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Roamer's column

Happier new year

I told an off-white lie last Sunday. The real reason I made no reference to the Budget speech was that I was away from the island when it was delivered. As I waded through unread newspapers, the photographs in the front and back pages of The Times, the day following the finance minister's speech, told it all.

Was ever Gonzi so elated? Was ever Sant, never mind Mangion, Falzon and the miserable entourage in the background, so deflated? Add the former's boiled spaghetti-limp remark about Viagra, his gauche remarks about unions, associations, federations, chambers, editors, Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and everyone else who gave the Budget a thumbs-up - all were bribed or paid by Government to up their thumbs - and the pathetic reaction was there for all to witness. The temptation not to read on was great, but what the hell, the need to read on is partly what I am paid for.

The only flawless budgets in history were drawn up by Communist regimes. The top man would read the thing out and the ruling Congress, the only congress, leapt to its feet every time there was yet another record of steel production. The announcement of a fourfold increase in grain collection used to bring the house down even though the reality on the ground was that millions were dying of famine (in Ukraine in the Thirties, for example).

No honest budget in history is flawless. It cannot be. There are too many individual interests involved: where you think child care, I think pensions. There are too many taxpayers to please, too many political adversaries to convince and these remain unconvinced even if the budget you drew up were guided by the Holy Spirit.

So, no, Dr Gonzi did not conjure up a spotless document (pensioners, for example - I declare a vested interest here - would have loved to receive the same cost of living increase as did their more youthful neighbours). But to read what his critics had to say it was clearly a winner, not least because the finance minister reckons, on good evidence, that we have turned the corner, that pain is turning in the direction of gain and his critics loathe all this because the performance during 2006 and the estimates for 2007 are bad news for them.

The deficit is below 3% of GDP and will be brought down to 1.9% by 2009. Employment figures are up, income tax down. Contrary to parrot-like incantations that foreign investment was low, the blessed thing was high - Lm312 million in the first six months of this year (ten times the investment attracted by Dr Sant's government in 1997!) and, for those who like comparative figures, Lm200 million more than last year (January to June) and Lm127 more than the whole of last year. In the first eight months of 2006 imports rose to a midget below Lm1 billion which suggests that somebody must be buying capital and consumer goods for some good reason or another. During the same period exports nudged Lm600 million, which suggests somebody must be producing some blessed goods.

And on information technology the finance minister bravely predicted "our country (will be) among the most technologically sophisticated in the world". The public debt-GDP ratio is down to 66.8%. Small and medium enterprises are being given a fillip. Investment in health, roads and education will continue to rise; and apart from 40,000 registered companies the island boasts 18 banking institutions, eight insurance management companies and more than 150 investment funds. And the high placing we have so far reached within the EU, or according to UNCTAD, or Eurostat, or the World Economic Forum testifies to the country's ability to compete globally. But about this another time.

What was clear last Friday was Dr Gonzi's mastery of his two briefs, finance and premiership, his confidence in Malta, his sincere ambition to turn it into a centre of excellence and his optimism that, all things being equal, which they rarely are, Malta may even have a surplus in its accounts. When did we last hear that word? I don't think ever.

Reactions to a happier new year

Among remarks made by critics, the fact that Lm12 million will find its way back into people's pockets, instead of Lm8 million, was seen as a "last-minute conjuring trick". Well, all I can say is that there are good conjuring tricks and bad ones. Thank God for last minutes.

The leader of Alternattiva Demokratika thinks the merit in any improvement "is of those who voted for EU accession binding the government hand and foot to this programme". This is fourth-form stuff. He appears to have forgotten that those who voted for EU accession did so because the government happened, just happened you understand, to apply for accession, prepare the country soundly for accession, to seek and fight bitter elections for a mandate to apply, received it and led the country into the uplands of the EU.

Unlike Dr Vassallo, most people think some merit for this should go to government. To adopt an attitude that does not recognise this reality is a mite self-regarding. And what socialist demon lurked behind his regret that a higher tax was not slapped on banks? If banks this year, it can be any enterprise that runs a walloping big profit next year.

Better by far had Dr Gonzi raised the ludicrously low threshold (Lm10,000) at which taxpayers start to pay back 35% of their income in tax and, seriously, had the threshold at which pensioners start to pay tax been raised to Lm6,000 letting off those who receive no other income apart from their pensions.

Professor Edward Scicluna accepted that the economic situation of the country was not bad and was quoted as saying, in what I thought was a rather slipshod manner for an economist, that unemployment "has not really increased" (what on earth does that mean?). On the negative side, however, he thought the Budget created what was known as "economic fiscal slippage". Which means what, quite? Economists can be funny guys sometimes.

The reaction of another one, Lino Spiteri, thought Dr Gonzi was "long on rhetoric and narration and short on substance and new proposals, without a strong economic focus". And later: "Was it an election budget? Not necessarily. But neither does it exclude an election in under a year's time"? There you are, then.

One factor stood out. Constituted bodies, institutions, unions generally thought the Budget was "good" and each was pleased to see that some of its pre-Budget proposals had found their way into Dr Gonzi's speech. That was "good", too; it demonstrated a willingness on the part of the government to listen and take on board some of the things it had heard. I believe this is called positive dialogue.

A teeny weeny question to Dahrendorf

Much enjoyed reading Professor Ralf Dahrendorf's contribution in The Times (of Malta) last Thursday, but I would query at least one of his conclusions. He fears that "a new wave of counter-enlightenment is sweeping the world, with the most restrictive views dominating the scene" (true)...

"Defending the right of all people to say things even if one detests their views is one of the first principles of liberty". Agreed; but without for a moment condoning violent reactions to the exercise of free speech, how enlightened is it to offend capriciously? Is the right to be offensive part of a truly enlightened culture? Express it as a right, if you wish, but to offer it under the umbrella of enlightenment is to cheapen the latter.

Let us pray

God knows I have criticised Lino Spiteri when he was part of the political circus. I take nothing of that criticism back when I say that he was surely correct in his piece, "Unchristian follies," published in The Times last Monday. He was referring to the reaction of the international and local media to the news that no longer Congressman Mark Foley, who had a penchant for transmitting sexually suggestive messages to 16-year-old pages, had squealed when he was caught out. He admitted to being gay, an alcoholic and that in his youth had had some form of sexual experience with a priest.

So far so bad. The mention of a priest took the heat off Foley. The priest, who has been suspended from all priestly duties, now took the heat as the international and local media started to salivate. A new accusation, denied by the priest, has been made by another person in Miami. The accuser, who has presumably not been contemplating his navel for the past 40-odd years, has sued for $10 million, thank you. They say that people who allegedly go through this experience prefer to keep quiet about it. This is understandable. It appears, however, that $10 million are ten million reasons why inhibitions could happily be shed. How that salves the alleged victim's conscience or lifts the trauma he or she could be under, I cannot fathom.

But how about our priest, now aged 72? I should imagine he is sufficiently shrived and living in hope that his final judge, who we believe died for him as much as for Mr Foley and us will, as only He can, embrace him when the time comes. That, for the priest, is the moment for which is preparing; as indeed it is for Mr Foley. What happens in between is between each one and God and, if the law takes any course, between each and their human judges.

It is good that we are shocked by these stories. It demonstrates a laudable sense of awe and respect for an institution we still hold high and a feeling of hurt when we feel let down. (Some may, of course, be delighted; another weapon with which to hurt the Church).

It is a sign of the times that another sacrament, the sacrament of marriage, no longer shocks us when it is broken by adultery or boredom. And yet both have vowed, the man and the woman, to love one another, the priest to serve God alone. Perhaps we should think about all this, about how much harder married people must thrive to make their marriage work; how often we have broken our baptismal vows, how frequently we have not lived up to our confirmation; how repeatedly we have missed out on the sacrament of the Eucharist. Then we can compare ourselves with this priest and ask whether he, fallen and risen, has not in the end been more successful with his vow to God than us?

None of this, I need hardly add, condones or diminishes for an instant the evil that was committed. But let us leave salivation to the media, which in this enlightened world is drawn as if by a magnet to salaciousness and the prurient. We are witnessing this fascination with both and we will witness more. What we should try to do is give the media a miss whenever we see through it, be it in the form of a newspaper contribution that is more interested in keeping the story in the limelight, or a television programme, which in the name of truth subverts charity while appealing for charity.

Let us banish mediocrity

Noted that Roads Minister Jesmond Mugliett apologised for wrongdoings, for causing irritation to drivers for road management at Luqa airport; also that a contractor was fined Lm4,000 for not fulfilling his obligations. Should that sort of fine not be increased by many times if contractors are to learn their lesson?

Mr Mugliett may have started a hornets' nest. Now everybody will be expecting ministers to apologise for this or that. Starting with the man in resources and infrastructure and the Sliema Promenade embellishment project. Contrary to what some people thought, site management was good and, summer or no summer, the work should not have been postponed to the winter months. But now much of everything seems to be going haywire.

I do not mean the sea wall and railings, which are nearly complete, but the trees and the flower strips being laid down. Here a sort of chaos reigns. Site management has become a casualty with debris all over the place and, God help us, the trees that have adopted a wild, drunken posture for some time now, are not having anything done to treat what looks like a near lethal hangover. They risk falling flat on their leafy faces. Since they stand no earthly chance of recovering from their alcoholic stupor, the most aesthetic response is to replace them. Let the tree-huggers wail. Ninu Zammit need not apologise but he should certainly get the men at the ministry to sort themselves, and the trees, out.

Let me end this piece with a call to the Sliema and St Julian's councils to step down (unless the maintenance of the promenade is the responsibility of some ministry; hopefully not Mr Zammit's, or he will have to apologise, after all). Has a single councillor ever walked along what was called the Sliema front all the way to St Julian's? I hope not. Had one done so, she or he would have seen what are supposed to be illuminations placed with such care some years ago, either not functioning, or tucked under the foliage they are supposed to light up.

Same councillor would also have noticed, and the warning was given two, three years ago in this column, that many of the trees have been stressed out of their perpendicular by winter winds. It is a matter of time, the next windstorm, before some of them end roots up. And a number of olive trees that died the death have still not been replaced. It is absurd that so public an area should be allowed to degenerate; absurd and wicked given the money that went into transforming the promenade in the first place. We have still not understood, after all these years, that capital investment in making Malta beautiful requires the constant maintenance and care of that investment. This incomprehension encourages mediocrity.

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