Editorial | Sunday, 03 January 2010

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Strong leadership needed in 2010

2010 is a year of reckoning for most of the Maltese population. Going by the bitterness that the global economic crisis sowed in our economy last year, this year promises a slow and sluggish toil to achieve the stability we took for granted only recently.
But some special concern will have to be reserved for the state of employment in our country. With the latest November statistics from the NSO pointing to an increase of 988 on the dole, bringing jobseekers up to 7,588 for the year-end; not to mention snap redundancies that took place just before the year was out, 2010 is looking bad for a sizeable part of the population.
Job insecurity is now compounded with the hike in energy prices, not to mention price inflation. Fears of a downward spiral will have to be reined in with strong leadership and deft economic management, but is it going to be so simple?
In 2009, we saw a marked decrease in capital investment when this was badly needed. The European Union’s financial package for 2007-2013 for Malta is, in layman’s terms, ‘there for the picking’, but by mid-2009 capital spending was just 40% of the 2008 levels. So why haven’t these euro-millions been spent already and injected into the economy? The problem seems to lie inside the government machinery that has not yet identified the projects in which to spend the millions we are entitled to as members of the EU club. If so, let 2010 be the year in which decisive capital expenditure will take place.
The government has also ended the year with a soaring deficit and debt levels which once again, lead us to the conclusion that the previous claims of financial stability by the finance minister will have to be taken with a pinch of salt. While this decade has seen an ambitious programme of privatisation in which government divested itself of so many national companies, such reckless spending only promises a greater usurpation of public funds.
In the worsening climate of concerns, new realities have cropped up, most prominently the inability of low to middle-income families to make ends meet. House prices, banking charges, medicines and energy prices come to represent insurmountable commitments for so many families. Unless government steps in to show real leadership in such matters, the situation can only get worse for the people who are finding it hard to make ends meet.
What is needed is a re-evaluation of priorities: consumers demand better service for the prices they pay, and government must demand it in their name. Consumers want to know whether government is paying exceedingly high prices for medicines, and why retail prices in Malta are still above the EU average. They want to know by the financial services authority whether they are getting a fair deal on so many banking charges; or why government ignored the million-euro profits generated by banks in Malta, and instead turns to the middle-class as a source of taxation. They want to see real investment take place in renewable and efficient sources of energy, not money poured into unpopular grandiose projects. They want value-for-money: can anyone doubt that the devolution of policing to private warden agencies has only served to generate more money for these firms and local councils from a systematic regime of contraventions? Are businesses that pay eco-taxation confident that this tax reflects the environmental impact of their products, or are they being taken for a ride on yet another consumption tax?
All these concerns blend in with an ideological misdirection of which 2009 regaled us with ample examples: ridiculous charades of censorship by public and university officials, the vicious libel laws that constrain our freedom of expression, the lack of audit on the police force and its tarnished public image, the lack of consultation with the social partners, the perception of corruption that pervades the planning and tendering processes, and the disregard for public officers such as the Ombudsman and MEPA audit officer. Citizens want to partake in the European project that membership of the EU seems to have promised us. Unless politicians do not take courageous steps in redressing this deficit of freedoms, Maltese society and culture will remain mired in a handicapped version of the democratic state.
While governments’ popularity levels are usually at their lowest in mid-legislature years, this should be no excuse for any government to slog through the year aimlessly. 2010 should be all about taking a courageous step forward, starting with the urgent need to create more jobs: this will be the vital sign of a strong economy that attempts to claw its way out of the recessionary slump. It will be the strong hand of leadership that will turn the tide.

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Strong leadership needed in 2010

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