PM stresses economic achievements, falls short in addressing political issues

Underlining his government’s success in keeping unemployment and the deficit under control, Muscat repeatedly stressed that the country is “moving in the right direction."

There was little doubt that Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's riveting budget reply to the opposition leader’s comments was intended yesterday to drag the 2015 Budget back to centrestage, which it had lost to two bullets discharged into a car.  

The Prime Minister gave an energetic speech to parliament in which he brilliantly outlined his government’s economic vision but failed to address the pressing political concerns which were highlighted by the leader of the opposition on Monday.

Evoking his bullish performances during last year’s electoral campaign, Muscat drove the point home that his government’s economic plan is on track and the country is in a better shape than the previous PN administration had left it.

He also found time to praise former Nationalist ministers for their sterling work in relation to persons with disability.

But following PN leader Simon Busuttil’s energetic delivery, which set great store by criticism of the Labour administration and Muscat’s unfulfilled meritocracy pledge, the Prime Minister failed to quell concerns on accountability and good governance.

Despite attacking Busuttil and the opposition’s credentials, Muscat’s reaction fell short of answering questions which arose following the shooting incident involving home affairs minister Manuel Mallia’s driver, Paul Sheehan.

Muscat dedicated only five minutes of his two-hour speech to address the concerns surrounding last week’s incident in which Mallia’s driver fired at least two shots in the direction of a vehicle following a minor traffic accident.

“Do you really think that I am happy with what happened? I am disgusted,” Muscat said, adding that the fact that Sheehan is a police constable made matters worse.

“Yesterday I wondered what the leader of the opposition would have talked about had the deplorable incident not taken place. But Busuttil is playing Sherlock Holmes, trying to be judge and jury.”

Insisting that the PN leader is not interested in the truth, Muscat said he had appointed an inquiry led by three retired members of the judiciary because he wants to know who misled the government over the “warning shots”.

“I’m the first to demand to know whether I have been misguided.

“Do you think I’m happy having somebody create such a mess?”

He added that Mallia received armed protection because the minister is cleaning up the prisons of drugs and received multiple threats.

Addressing Busuttil, he said “Shall we remove armed escorts? Shall we remove the armed guards who protect your friend Richard Cachia Caruana or former presidents?”

Following Busuttil’s accusation that the government had lost its moral authority, Muscat said the leader of the opposition could hardly speak on moral authority when he had taken a million in consultancy services and direct orders.

Moreover, the former ministers, including serving opposition MPs, had taken €1.6 million when they had their honoraria increased by €500 a week.

“Contrary to popular belief, despite claiming that they returned the money they only returned €300,000. Will Busuttil now ask them to refund the remaining €1.3 million?”

Underlining his government’s success in keeping unemployment and the deficit under control, Muscat repeatedly stressed that the country is “moving in the right direction.”

“The silent majority knows that our economic plan is working, we are creating a new middle class and this is a government which is tackling abuse. We are not perfect, nor are we arrogant and we are prepared to make amends. We will work harder than ever and award hardworking people.”

Rebutting criticism that Labour is no longer loyal to its socialist roots and that the 2015 Budget is socially unjust, Muscat said his government was pro-business but believed in the equal distribution of wealth.

He said his government’s ‘third-way politics” aimed at reducing taxes, improving the investment environment and helping the workers and the population through lower power tariffs and free childcare, among other measures.

“We registered the second largest economic growth in the EU, and next year we will have three times the growth of the Eurozone. Our biggest satisfaction is real wages which increased by 3%,” he said.

Muscat pointed out that the people expected a budget that awarded hard work and tackled abuse.

Underscoring his government’s “optimism” he said: “We won’t say that all that our predecessors did was wrong. And although they want to depict us as devils, we are here to work towards making this country better.

“We are not a perfect government but people know that we are an honest, energetic and dynamic government that is intent on bringing change.”

Verging on haughtiness, Muscat at one point offered the PN leader “free lessons in economics”, following Busuttil’s jibe 24 hours earlier aiming to correcting Muscat’s thesis.

“You were paid for it otherwise I guess you wouldn’t have done it as you do not do anything for free. I’ll return the favour and give you a lesson on economics for free,” he said. Later he went on to lambast the PN leader for being awarded €1 million in contracts and direct orders during the previous legislature.

On numerous occasions, Muscat hit out at Busuttil’s failure to mention education, health and youths during Monday’s speech. Rebutting the opposition’s criticism on the increase in jobs in the public sector, Muscat denied that the government had engaged 4,000 workers.

He explained that in the last 19 months of the former government, 2,400 people joined the civil service while 2,793 joined under the present government, including some 800 taken on temporarily from Arriva. 529 were engaged in health services and some 400 in education. In the last 19 months of the former government, 787 were engaged for jobs which did not require qualifications, compared to 461 under the present government.  

Taking a swipe at previous finance minister Tonio Fenech, Muscat said “unlike the previous government, we have reached our targets because we know how to manage the economy.”

Quoting official statistics, Muscat said that his record in job creation during his first 500 days in office is far better than the last 500 days of the previous government.

“Busuttil has failed to grasp our economic policy, based on a flexible market and structural reforms. We inherited a situation in which the rate of unemployment increased by a person a day. Today, the rate of unemployment is going down. As much as the Opposition claims the manufacturing sector is not producing, on our watch a job is being created every two days.”

Muscat also announced that Energy Minister Konrad Mizzi will be announcing the timeline of the new power station during the parliamentary debate on the energy budget vote in the coming days. He also said that in the coming weeks, a pilot project to deliver medicines to elderly persons at their residences will be launched in two localities.