The Opposition Leader "wasted" his time talking about last year's Budget, ignoring the barrage of stimulus measures announced last week, Finance Minister Tonio Fenech said in an instant reaction to the Labour leader's speech last night.

The Finance Minister said he was surprised at Joseph Muscat's official reaction, because it ignored the proposals made by the government to address the current challenges and also because it sidestepped the international crisis.

He was reacting to Dr Muscat's two-hour speech in Parliament on the Budget for 2010 presented by Mr Fenech last Monday.

The Opposition Leader accused the Prime Minister of playing up or down the international crisis according to his needs.

He said Lawrence Gonzi has been on record saying that the crisis did not affect Malta as badly but changed this version in the run-up to the Budget, where the country's bad financial position was pinned on the global recession.

To prove his point, Dr Muscat quoted from a parliamentary question in which Mr Fenech said the government had only spent €8 million to save jobs in the manufacturing industry.

But Mr Fenech last night rejected this criticism, pointing out that the PQ in question was specific to that sector alone.

The government took a significant cut in its tax revenues from VAT and excise as a result of the economic slowdown, Mr Fenech pointed out, adding that there was also a list of unplanned investments in documents presented with the Budget.

Mr Fenech also defended himself against Dr Muscat's attack on the government's proposal to raise water and electricity rates. The Opposition Leader had pointed to the different figures being mentioned by the Finance Minister and the Investments Minister for the overall rise in electricity bills.

The actual cost to the consumer has not been revealed pending a review by the energy regulator. However, Dr Gatt had said consumers would be faced with an overall rise of about €85 million while Mr Fenech suggested on Sunday that the bills would only rise by €14 million - mitigated by a one-time compensatory benefit of €10 million.

Mr Fenech said there was no contradiction here because the €85 million cited by Dr Gatt referred to all consumers including significant government entities such as the Mater Dei Hospital, which alone guzzled as much electricity as the whole of Gozo.

He gave an assurance that families who do not consume more than 10,000 units of water and electricity per year fell in the category whose bills collectively would only rise by €4 million.

He could not give a precise figure of how many families they amounted to, however, because he did not have statistics in hand.

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