Will budget indicate long-term planning?

The White Paper cannot be a perfect answer to the rental problem but it should be a starting point for the discussion about action by the government

Finance Minister Edward Scicluna
Finance Minister Edward Scicluna

A year or so ago, when the budget for the year 2018 was announced, it was dubbed ‘a budget for the future’. I wrote that it was no such thing. The problems that loom in the future were completely ignored in the address of the Finance Minister.

A few days after my piece was published, a vicious car bomb explosion in Bidnija suddenly changed the Maltese political discourse and took over the vicissitudes of public opinion.

Now that another budget speech is expected in a few days, it is worth recalling what happened to the future problems that the country was – and still is – facing.

Last year, I had written that ‘we still have no idea of Government’s thinking on important decisions that must be taken urgently on three matters that impinge on the future well-being of the country. These are what I call the three ‘R’s – Rents, Rubbish and Railway.’

As for rents, we know that government wants to find ways how to rein in the runaway ‘monster’ but has not yet proposed anything that would really take the bull by the horns. It has announced a programme for building new social housing accommodation. However, this will be a drop in the ocean, in spite of it being quite substantial. The problem is regulating – not controlling – the relationship between landlord and tenant plus banning the use of inadequate units for housing when these units were built for other purposes, such as garages and stables. Meanwhile the problem keeps exacerbating. The population keeps on increasing as a result of an unabated increase of foreign workers, without anyone having any idea how to manage this phenomenon.

We have been promised a white paper on the rental market but this has never seen the light of day. The white paper cannot be a perfect answer to the problem but it should be a starting point for the discussion about action by the government. The final proposal would not be perfect, either. But perfection in this area is impossible to achieve. Ignoring the problem and not doing anything is far worse.

Will Minister Scicluna say anything about this problem in his budget speech?

The issue of waste generation in Malta was also in the news. A ‘Technical Report on the setting up of a Waste to Energy facility in Malta’ was published in March by the Ministry for the Environment, Sustainable Development and Climate Change. Actually, this was the third study about our waste problems made under different administrations that all reached very similar conclusions.

The report concluded that an incinerator producing 40 megawatts of electricity from waste was deemed the best solution. 25% of the cost of such an incinerator, by the way, is taken up by its air cleaning system.

Will the Minister of Finance allocate the necessary fund for this in his budget? We must wait at least another five years to have such an incinerator up and running. The environmental permitting procedure is not overcome overnight and some two years are needed.

Or will we just seek to keep on improvising ‘solutions’ to the problem without realising that the long-term solution cannot be postponed indefinitely?

Last year I had written that the attempt to solve the traffic problem by ‘improving’ the road network as indicated in the budget speech was just a stopgap measure. I do not think that this improvement in the road network will solve the problem. It should just ease it a little bit, or hardly – as last Wednesday’s rainy weather led to a gridlock in most roads in Malta showed. Granted that at the moment these works are still being carried out – a situation that could temporarily make matters worse – I still think that what we need is to discourage people using their car to go to work and give them the option of using a passenger mass transit system.

The Prime Minister has even talked of everybody having a free bus service. I wonder whether this will do the trick, considering the limitations of the current bus service.

I still believe that we need a mass passenger transit system that makes it easier and cheaper for people to go from one place to another by using it rather than by using a private car. I still think the country should start thinking on these lines.

An underground railway seems to be the best solution, but there might be other solutions, of course. This is not a project that can be executed overnight but we must start thinking – and planning – in earnest for it to become a reality in the future.

Will the Minister of Finance say anything about this big problem?

All this must be seen in the context of an ever-increasing population. We had these problems when the population was much less. Now there are more people working and paying more taxes, but these problems are getting worse every day. There should also be a plan as to how we can manage the pressure that this scale of demographic increase must perforce impinge on this small island. Will this year’s budget speech show that those running the country have put on their thinking hats and are seriously thinking about the future of this country – rather than about the future of their political careers?

Poisoning a ‘scumbag’

The UK Government has claimed that a number of notorious cyber attackers responsible for some of the biggest hacks in recent years are all, in fact, part of the Russian military intelligence (GRU).

It was recently implicated in the poisoning – with a military grade nerve agent – of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in March. Not so incidentally, Vladimir Putin recently called Skripal a traitor and a “scumbag”.

One of the suspects was identified as a GRU colonel called Anatoliy Chepiga, a veteran officer who has served in Chechnya and Ukraine and was awarded Russia’s highest military honour, the Hero of the Russian Federation by Putin himself in 2014.

According to the UK Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the GRU’s pattern of behaviour ‘demonstrates their desire to operate without regard to international law or established norms and to do so with a feeling of impunity and without consequences.’

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