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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Il-baġit : lil hinn mill-€s

Id-diska ta’ Liza Minelli “Money makes the world go round” donnha li hi t-tema li madwarha hu minsuġ id-diskors tal-Baġit li nqara mill-Ministru tal-Finanzi nhar it-Tnejn fil-Parlament. Il-messaġġ ċar li wasal fi djarna kien li l-flus u l-“ġid” li hawn jagħmlu possibli li tirċievi ċekk id-dar, kemm jekk għandek bżonnu kif ukoll jekk m’għandekx.

F’dawn iż-żmienijiet il-kelma taxxa donna saret kelma moqżieża fid-dizzjunarju politiku: għalhekk ġie suġġerit li n-nuqqas ta’ taxxi ġodda, inkella ta’ żieda fit-taxxi eżistenti kien element pożittiv fid-diskors tal-Onorevoli Ministru. Ċekkijiet għal kważi kulħadd. L-ewwel għal dawk li għandhom il-ħtieġa u mbagħad għall-parti l-kbira tal-bqija. Dak li kien jingħad li “jittieħed mingħand kull wieħed skont ma jiflaħ, u jingħata lil kulħadd skont il-ħtiġijiet tiegħu” donnu li ma għandu l-ebda piz illum meta nippruvaw nifhmu l-filosofija politika li fuqha hu mfassal dan il-baġit ta’ Gvern “Laburista”.

It-taxxa li tinġabar f’Malta donnha li hi utli biss meta tinġabar mingħand kumpaniji barranin li fil-waqt li joperaw barra mit-teritorju Malti jkollhom uffiċċju żgħir jew sempliċi letterbox f’Malta. Dan biex ikunu jistgħu jibbenefikaw minn rati ta’ taxxa sostanzjalment iktar baxxi minn dawk li jkunu soġġetti għalihom fil-pajjiżi fejn joperaw.

Diversi kumpaniji fis-settur tas-servizzi finanzjarji ukoll jibbenefikaw minn rati ta’ taxxa li bihom jiffrankaw sostanzjalment minn dak li jħallsu band’oħra.

Il-Gvern mingħalih li għamel opra. Fir-realtá qed jibgħat messaġġ li Malta tilqa’ li min irid jevadi t-taxxa f’pajjiżu, kemm-il darba jkun lest li jħalli xi ħaġa minn dak li jiffranka fil-kaxxa ta’ Malta!

F’dan il-kuntest l-istudju intitolat Toxic Tax Deals. When BASF’s Tax Structure is more about style than substance. ippubblikat mill-Grupp tal-Ħodor fil-Parlament Ewropew madwar sentejn ilu jispjega b’mod ċar x’inhu jiġri. F’dan l-istudju ġie konkluż li l-BASF, ġgant Ġermaniz fil-qasam tal-industrija kimika ibbazat f’Ludwigshafen, jagħmel użu minn differenzi fis-sitemi nazzjonali tat-taxxa biex jevita milli jħallas it-taxxi dovuti. Huwa stmat li, tul il-ħames snin bejn l-2010 u l-2014, BASF evitaw madwar biljun euro fi ħlas ta’ taxxi. Minflok ħallsu ammonti ferm inqas, b’ħajr lill-gvernijiet Maltin (blu u ħomor) talli għinhom jevitaw dawn it-taxxi kollha.

F’dan il-kuntest id-dikjarazzjoni tal-Ministru tal-Finanzi kontra l-evażjoni tat-taxxa u l-ħasil tal-flus jidhru dak li fil-fatt huma: eżerċizzju ta’ retorika. Inżommu f’moħħna ukoll il-kaz tal-Panama Papers, li kien stabilixxa l-fatt li membru tal-Kabinett u ċ-Chief of Staff fl-uffiċċju tal-Prim Ministru kellhom kumpaniji fil-Panama, pajjiż rinomat għall-evażjoni tat-taxxa, u dwar dan ma kienu ittieħdu l-ebda passi kontra tagħhom. Fid-dawl ta’ dan, id-dikjarazzjoni ta’ “qdusija” da parti tal-Onorevoli Ministru hi nieqsa minn kull kredibilitá.

Il-proposti tal-Baġit isaħħu ix-xibka soċjali u dan billi jgħinu finanzjarjament lill-vulnerabbli. Imma l-kwalitá tal-ħajja ma titkejjilx biss f’termini ta’ flus. Fil-Baġit hemm bosta miżuri ambjentali nofs leħja.

Il-ħarsien tal-karozzi huwa iktar importanti mill-kwalitá tal-ħajja għalina. Il-Gvern jikkunsidra li hu iktar importanti li jwessa’ t-toroq biex jiffaċilita ċ-ċaqlieq tal-karozzi u b’hekk jipprova jnaqqas il-konġestjoni. Loġika rasha l-isfel. Il-mira kellha tkun it-tnaqqis tal-karozzi mit-toroq tagħna għax dik hi l-problema. It-twessiegħ tat-toroq u t-titjib tal-infrastruttura bil-kostruzzjoni ta’ flyovers lil hawn u lil hemm iwassal biss għaż-żieda ta’ karozzi fit-toroq tagħna u b’hekk tikber il-problema tal-konġestjoni. L-unika soluzzjoni hi li jkun inkoraġġit bis-serjetá t-trasport alternattiv. Il-Gvern qiegħed fl-istess nifs jinkoraġixxi kemm lit-trasport alternattiv kif ukoll iż-żieda fenomenali ta’ karozzi: dan ifisser li għadu ma tgħallem xejn. Wara kollox huwa l-pjan nazzjonali tat-trasport imfassal minn dan il-Gvern stess li jpoġġi quddiemna l-mira tat-tnaqqis tal-karozzi mit-toroq tagħna. Imma jidher li l-Gvern qed iwarrab il-pjani tiegħu stess.

L-Gvern hu iktar interessat mill-ħarsien tal-karozzi milli mill-ħarsien tal-kwalitá tal-ħajja tagħna lkoll.

Dan hu biss eżempu wieħed. Hemm bosta oħrajn.

Il-Baġit qed jitlef l-oportunitá li jagħmel differenza f’numru ta’ oqsma fejn li troxx il-flus mhux biżżejjed.

 

Ippubblikat fuq Illum: Il-Ħadd 28 t’Ottubru 2018

Green gaps in the Budget

The green gaps in the Budget speech cannot be patched up with the millions of euros spread in the pockets of both those in need as well as those who are well off.

Edward Scicluna’s Budget speech last Monday was far too long. Yet in its over 100 pages it missed addressing a number of environmental issues on which different government spokespersons pontificate throughout the rest of the year: confirming that they just pay lip-service to the issues.

The lack of good environmental governance has considerable economic and social impact as is evident to one and all.

While the Budget proposals strengthen the social safety net, it is to be underlined that quality of life is not measured solely in terms of financial metrics. Throwing euros at problems does not lead to any solutions.

The budget speech correctly emphasises the necessity of waste recycling. Unfortunately, the Minister for Finance did not explain how this effort should be integrated into a circular economy, even though the Environment Minister repeatedly boasts of how supposedly the move towards a circular economy is a priority for government. In the entire speech, the circular economy is not mentioned once. Nor does the Economic Survey dwell on the matter or even faintly refer to the matter.

This raises the suspicion that government has lost the plot and does not have any policy ideas on such an important aspect of the economy with its social, economic and environmental effects.

The Budget speech emphasises the energy generation potential from waste incineration which requires large volumes of waste in order to be viable. But the budget speech is silent on how this fits in with the stated commitment to actually reduce the volume of waste.

The government is trying to square the circle; on the one hand it wants to reduce waste but on the other hand it needs more and more waste to make its huge incinerator viable.
The Budget speech also gives the impression that it addresses important aspects which impact the quality of life when in fact offers only half-baked and token solutions.

Among them is the point on water policy. The speech mentions incentives to encourage repairs of existing wells but then it avoids altogether a real and focused effort to address the acute issue of dwellings built without water cisterns, with the consequence that water ends up in the public sewers or flooding our streets.

Developers are let of the hook even when roads are flooded and sewers are overflowing, not to mention the sheer waste of perfectly good water.

The same can be said of the supposed solutions to traffic congestion. The Budget speech refers to the financial incentives available to encourage the use of alternative modes of transport, but here again it ignores the roots of the problem. The government spending of millions of euros for the development of the road infrastructure will only increase traffic congestion, thereby squeezing users of alternative means of transport off the roads.

It is useless to incentivize the purchase of bicycles and pedelecs when there is no investment in adequate infrastructure to ensure that people can commute safely using these important alternative means of transport, which actually help to decrease congestion in our roads.

Over one year ago the Prime Minister had taken a leaf from Alternattiva Demokratika’s electoral manifesto and declared that the government will determine a cut-off date by which new cars will need to be electrically driven or possibly of a hybrid nature.

This declaration had heralded the issue of electrification of transport on our roads addressing two major issues: the quality of air and the contribution of transport emissions to climate change. This, once implemented, would be a substantial contribution to the decarbonisation of the Maltese economy. We are none the wiser on government plans after listening to or reading the budget speech.

Clearly financial parameters are not the only indicators of our quality of life. The green gaps in the budget speech need plugging at the soonest.

published in The Sunday Times of Malta : Sunday 28 October 2018