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Wretched observers of budgets

This is going to be some week in Malta’s political and economic history, taking place in the context of a report on living conditions which demands much more seriousness from those two sectors and the paladins who lead them. The report, based on a survey carried out during 2011, shows that unacceptable thousands of Maltese households are living at the edge of relative poverty. Within them thousands cannot afford a square meal two days running.

Still more thousands, 17, were unable to heat their houses properly last year. They must be thanking the Maker wintry conditions are late in coming this year. When they arrive they will be the unfortunates who cannot come in from the cold, not even to spy on those of us who are living comfortably off.

We are talking of over 15 per cent of the population, some 65,000 overall. They are, in the main, the responsibility of a political class that has not done enough for them, that has left them in the lurch even as it rants on about the progress run up in our society.

Listen to the Finance Minister say just that when he delivers the Budget Speech on Wednesday. His main theme will be that, although our neighbours and markets are having another tough year, we are managing to perform near miracles. We are still edging up economic growth. The standard of living is still rising. Unemployment is relatively low, if you do not consider 6,800 quasi-unemployables an insignificant total.

He will not say anything about income and wealth distribution, about inequality. Strangely, our statistics, other than the survey on living standards, do not say anything about income and wealth distribution to allow us to make our analysis. On Wednesday the Finance Minister will not paint a rainbow. But he will be upbeat, presenting quite a rosy picture.

And there are, of course, people who are living well. Who earn far above the median income. Who might be said to be living on the edge of prosperity. They are the apple of the eyes of the political class. They will be singled out for delivery of a promise to make amends for not carrying out another promise, to lower the income tax burden for some.

Before the 2008 election the Nationalists solemnly undertook to slash the band of those who pay the top rate of 35 per cent income tax. They did not deliver because, the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister claim, economic conditions were not right. Now, prophets that they are, they anti­cipate the time will be right in about two years. Reality is that this will be another piece of electioneering with the general election round the corner, no matter how much the Prime Minister prevaricates in calling it.

It will be interesting how much more electioneering will be contained in the Budget Speech, a last sweep to make up for what has not been done while praising what has been accomplished.

There will also be a purely political aspect to it. The Finance Minister, without saying it, will be demonstrating what a seasoned stalwart performer he is. With 10 years of budget building and administering, he will be mouthing, he runs his deputy leadership contestant into the ground.

Minister Tonio Fenech will of course be right. He is a thoroughly experienced minister, a thoroughbred, in glaring contrast to the total administrative void of MEP Simon Busuttil, the other contestant. Even without the slimy loud whispers going on, Fenech should still win by a length or two, though you never know.

The significance of that will be lost on those living at the edge of poverty. The only race they are interested in is one that takes them away from the poverty margin towards where they can live a decent life with access to the basics of modern living. That is what history will be judging, though unfortunately too late to do anything for those who for the time being remain the wretched of this little corner of Earth.

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