Muscat’s Budget forgotten under cloud of ‘ministerial responsibility’

Armier boathouses: enforcement of unpaid electricity bills • postponement of Alesa agreement only benefiting prolonged tenure of UBS

Joseph Muscat interviewed by Andrew Azzopardi (Photo: James Galea)
Joseph Muscat interviewed by Andrew Azzopardi (Photo: James Galea)

The Prime Minister’s showcase of his government’s second Budget will be marred by a reinvigorated Opposition that is now questioning Joseph Muscat’s credentials in exacting political responsibility from Manuel Mallia. From a weekend in which Opposition leader Simon Busuttil should have been taken to task over his unsophisticated criticism of the Budget, it’s Muscat who is burdened by the public’s demand for blood after a shooting incident that threatened to be fatal.

But the prime minister is already infering that Mallia, who at the time of the incident was at the Floriana police headquarters, will not be the one to carry the can.

“I was shocked, angered and disgusted. It was an unjustifiable over-reaction by a member of the disciplined corps. The issue at stake is what responsibility Mallia had [in the incident]. If the magisterial inquiry shows that Mallia knew of what was happening or gave instructions to the driver, then there is political responsibility to carry. But if the driver acted on his own irresponsible initiative, the matter is different,” he told Ghandi Xi Nghid presenter Andrew Azzopardi on Radju Malta.

The Opposition however claims that initial claims that the shots had been warning shots fired in the air, was an attempt at a cover-up, which Muscat has strongly refuted.

“No cover-up takes place under the glare of the media cameras, who were granted access on the site of the incident. Government communications were relaying any information coming their way in real time, as the situation unfolded… it was what they were getting from the site, and could not be verified independently.

“While the first information was that warning shots had been fired, it was the cameras that showed otherwise. You cannot have a cover-up when there was access granted to the media,” Muscat said of the visible bullet holes on the rear of the car of Stephen Smith, the Scotsman given chase by Mallia’s security driver Paul Sheehan after he allegedly hit the ministerial car while parked in Gzira.

Both Sheehan and another security driver for Mallia, both police officers, share one weapon between them. Sheehan was said to have given chase to Smith and then fired at least two shots to the rear of the car. He has since been suspended from ministerial and police duties.

Muscat also played down the scale of responsibility for allegedly illegal works being carried out in a property that civil liberties minister Helena Dalli has yet to sell to a purchaser, who is carrying out the works while the property is still bound under a promise-of-sale agreement.

Dalli’s responsibility appeared compounded by the presence of a disused loader belonging to her family firm, Pada Builders, on the site of the works. “A report by an engineer confirmed that the machinery was in fact not working. I’m sure things could have been done better, I’m certainly not happy about things.”

He harked back to the bribery charges against Noel Borg Hedley, the private secretary to former finance minister Tonio Fenech. “Fenech said he had nothing to do with the matter. I don’t like using these precedents, but I tell my people to be cautious in their actions.”

Public transport, Armier boathouses

In matters of policy, Muscat said that the postponement of the public transport agreement with Spanish operators Alesa was benefiting none other than the Unscheduled Bus Service – the current operators of the nationalised service – who were among the protestors holding up the agreement.

“Every week that the agreement gets postponed, is a week in which the UBS is paid more money thanks to the favourable rates they enjoy,” Muscat said.

He was also asked about the illegal squatting of public land at Armier, who have benefited from numerous agreements with successive administrations and recently been granted energy meters – a sign of permanence for the boathouse lobby.

“Lawrence Gonzi and Alfred Sant both signed agreements years ago – I am surprised that Opposition leader Simon Busuttil could be reneging on an agreement signed by his predecessor.

“We have signed agreements granting meters but that specify that the meters do not grant them title of ownership: we know of boathouse owners who share energy meters or actually steal from the public grid. Until we find a solution, we want to cut down on the theft taking place. In the coming days we will start enforcing the payment of penalties.”

Muscat however also said that he wanted to see that fair amounts are paid by boathouse owners for the place to be regenerated into a properly-planned area of recreation, and not retain its status as a ‘shantytown’.

“The decision will be whether to remove everything or regularise everything… I cannot renege on any legal agreement signed by Lawrence Gonzi,” Muscat said.

Disability in Budget 2015

Muscat said measures announcing mandatory employment levels for disabled people by SMEs and large companies, was his proudest achievement in this year’s Budget.

“We have full inclusion in education, but that stops after they leave school. Disabled children are sent the Adult Training Centre, which is a sorry excuse for a parking lot. It was Lawrence Gonzi and Louis Galea who worked the most on winning full inclusion for disabled children in education; to me this was a success. Our job is to build upon this success. It is work that gives people their dignity, and our duty is to build on this sector through changes, reforms and enforcement.”

The government will be giving tax credits to companies employing disabled employees, who in turn will not lose their disability benefits; but it will also enforce a mandatory 2% employment rate for companies employing over 20 workers. “This law already exists but it was never enforced.”

Muscat also defended a White Paper for a discussion on school hours to be changed, in a bid to alleviate traffic pressures in the morning. “I’m sure that not all parents and teachers have the same position on the matter,” he said, replying over criticism from teachers’ union MUT.

“I want us to talk about the implications of school hours on family life, on the way school transport is organised and how much it costs. There are schools that charge as much as €300 per term to use public transport, which is why we are giving these parents a tax credit.”

More in Budget 2015