The budget: beyond the €s

Liza Minelli’s song “Money makes the world go round” is the underlying theme of the Budget speech delivered by Finance Minister in Parliament last Monday. The message driven home was that money and the accompanying affluence clearly indicate that we have never had it so good and that handouts to all are not a problem, both to those who need them, and, more importantly to those who don’t.

Today, taxation is a dirty word in our political lexicon: hence, it was suggested that the message that no increases in existent taxes or new taxes have been proposed is a positive one by the Honourable Minister. Handouts are for all, almost. First for those in need, secondly for most of the rest. The dictum “from each according to his means, to each according to his needs” no longer has any significance when trying to understand the political philosophy underlying the budget of this “labour” government.

Taxation collected in Malta apparently only has some significance when taxing foreign companies operating outside Maltese territory but having some small office, or just a letterbox, on this rock. This is done so that they can avail themselves of reduced taxation rates, substantially lower that those payable in the countries where they operate.

Similarly, companies operating in the financial services sector benefit from a tax package which offers them substantial savings on their tax bills in order to entice them to set up shop.

The government thinks it is smart, but all it is doing is encouraging tax avoidance. Malta’s message is clear: those who want to avoid tax in their country are welcome as long as they are prepared to pay a small part of the taxes avoided to the Maltese exchequer.

In this respect, the case study entitled “Toxic Tax Deals. When BASF’s Tax Structure is more about style than substance” published by the Green Group in the European Parliament around two years ago is indicative. In that study, it was concluded that BASF, the German chemical giant with its headquarters in Ludwigshafen, used mismatches in national tax systems in order to avoid paying its taxes. It is estimated that, over a five-year period spanning 2010 to 2014, BASF avoided the payment of close to one billion euros in taxes, paying instead a small amount of the taxes avoided, in gratitude for this wonderful opportunity made possible by the Maltese governments, blue and red.

In this context the Finance Minister’s declaration against tax evasion, tax avoidance and money laundering is deemed mere rhetoric. It has to be viewed in the context of the Panama Papers saga, as well as the established fact that a Cabinet Minister and the Chief of Staff in the Office of the Prime Minister set up companies in Panama, a tax haven, and no punitive action was taken against them. With this background, the Minister’s sanctimonious declaration is in no way credible.

The Budget proposals strengthen the social safety net as it assists the vulnerable financially. However, the quality of life is not measured solely by financial metrics. The Budget has various green gaps that affect our quality of life.

The welfare of cars assumes an importance over human quality of life, as government considers it is important to widen and improve roads in order to facilitate the passage of cars, thereby aiming at reducing congestion. An inverted sense of logic: reduction of the number of cars on our roads should have been the target as that is the real and actual problem. Widening roads and improving road infrastructure with flyovers and underpasses only serves to grow the number of cars on our roads, thereby increasing the problem. Providing and facilitating alternative transport is the only solution. Paying lip service to alternative means of transport but simultaneously financing an exponential
increase of the problem signifies that we still have to learn the ABC of transport policy.

The government’s own transport master-plan places considerable emphasis on the need to reduce cars from our roads but it seems that the government is not interested.

Therefore, we have a government which is more interested in the welfare of cars than in our quality of life.

This is just one example. There are countless of others.

The Budget loses an opportunity to make a lasting difference in a number of areas important for our quality of life that goes beyond finances.

published (online) at Malta Independent

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