Time to realign actions with words

On Budget Day next week, the government ought to explain the extent to which its actions are consistent with its political programme read during Parliament’s inauguration by the President in 2008.

It would be pertinent to remember that the President had then stated: “The government’s plans and actions are to be underpinned by the notion of sustainable development of the economy, of society and of the environment. When making decisions today, serious consideration will be given to the generations of tomorrow.” Sustainable development, the President had informed Parliament, was a main goal of this government.

Well, since then, and for a number of months before that too, the National Commission for Sustainable Development has not met. It has been dormant for three years. Not a good sign for a government that considers it should direct itself onto the sustainability path. In addition, targets and objectives of the National Sustainable Development Strategy have been ignored.

Alternattiva Demokratika considers that next week’s Budget could be the opportunity for the government to realign its actions with its declarations.

Cabinet approved a national strategy for sustainable development towards the end of 2007 after extensive consultations with civil society carried out by the NCSD. This strategy laid down a number of specific actions for government ministries to follow. These have been honoured in the breach.

The selected method for implementation of the strategy is through action plans drawn up by ministries. Within 18 months from the strategy’s adoption, that is by mid-2009, ministries were required to prepare their action plans to implement the strategy. They are already 12 months late.

This has occurred because, at least to date, the government has considered the NCSD as a formality.

The mere fact that the Prime Minister, who ex-ufficio is chairman of the NCSD, hardly ever attended commission meetings since 2004 is, in itself, the clearest indication of the mismatch between declarations and actions, the end result being the prevailing state of affairs.

The NSDS identified 20 priority areas: environment (eight areas), economy (three areas), society (four areas), cross-cutting issues (three areas) and implementation (two areas).

Priority area 19, for example, established that, by 2008, that is 24 months ago, a permanent structure properly staffed and funded had to be in place to monitor and review the strategy’s implementation. A role for major stakeholders was also envisaged in order to “critically evaluate progress relating to the strategy”.

Priority area 17 identified the year 2008 as the target for the drawing up of a strategy “to enhance the use of economic instruments such as charges, taxes, subsidies, deposit refund schemes and trading schemes” in order to apply the polluter-pays principle and to promote sustainable development in Malta. Instead of drawing up this strategy, the government drew up a national environment policy issues paper and queried whether and to what extent the public considers it advisable “to move towards a taxation system that penalises pollution rather than jobs”.

To add further to the indecision, the pre-Budget document published in July declared the government was considering introducing a carbon tax. It further advocates a tax shifting mechanism whereby the taxes collected through this carbon tax are offset by the reduction of taxes that “penalise jobs”. Has a study analysing the impacts of this proposal been carried out? While reducing carbon emissions would be positive, what analysis has been made of the economic and the social impacts of such a measure?

On behalf of AD I have sought an answer to this question. In terms of the Freedom of Access to Information on the Environment Regulations 2005 I requested the release of studies commissioned by the Ministry of Finance.

The reply I received last Monday is another proof of the amateurism prevalent at policy formation level. The reply drew my attention to a number of academic journals dealing with tax shifting. I was further informed that the issue (of tax shifting) is being discussed in the Green Economy Working Group, which is expected to present its initial findings to the government by the end of 2010. These findings, it was stated, will be subject to public consultation in early 2011.

While consultation is always to be viewed positively, my point is that the announcement in the pre-Budget document that carbon taxation and tax shifting are being considered was premature in view of the fact that no studies have been concluded to date. Not even preliminary ones.

It seems the government has not yet learned its lessons from the introduction of eco contribution.

Serious policy formation and announcements have to be accompanied by studies detailing impacts of the proposals. Premature policy declarations serve no purpose except to mislead.

Ending all this by realigning actions with words would be a good first step. Our future depends on it.

Published in The Times, October 23, 2010

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Environment Policy and the Budget

The National Environment Policy Issues Paper, launched by the Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment, Mario de Marco, on July 27 requested the views of the public on a move towards a taxation system that “penalises pollution rather than jobs”.

When launching the 2011 pre-Budget document on the same day, Finance Minister Tonio Fenech was more clear as to the government’s intentions. Under the heading Tax Shifting, he proposed the shifting of taxes from economic goods to economic bads. The pre-Budget document goes on to say: “In order to incentivise the creation of work by making labour less costly we are proposing the lowering of government-induced employee costs as well as corporate and income taxation.” The pre-Budget document then praises the merits of a carbon tax as a fiscal tool.

It seems that both the minister and the parliamentary secretary have forgotten that taxation does not penalise jobs. It is an instrument for the attainment of social solidarity. That is what the post-1977 Nationalist Party I remember was in favour of. It seems that time has changed the PN. It cannot be anymore described as being “un partito di centro che guarda a sinistra” (a party of the centre that looks to the left), as the old guard, quoting Alcide de Gasperi, justifiably boasted.

The drafters of the documents launched could have consulted the Cabinet-approved National Sustainable Development Strategy for the Maltese Islands (page 59), which established 2008 for the conclusion of a strategy on environmental taxation. The year 2008 is 32 months away and the strategy on the use of economic instruments to regulate environmental impacts is still not in place. Instead of asking for views of the public they should have drafted the strategy that has been promised but not delivered. It could be a useful guide for the finance minister.

At issue in this debate on tax shifting are points already emphasised during the eco-contribution legislation debate in 2004/05. Which ministry will be in the driving seat of environment taxation policy: Finance or the environment? Will the primary objectives of environment taxation be environmental or fiscal?

The strategy to be adopted and, thus, the specific proposals to be brought forward will depend on whether fiscal policy is used to regulate and reduce environmental impacts or whether the environment will be used to compensate for shortfalls in tax revenue.

After 17 years, the government has woken up to the proposals of a Jacques Delors EU White Paper in 1993 on growth, competitiveness and employment [COM (93) 700 final] who had the argued in favour of taxing environmental impacts and resource use.

In its 2008 electoral manifesto, the PN promised it will reduce income tax in the higher bands. It is now seeking ways to deliver without subjecting the Exchequer to further problems. It is very unfortunate that an inappropriate tool was selected. As a result of the tax shifting proposal, a tax, which is socially progressive (income tax) will be partially substituted with a carbon tax that, viewed on its own, can be socially regressive. The proposal aims to reduce taxation from a band which is paid mostly by companies and those who have a substantial income. To compensate for the resulting shortfall, it will spread the tax-load on everyone without discrimination, irrespective of their means.

Once the government decided on the reduction of the higher band income tax, I understand that it did not have much of a choice. In order to ensure a regular flow of income, which would have to substitute a reduction of the forfeited income tax, it had to select a subject in respect of which (at least, in the short term) demand is largely inelastic to tax-induced price changes.

It would be interesting if any studies on the impacts of the pre-Budget tax-shifting proposal are available. Such studies should clearly demonstrate the two basic flaws of the proposal: first it’s being socially regressive and, secondly, it’s exploiting of the environment as a tax revenue generator without ensuring environmental improvement as a primary objective.

If environmental improvement was a primary objective, the projected tax revenues would not be generated as they would be reduced gradually, in line with environmental improvement.

A carbon tax would force business and industry to address their environmental impacts. However, the impacts of a carbon tax on SMEs and households have to be assessed more carefully before policy declarations are made in view of the limited size of the former and the lack of resources of both. Given that most of Malta’s business is in the SME sector, matters should first be studied in their proper perspective before declarations are made or decisions taken.

There are various alternatives to the government’s proposals. Each one of them must however be tested through studies to ensure that the social and environmental impacts of fiscal policy are either positive or else substantially mitigated.

Studies made must be available at this stage. Otherwise, the discussions on both the National Environment Policy and the pre-Budget document would be just kite flying exercises.

 

published in The Times Saturday, September 4, 2010