so today. However, we are ready to do more. We’ve launched proposals to give further incentives to bring more people into work and to make sure that the gap between staying at home on benefits and working a minimum wage job continues to widen. This includes a rise in the minimum wage itself.

This week Simon Busuttil promised to create 30,000 jobs in the next five years. Considering that in the past four years a total of 35,000 were created, what we’re looking at, therefore, is an admission that the economy, under the PN, would slow down. Busuttil’s proposals have been incredulous in some instances (not being able to calculate the costings of a pension increase is beyond belief), verging on the hilarious – such as the one about giving €10,000 to those registering as residents of a Gozo address (verification of that is nigh on impossible unless he takes Gozo out of the Schengen agreement), but only promising to give out details after the election once the obvious deficiencies of the idea were highlighted.

When I meet fellow ministers, during council meetings in Brussels, I’m often told harrowing stories of austerity and cuts that need to be done in their home country. I’m sorry for them because these are not decisions politicians enjoy taking. No politician goes into politics to cut funding in social care, education or health.

But, in the case of their countries, they are often must-do’s. We have worked very hard to make sure our country is in a position to grow the economy and create wealth. Rather than talk about cuts, we’ve spent the past four years building up Malta. Now it’s a decision on whether to move forward or backwards. Bread and butter issues are at stake.

On 3rd June, better pensions are on the ballot. The growing economy is on the ballot. The increase in the minimum wage is on the ballot. Whether or not we continue to create alternative programmes for our young people is on the ballot. A modern infrastructure, where all roads in Malta and Gozo are re-built, is on the ballot. Whether or not we want to ensure medicines are in stock is on the ballot. A budget surplus is on the ballot. Civil rights and the continuation of pro-LGBT policies are also on the ballot.

This is a government that has been far from perfect. In some instances, mistakes were made and, especially in the early days, we were perhaps trying to run too quickly in the midst of our enthusiasm to deliver. But this is also a government that has delivered on many fronts despite the doom and gloom of others. As a country we’ve beaten the odds and succeeded, while fellow European countries, such as Italy and Spain, are still drained in austerity and tax rises.

On 3rd June, the decision is simple – a continuation of these achievements under Joseph Muscat, or the alternative: a coalition of confusion spearheaded by a potential Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister duo of Simon Busuttil and Marlene Farrugia. 

Evarist Bartolo is Minister of Education and Employment

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