Business as usual? | Jason Azzopardi

Minister Jason Azzopardi – whose portfolio includes the self employed – insists that small businesses have thrived despite the political instability which characterised the past months

“It does not follow that because some categories work on Sunday others should do the same,” says Jason Azzopardi
“It does not follow that because some categories work on Sunday others should do the same,” says Jason Azzopardi

Jason Azzopardi insists that despite losing a vote and a Minister, the stability of government is not threatened, "as long as tomorrow's vote of confidence is approved".

"Government has a plethora of projects and initiatives either in the process of being launched or close to being concluded, all to the benefit of all sectors of society."

He also turns the tables on the Opposition insisting that while the government is working with "vigour to implement its vision for this country, principally to have more and better jobs", the Opposition basks "in its crass opportunism and devoid of concrete, genuine proposals".

Azzopardi portrays Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici as a victim; "the epitome of dignified demeanour and humility" who fell victim of a "ruthless" opposition. But he is careful to avoid any reference to backbencher Franco Debono, whose antics ultimately determined the fate of the minister.

He is full of praise for the minister's moral qualities, even if these qualities were never brought in question in the opposition's motion which focused on the administrative shortcomings in the Home
Affairs ministry.

"I look up to his innate sense of forgiveness and serenity amidst this moral violence, where others would have buckled or replied in kind. He has risen magnificently to the occasion. He has given an invaluable occasion for reflection on the great difference between the opposition's immoral code of ethics and government's ethics."

Azzopardi substantiates his claims on the opposition's "cold-blooded ruthlessness" by referring to what he described as a "vicious  and merciless" attack in early September last year when Mifsud Bonnici was undergoing a serious surgical intervention which Azzopardi describes as "life-threatening". Azzopardi was referring to a strongly-worded statement criticising the minister in September. The same opposition now claims that it had postponed the presentation of the "censure motion" to December because of the minister's health problems.

Azzopardi also claims that he knows of at least three opposition MPs who were feeling "very uneasy and uncomfortable" voting against Mifsud Bonnici but refrains from naming them.
The motion against Mifsud Bonnici amply showed that a degree of political instability remains endemic in parliament.

However Azzopardi - the minister responsible for the self-employed - rebuts claims that businesses are refraining from taking decisions in view of political instability.
As proof of this, he cites the success of the micro invest scheme, through which businesses employing less than 10 people are eligible to a 40% tax credit (60% in Gozo) on new investments in their business.
Businesses who have bought new equipment such as computers or freezers and have employed new people who have benefited from this scheme.

"So far, more than 1,000 businesses have benefited from the scheme. They have recovered nearly €7 million from the scheme while investing €17 million in the economy and creating 250 new jobs."
He recounts meeting a businessman who recently told him that he would not have opened his fourth shop had the government not launched this scheme.
Another indication of the positive economic climate in the country was the success of the micro-credit scheme launched in March 2011. The scheme consists of a €52 million fund administrated by the Bank of Valletta which gives low collateral subsidised loans repayable over 10 years, partly financed by the European Investment Bank.

"Our internal projection was that this fund would have been absorbed in five years.  By April, the BOV had approved 288 projects, which have absorbed €25 million... nearly half of the fund. This means that at this rate, we will have to set up a new fund."

What this clearly shows according to Azzopardi is that businesses are not hesitating in investing and creating jobs.

He admits that he also meets owners of small businesses who are not even aware of government fiscal schemes.
"I met someone in Zabbar who told me that he has just invested €20,000 in his business. When I asked him whether he had applied to benefit from the micro invest scheme for which he was clearly eligible, he replied that he did not even know it existed. Now he has applied..."

A year ago Azzopardi, like Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, voted against the divorce bill in the final reading despite the result of the referendum.
But this simply confirmed the party's credentials as an "inclusive party", Azzopardi claims.

"I felt free in my party to vote in the way I voted just as other colleagues were free to vote in favour."

Azzopardi insists that while in the government's benches there was "a real free vote", this was not the case with the opposition.  
"The prime minister did not try to influence anyone in the way he or she voted... I am in a party where whoever took a position which contrasted with that of the prime minister was completely free to do so."

He contrasts this with the stance taken by the opposition with regards to Adrian Vassallo - the family doctor from Ta' Xbiex who recently declared that he felt out of place in Joseph Muscat's 'progressive movement' - describing the attacks against him after voting against divorce as "dictatorial". Vassallo later changed his tune, insisting that Muscat always respected his opinion and always gave him the opportunity to voice his opinion.

"In a matter of conscience, as was the case with divorce, they should have at least respected the free vote."

But wasn't the PN's own free vote conditioned by the fact that the prime minister himself declared that while he would give his MPs a free vote, he would ensure that the referendum vote would have been respected?

"This confirms the democratic credentials of the prime minister," replies Azzopardi.

I point out that had all Nationalist MPs voted against divorce as the PM did, divorce would not have been introduced.

"The reality is that he managed to respect the will of the majority. I admire the courage of someone who submitted to the will of the majority despite the problems this posed to his conscience..."

Azzopardi recalls that in all internal meetings Gonzi always made it clear that the will of the majority will be respected.

Has the divorce referendum and the subsequent vote in parliament confirmed the perception that the PN is a confessional and conservative party?

"We are anything but conservative. Just look at the social and economic changes we piloted and are still piloting. We are far from conservative, our track record shows that we embrace change."
The PN frankly admits that it is trailing Labour by thousands of votes. How can it win the election without resorting to its power of incumbency in a bid to please voters with favours?

"God forbid that we do something like that... we will surely not go down that road," Azzopardi says, adding that "the PN can still win the election through persuasion and conviction".

Azzopardi recommenced his house visits three months after the 2008 general election and has been regularly visiting homes every week for the past four years. He claims that popular sentiment has changed over the past three months.

"People out there are seeing the difference between the seriousness and trustworthiness of the prime minister and the lack of maturity of the leader of the opposition."

He recounts meeting a moderate Labour Party voter in Fgura who frankly admitted that his own leader's promise to reduce electricity bills cannot be implemented.

He also believes that the party's core message on prioritising jobs is resonating even with a part of Labour's electorate.

"Another Labour supporter told me: I feel the pinch of the electricity bills but I have two children - one working at Lufthansa and one at Actavis - if I were to choose between decreased electricity bills and the employment prospects of my children, I would choose the latter."

He also thinks that people are increasingly aware of the contrasts between the dire employment situation abroad and the greater availability of jobs in Malta.

The greatest danger to the PN, according to Azzopardi, is that many people take these accomplishments for granted.

"The people have to be reminded about Joseph Muscat's complete lack of judgement when he voted and campaigned against EU membership. Let's not forget that Muscat wrote an article on the eve of the referendum describing membership as the cross of the millennium. If he proved to be so wrong in this assessment, how can we trust him on handling the economy?"

After serving a parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Finance, Azzopardi was promoted by the prime minister. His portfolio includes public land, the self-employed and fair competition.

While denying that endemic instability is harming the economy, Azzopardi acknowledges that retail in certain areas suffers due to a lack of accessibility and parking. He blames some local councils for being too harsh by inflicting fines on shoppers who stop for a few minutes to make a quick purchase.

"Shouldn't local councils be more reasonable, by giving a three- or five-minute allowance to these shoppers?"

Many businesses complain that the exorbitant electricity bills inhibit growth.

"I would not be saying the truth if I were to deny that the impact these bills are having on all and sundry."
But Azzopardi asks: "Is there an alternative to increasing the bills, considering how the price of oil and gas are increasing abroad?"

He claims that the only way of reducing electricity bills is to introduce new taxes.

"In view of the fact that both parties have agreed with parliament on EU rules which stipulate that the deficit cannot surpass a certain amount, the only way to decrease bills is either increasing taxes or reducing social expenditure."

But he also insists that the government has not stopped at increasing the bills. Apart from subsidising the bills of low-income earners, the government has also subsidised renewable energy.

"12,000 households and businesses have made use of schemes subsidising energy-efficient systems."

Businesses have also benefited from ERDF funds, part of which are targeted at energy-saving systems. Azzopardi compares the situation with regards to energy costs to two persons cursing the gale force winds which are hitting them.

"One of these went to seek shelter under a rubble wall hoping that the wind would stop while the other was more intelligent and proceeded to build a windmill to harness the energy of the wind."

One issue which pops from time to time, is whether shops should be allowed to open in public holidays.

He acknowledges that "there are equally valid arguments on both sides of the fence".
In 2005, the government had introduced a system through which businesses had to pay €699 to present an application to the Department of Trade to open on a public holiday.

This created a clamour amongsmaller businesses who objected to the fact that this system discriminated in favour of larger businesses who could afford to pay this sum.
Azzopardi claims that this system created “a sense of uncertainty” with the government being faced by innumerable e-mails on the eve of each public holiday by businesses enquiring whether government will be allowing shops to open or not.

“Therefore we issued a legal notice clearly, stating that for the next year, shops will be able to open on all public holidays except 15 August and Good Friday.”
But the legal notice did not change anything with regards to Sundays.
“We did not do this because of religious reasons, because we believe that workers should at least have a right to enjoy one day a week as a day of rest.”

But many workers in the catering industry work on Sundays. What makes workers in the retail sector different from others?
“It does not follow that because some categories work on Sunday others should do the same. We need a sense of balance. We have to keep in mind that there are thousands of workers and even shop owners who do not want to open on Sunday.”

Azzopardi recalls a particular shop owner from Sliema telling him: “Don’t you dare touch my Sunday.”

Does it not make sense to introduce a system through which public holidays which fall on a weekday are automatically moved to the nearest Monday or Friday to avoid the disruption of industry during the week, while at the same time give rise to more long weekends which could be beneficial for businesses?
“I think it is an idea worth considering and pondering upon… but the adequate forum for such a decision should be the Malta Council for Economic Development.”

In January, amidst mounting speculation on the prospect of an early election, Azzopardi announced a new scheme, which will enable tenants to redeem temporary emphyteusis in residential properties administered by the Joint Office and the Lands Department.

Through this scheme, those who currently pay less than €5 per year as ground rent will be able to redeem their ground rent for €1,000. Those who pay between €5 and €10 per annum will be able to redeem for €2,000 and those currently paying between €10 and €20 per year will redeem for €3,000.

Azzopardi explains that a similar scheme had been launched in 2001, through which 5,420 applied. Upon being appointed parliamentary secretary responsible for land in 2008, Azzopardi faced a backlog of 4,000 cases still waiting to redeem their property. Subsequently, Azzopardi decided to suspend the scheme until the backlog was addressed. The backlog has now been reduced to 900.
“In two years, we processed as many cases as were processed between 2001 and 2009. It was only after the backlog was reduced to a reasonable level that I decided to issue a new scheme.”

Azzopardi also points out that while the rate through which land is redeemed is the same as in 2001, the government has introduced strict safeguards against land speculation.
“I strongly felt that it was not fair that people redeemed their property at just 500 and then immediately sold the same property for 200,000. This was perfectly legal but not socially fair.”

Now if a property is sold within five years from when the ground rent is redeemed, the government will be entitled to 25% of the price of the property. If, within 20 years, such residences are demolished to be replaced by flats, the government would charge between 10% and 25% on the profit. So far, 278 people have applied to redeem their lease under the new scheme but the government expects a final rush in applications before the August closing date.

Bniedem mahtuh mir rejalta. Hawn instabbilita u hadd ma huwa qieghed jespandi l business tieghu. Ghal hekk anki unemployment qieghed jizdied