In a mere five years, a great volte-face has occurred that turned Budget Day into a positive experience, ridding the Maltese nation of the old hype and trepidation over what was to be announced and what new burdens were to be imposed on an already apprehensive populace. This psychological shift is the result of an economic revival no one could have predicted prior to the 2013 general election when Malta’s fragile financial situation was seriously being monitored by European and global authorities.

It is a success story, of course, envied by much bigger and, perhaps, grumpier under-performers who have been working hard with local political sycophants in trying, in one way or another, to undermine it via an obvious campaign in some sections of the international Media. This at a time when all the credit agencies and the European Union itself have been lauding Malta’s incredible economic growth based on overall performance and not on just one particular source of revenue, such as the citizenship investment programme.

Perhaps the best retort to all the mud-slingers is the Maltese people’s own level of expectation today. Budget Day last Monday was, again, a serene annual exercise aimed at exploiting this economic success in the best way possible for the benefit of all strata of Maltese society. While Minister Edward Scicluna’s Budget was undoubtedly the planned, continued running of the economic motor energising the process of maintaining the high tempo achieved thus far, attracting even more investment, and offering new and on-going infrastructural projects, it was also a consolidation of the Labour Government’s awareness of collateral social issues.

The rub of huge economic success sometimes is the negative effect on particular segments of the population that, for different reasons, may not have been in a position to be a part of the massive transformation in the nation’s soaring economic, financial and professional aspirations. A historically low unemployment rate, burgeoning foreign investment and a sustained glowing positive outlook may still have left these relatively small segments wondering why they have found themselves marginalised. It is why the thorny issue of excessively high rents, for example, has continued to haunt the analysts, the authorities, the NGOs, and other genuinely-interested parties.

It is also why the government has been quick in not only acknowledging this reality, but also quickly taking the bull by the horns to tackle this social dilemma. The recent publication of the White Paper on the rental market issue was the culmination of many months of consultations with all those involved in this social sector. The all-round positive reaction to its contents and the commitment to solving it are already a good start.

It is clear no one wants Malta to let itself become a victim of its own success, and the biggest indication of this is the ambitious, yet vigilant tone of the Budget for 2019. Sharing fairly and appropriately the rewards of economic growth with all the echelons of Maltese society is, happily, a prevailing feature in this Budget.

Budget 2019 is, in fact, yet another opportunity for the Maltese people to further improve the quality of life at a time when other nations in Europe and elsewhere continue to persue or to contemplate a policy of austerity. Suffice to say Minister Scicluna’s package for the new year is characterised by its exclusion, for the second year running, of any new taxes. It offers a scenario of giving, not taking tax-payers’ money, while at the same time providing for improved social benefits across the board, various tax cuts, the further strengthening of the anti-money-laundering mechanism, increased procurement and use of European Union funds, financial assistance to Gozitans working on the mainland and pro-environment measures that reflect the commitment to the protection and embellishment of our natural and urban habitats at a time of unprecedented development.

The Budget also includes increases in the minimum wage, pensions, children’s allowances, more social housing, better urban security and a continuation of the massive seven-year infrastructural project aimed at upgrading all our roads in both Malta and Gozo.

To balance an economic boom with everyday social and entrepreneurial expectations at this breathless speed is no mean job. It is, however, what the Budget for 2019 is actually proposing to do as it seeks to maintain the impetus already achieved in such important sectors as tourism where investment into the infrastructure and the environment continue to be requisites in the writing of the next chapter for the industry.

In my capacity of S&D spokesperson and rapporteur in the Culture and Education (CULT) Committee of the European Parliament, I have appealed for the need to invest further in the areas of culture and education. It is with satisfaction that my report on European Funds such as Interreg, EDRF and other European financing instruments was voted overwhelmingly for within the EU’s highest institution.

I said in my EP report “it is vital to see an increase in investment in the areas of culture, education, youth and sport”,  a declaration that sees its many reflections in the Budget for 2019. These are sectors that have earned a pride of place within the Labour Government’s programme for the next twelve months, a process that has already been gaining momentum through such measures as the introduction of free school transport to all students at State, independent and Church schools, the introduction of several cultural initiatives, inevitably inspired by the current highly successful Valletta 18 experience, the vote for sixteen-year-olds as from next year’s European elections, and the support for various sporting disciplines to upgrade performance, facililties and aspirations in the international field.

It is this volte-face reality that shines out of  the Joseph Muscat Government’s seventh Budget, the second consecutive one with a surplus, this time the highest within the EU. But it is not simply a financial surplus to be recorded and all’s well with the world. There is in it a sense of wise counsel, a sustained rhythm and a surplus of ideas and projections for the nation to continue on its chosen road of positive change, a stronger and safer financial policy, and better and wider avenues of access for all social classes.

The Malta Independent 25.10.18

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