If you are a rare bird and believe what both sides of the political class say, you have to conclude that we are led by a bunch of amateurs in economic matters. That is the import of the slanging match going on between the government and the Opposition over the state and management of the economy.
Both sides call each other amateurs, the latest bout of name-calling taking place on Sunday and reported in The Times on August 13. The subject was the number of jobs created over the four years to 2011. Joseph Muscat, the leader of the Opposition, called the Finance Minister an amateur when it came to finance and economics, roping in the Prime Minister into his appellation.
The government retaliated in its usual statement in response to what the Opposition leader says on Sunday by calling him an amateur in economics. This name-calling began quite a while ago. I don’t recall who started it but, definitely, both sides shout out the insults with gusto. As it happens, both sides display idiotic amateur politics when they act this way. Starting with the Finance Minister Tonio Fenech, who is a qualified accountant. He had spent several years in accounts and auditing with a leading firm.
He left too soon to call himself a mature auditor, but his qualification and experience mean something, especially in a Parliament which is not exactly teeming with financial knowledge.
On top of his qualifications and private sector experience, he now has years of Finance Ministry experience under his belt. On his part, the leader of the Opposition is the only qualified economist in the House other than Alfred Sant, unless I am mistaken. He earned himself a doctorate from the UK, which to his credit he completed when he was already a Member of the European Parliament.
A Ph.D is not exactly the equivalent of fish and chips wrapping paper. To call someone who has a doctorate an amateur is to insult not him, but the university which is his alma mater. On top of that, aside from some experience in the Maltese private sector, Joseph Muscat was not sitting on his hands as an MEP. The experience in high finance he gained there is part of his make-up. Add to that four years in our Parliament scrutinising the government budget and myriad economic reports and something must have stuck. No amateur he, either.
I do not know why our Parliamentarians insist on falling together into cows’ manure, instead of respecting each other for what they are. Things are getting worse. In my time in Parliament, Alfred Sant and I, who share a bit of knowledge about economics and finance, faced John Dalli and Joseph Bonnici, one an experienced private sector accountant and an enduring Finance Minister, the other a lecturer and Professor of Economics. We disagreed on a thousand things but we never dreamt of calling each other amateurs. We respected each other and would extremely rarely stoop to light insults.
The cause of the latest round of amateur-calling is the government’s claim that it created 20,000 jobs between 2008 and 2011. Joseph Muscat ferreted the pre-2013 Budget document and found a table containing rather old information. It showed that the gainfully occupied had increased by fewer than 5,000 in the period. The Opposition leader, reported The Times, attacked the “amateur” Finance Minister and Prime Minister who, he claimed, were contradicting each other. The Prime Minister curtly dismissed the allegation as “lies” not even deigning to use good manners and say it was incorrect.
The Finance Minister, in turn, rebutted the allegation, saying that Dr Muscat was confusing the creation of jobs with people in employment, insisting that 20,000 jobs had been created in four years.
It is a fact that the gainfully occupied total is a stock net figure taken at a moment in time. Fuller analysis of employment figures shows thousands of employees leaving their current employment for one reason or another, and thousands more – partly the same employees – taking up new employment elsewhere. It also shows new jobs notified by employers and changes in the number of those registering for employment. The net figure at a chosen moment in time, which ignores unemployed people who may have given up hope of finding a job and are no longer included in the labour force, is the gainfully occupied population.
So, who’s right? Both sides have an argument if they apply stock and flow analysis. On its part, the government cannot just say it created 20,000 jobs. For one thing, governments do not create jobs other than with themselves. They try to create conditions conducive to investment and new employment. For another, the details given by the government in reply to a parliamentary question were too tenuous to prove its 20,000 new jobs assertion. A fresh presentation to the public is required.
The public does include a lot of amateurs, but also people who, even if not qualified, can do their sums. Give them a try.
Aside from all that the basic fact is that almost 7,000 people remain on the unemployment register, most of them without the skills required by our evolving economy. That is what should be addressed, both policy-wise as well as in serious political debate.