Opinion | Sunday, 21 March 2010

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Mediocrity, or are we just being plain Maltese?

The other day, a group of residents who strangely stood in as Nationalist candidates for the administrative council of their exclusive location, lamented over the need to have a percentage of their local council budget dedicated to their locality. Only fair, that they should have funds and money to look after their run-down surroundings.
But what is rather surprising is that these individuals, who hail from the business world (and I would imagine, appreciate the accounting that governs a profit and loss sheet) have failed to appreciate that somehow the government revenues and expenditure simply do not tally.
I am not advocating more taxes. But what is surprising is that most people do not realise that the contributions they pay to government do not cover the education, health and pension bill, let alone the upkeep of our local councils.
Worse still, we have a government (and we will have governments, no doubt in my mind) who are very good at preaching what needs to be done, but incapable of administering our money. It’s the afterthought syndrome: first we say something, and then we think of how to finance it.
The Prime Minister’s insistence to have Renzo Piano redraw City Gate is a case in point. Like Napoleon III, who had a dream for Paris and was only interested in his megalomaniac dreams for the capital city, Gonzi has a dream to be remembered for generations to come. Good for him it will only cost over €80 million – at least! I just do not want to be the one to sponsor his extravagant spending spree at the very moment.
Back to the exclusive property location. It would be interesting to see how much in terms of taxes each and every resident of this location contribute to the government per capita. I am sure many would be surprised that the smaller fish in middle class suburbia contribute much more than the big fish.
In the EU countries not inspired by communism but structured by the free market, the contributions to government which go towards the upkeep of towns and villages are directly linked to the size of the property and the type of property. So if you happen to have a flat in Paris of 35m2 (yep… that small) or 300m2, you pay according to the surface area of your home. Ask Sarkozy. He lives in an exclusive area in Paris and pays accordingly.
That same principle exists in Germany, Spain, England, Italy and the rest of Europe.
But here in Malta, that principle only exists in our dreams. The same resident in this location who may own a property of 2,000m2 pays as much as a middle class suburbia resident who lives inside an 85m2 pigeonhole.
One might suggest that the proud owner of the mega-property already pays more tax for their extravagant lifestyle than anyone else. But the tax they pay in no way gets channelled to the local council. It goes to pay for the structural deficit and accounting disasters, and the health budget.
And I am not too sure about that, either. Even if that was the case, in Europe people are taxed by the council, the province and the state and they do so willingly. Next time you visit France and are impressed by its idyllic surroundings, remember that someone with a home of at least 150m2 is paying at least €1,200 annually to the council, province and the State. They call it taxe fonciere and taxe d’habitation.
So while Exclusive property location’s residents are obviously completely correct in lamenting the state of their environs, what they have not yet realised is that the general upkeep of the whole country is in dire need of attention. The only time we get any attention to our surroundings is when we experience the sudden arrival of a dignitary, such as is the case with the Pope.
So the answer obviously does not lie in more taxes, but, rather, in prioritising on government spending. We simply cannot appreciate that government has no respect for its own budgets. It dishes out money without seeing the consequences of its actions and it sells its assets without looking at the long term, and we have a privatisation drive that smells of patronage and short-term goals.
Then we have the long history of a bloated civil service, the long years of mismanagement at Enemalta, the tender to private concerns without the apparent benefits, the extravagance of purchasing properties abroad such Dar Malta in Brussels, the zeroing of millions at the docks, the early retirement schemes at so many parastatal companies and the selling of government companies and land for a pittance.
In this scenario one asks what we could we have achieved had we administered our money better. God only knows! Day after day, week after week, month after month we hear of political patronage that has led to the misuse of public funds, of consultancies to the same blue-eyed boys eating from the same small cake of public funds.
If residents have the resolve to tackle the issue of their surroundings, they have to look at the bigger picture. We are as big as a medium-sized European town parading as a megalomaniac state with the pretence of sovereignty.
Residents should be proud of their surroundings and of their privilege to be in one of Malta’s most sought-after localities, but individuals living in Chelsea or Boulevard Saint-Germain pay so much more for being exactly there and do not expect the less privileged residents of London or Paris to pay for them.
This principle is strangely applied elsewhere in Malta. Individuals who have big boats in Malta can choose between having their boat berthed at Portomaso, Manoel Island, Birgu or the Msida pontoons. They pay different berthing fees according to the location and according to the size of their boat.
When it comes to property, this principle does not apply. It is simply not accepted or even entertained. One may think that I am encouraging some ‘socialist’ principle. Far from it, I am simply stating that we should start realising that privilege comes with a price. Just like people who have Premier accounts and those that have student accounts. Or those who opt for a private lido in the summer, away from the masses and overcrowded beaches. High-quality localities must expect to have the same principle applied… just like those who know what to pay for the exquisiteness of Chateau Angelus, or San Paolo’s plonk.
As John C. Grech, another man who benefited from government patronage once stated, “there is no such thing as a free meal”. That’s a reality the middle classes have long appreciated. But apparently, a principle that has not sunk in with those who expect the government to administer our finances in a diametrically opposite manner to the way they run their own private businesses.

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