Editorial | Sunday, 21 September 2008

As the mirage disappears

Finance Minister Tonio Fenech let the cat out of the bag last Tuesday, when he declared nonchalantly that the government’s financial deficit was further exacerbated by “collective agreements made post-budget”.
The way Fenech addressed the issue is really symptomatic of a politician who is well coached in saying half truths without saying an outright lie.
Framing the timing of the new collective agreement as “post-budget” is a very convenient way of skirting the fact that they were effectively reached “pre-election”: that time when everything is possible and massive disgruntlement is buried under last-minute pledges, far out promises and hefty agreements.
The latter happened to be the case in the health sector, as candidly admitted by Fenech in his attempts to massage the bleak message that, after all, not everything is possible a mere six months since his party was re-elected to government.
Now, we are now being told that our expectations “have to be tailored to reality”. Translated in real terms, we are given to understand there will be no income tax cuts come October, in contrast with the GonziPN promise last March.
Of course, it is easy to dismiss electoral slogans for their customary hot air, empty promises and shameless deceitful rhetoric without harping too much about them. One should never take electoral promises too seriously, as Gonzi and all his predecessors have taught us time and again.
But when such mass deception also impinges onto the country’s annual budget and public finances, then it is a different league altogether. It is no longer about one man’s word that, in time, is found to signify nothing; but it is our money that is being put in jeopardy, our future that is being played with as Gonzi’s administration shifts the goalposts according to immediate short-term political expediency.
The collective agreements reached in the health sector, referred to by Fenech, cost millions of euros more than the previous agreements, although his own ministry has so far refused to quantify the difference. One may defend the extra expenses on health as a necessary route to stop the brain drain and upgrade our health services – although even on these counts we stand to be convinced, given the abysmal treatment patients are getting in hospital and the non-existent primary health services. Not to mention more millions spent on hospital’s useless ancillary services, such as the legion of security wardens, the dodgy canteen service and the exorbitant parking contracted out to government’s cronies.
Putting all this aside, it remains unacceptable for the minister in charge of finances to cite agreements reached by the same government to somehow justify the austere financial situation facing the nation now and the ramifications this will have on government’s deficit targets.
It is unacceptable not only because this was the same government deciding on the public expenditure it supposedly afforded as opposed to the revenues it was actually getting; but especially because the writing was on the wall even before the extra commitments were entered into. The collective sense of having been cheated cannot be felt more palpably than at this time of year, when government pundits do their best to prepare the country for the scenarios that were unmentionable until a few weeks ago.
The cacophony of last year’s “good budget” that cut income tax and dished out children’s allowance to every child – irrespective of parents’ income – meant that those with a guarded approach were lumped as the pessimists and harbingers of doom and gloom. Projections deemed unrealistic, a gamble even, by economists, were staunchly defended in euphoric terms by the government and its propaganda machine.
Last Tuesday, Fenech joined yesterday’s pessimists, this time under the guise of a realist.

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As the mirage disappears
Finance Minister Tonio Fenech let the cat out of the bag last Tuesday, when he declared nonchalantly that the government’s financial deficit was further exacerbated by “collective agreements made post-budget”..>>

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