Over the last couple of weeks we have been treated to a barrage of widely diverging opinions on the Renzo Piano project. Some hate the idea of not actually having a gate, calling the entrance “just a breach in the fortifications”; others are passionate about the fact that the theatre will not have a roof, saying that it will be “just like a stadium”. Then we have the faction that are bemoaning the loss of the Square and asking what will happen to Carnival, and the group that hate the idea of a Parliament on stilts. Well, the Maltese are an opinionated lot, and we do like to be heard!
My take on the matter is a little different. I have no problem with mixing modern buildings with old – in fact I greatly prefer an ‘honest’ new building as opposed to a ‘fake’ old one. When I read about the plans, they brought to mind the new Acropolis Museum, a structure of glass, stainless steel and cement that nestles right under the Parthenon. The Greeks had the guts to do it – they mixed old with new to extraordinary effect. Perhaps the time has come for the Maltese to venture outside their comfort zone too.
However that does not mean that I am in favour of the project per se. I am astounded that under the current financial scenario the Government is embarking on an €80 million project, the majority of which will be spent on a Parliament building that can only be defined as a luxury. I think that upgrading the Theatre ruins into a decent structure makes sense, and I also think that we should clean up and sort out both the Bus Terminus area and the Gate itself. However at this point should we spend so much money on a new Parliament?
I agree that it would be nice to have it, and I know that our MPs require the space, but frankly I don’t think that we can afford it!
The European Commission has started excessive deficit procedures against Malta, and has given us until the end of next year to get our finances into shape, in other words we must reduce our deficit to under 3% of GDP. It is obvious that this is not going to be easy.
Speaking on Radio 101 last week, Finance Minister Tonio Fenech made it clear that this year we are to expect a tough budget – “There will be requests for wage increases, pensions and social services. I would like to accommodate all of these but we have to be realistic.”
Now I am cognisant of the multiplier effect, and I am certain that many people reading this article will mutter to themselves that spending €80 million on a construction project will result in the employment of builders and the purchase of construction materials, and that the money will be multiplied throughout the economy. All well and good, they are right.
However I am not comfortable with the fact that the Minister seems to be implying that workers should forgo raises, pensioners should make do with a pittance, and the poor and the weak should somehow make do with a stretched and underfunded social security net.
Social services are already stretched to the limit – for example in last year’s budget there was no mention of social work services for children and families that may be suffering from or at risk of abuse. This problem will not go away this year, however I am assuming that once again the budget will ignore this issue and will not allocate any further funds to address the problem. The wider you stretch the net, the bigger the holes become, and the more people will slip through.
NGOs like YMCA are bearing the brunt of the increase in the number of people who are in desperate need of help. Money is tight, and the situation is bleak – fundraising is becoming harder than ever. Dar Niki Cassar, for example, has its days numbered unless some generous souls step up and help financially (for more info on how you can help YMCA to save its homeless shelter go to www.ymcahomeless.org).
I have said this before, and I will reiterate. By ignoring the situation and not tackling the multitude of social problems on the island – abuse, addiction, discrimination, homelessness, poverty, family breakdown – all we are doing is storing up problems for the future.
Children growing up in poverty and social exclusion are less likely than their better-off peers to do well in school, enjoy good health, and stay out of trouble with the law. This obviously has a major impact on their future prospects, and leads to them getting caught up in a cycle of chronic unemployment and criminality.
This fact was brought home when the Social Policy Minister John Dalli revealed in Parliament that a disproportionate number of unemployed people live in the South, in areas which are socially deprived.
So my question is this – can we afford to ignore the matter?
Tourism in the doldrums People are feeling the pinch and they are travelling less. It is therefore important to fight harder to try and retain, and possibly increase, Malta’s market share of the people who are actually choosing to travel.
Every month we are regaled with tourism-related statistics of doom and gloom from NSO. According to the latest update, in May of this year we had 17.6% less tourists than we did in May 2008. If one considers the first five months of the year, the total decrease over last year stands at 14.3% – to put a financial figure on it, during the January to May 2009 period, the tourism sector lost €39.2 million in sales as compared to last year.
These figures are more important than one might initially think – less tourists, less hotel rooms (i.e. less hotel staff), less meals in restaurants (i.e. less cooking and waiting staff, and less produce purchased), less tours (i.e. less guides employed)... the domino effect goes on and on. The multiplier effect does not only work for capital expenditure projects, it also applies in reverse when less money comes into the country.
It seems to me that desperate times need desperate measures. How many of you have caught a Malta advert in between the hundreds of adverts aired by countries such as Croatia (Croatia... the way the Mediterranean once was), Greece (group of friends filming each other), Cyprus (I love Cyprus with a heart logo), Montenegro (nice scenery), Turkey (twirling dervishes), etc?
This is definitely not the time to economise – we need to make a splash in order to get noticed in the midst of this advertising barrage.
My guess is that, just as in the case of social services, we cannot afford to scrimp and scrape here either, or it just might come and bite us in the behind.