The budget for 2023 presented to Parliament by Finance Minister Clyde Caruana last Monday may be described as one which reinforces a culture of dependency. Government handouts are used, left, right and centre to achieve this objective. Under Labour the culture of dependency is actively encouraged: it gets worse with every budget.
This is most clear in the manner in which government deals with incomes policy. A chasm has developed between the actual minimum wage and what is required as a living wage. Government tries to bridge this through various handouts including the newly created special COLA for the vulnerable as well as through subsidies, some of which are unnecessary or damaging.
The creation of a new ad hoc benefit payable to vulnerable persons (estimated by the Minister at 80,000 persons) who cannot cope with the current rate of inflation is a positive step. They definitely need help, but they need much more than an approximately €300 handout at Christmas time. It would have been much better if government focused on the real problem and addressed it head-on. It has been procrastinating for ages.
The real problem is that the minimum wage is ridiculously low: it is far from being a living wage. Governments have repeated sought to avoid addressing this issue. It is pertinent to point out that social benefits are mostly pegged to the minimum wage. A minimum wage at a reasonable level would automatically adjust all social benefits to an equally reasonable level too.
Three Caritas reports have analysed the issue in depth in the last ten years. The last report issued in 2021 had found a 40 per cent discrepancy between the minimum wage and what is required as a living wage. This translates into approximately a €4,000 shortfall per annum. This is the real problem!
For so long as the minimum wage remains at such a low level, government handouts in Father Christmas style will remain the norm in order to reduce the burdens on the vulnerable. At times, this Father Christmas benevolence is not limited to the vulnerable but spread to the benefit of one and all. The pre-electoral handouts and the so-called tax refunds are just two examples.
Instead of being dependent on handouts, it would be appropriate if the minimum wage is a living wage. This can only be achieved through a regular updating of the basket of goods and services on the basis of which the quantum of the minimum wage is determined. This would eliminate the need for most handouts at any time of the year as all would get their dues as of right, on a regular basis, and not be dependent on the political benevolence of government, be it at budget time or else, abusively, on the eve of general elections as has already happened.
In addition to a policy of preferring handouts to a clear statutory determination of a fair living wage Government has also embarked on a policy of increased subsidies, designed in an ill-advised manner.
The subsidies applied to petrol and diesel are uncalled for. The current international spike in fuel prices – approximately double what we pay locally– is a unique opportunity which, if properly managed could make up for government’s lack of action to address the car dependency problem on the Maltese islands.
Instead of subsidising the price of petrol and diesel it would be much better to invest in the efficiency and reliability of public transport. This is a unique opportunity which if properly managed could be the beginning of a long-term behavioural change: away from the private car and towards public transport. Having free public transport for all as of this month was a pre-mature step: the efficiency and reliability of public transport should have been adequately addressed before embarking on such an important step.
Addressing car dependency head-on is a policy objective proposed by government’s own National Transport Master Plan but repeatedly ignored by government itself.
On the other hand, it is appropriate to subsidise basic water and electricity domestic consumption. One should however think beyond an across-the-board subsidy. Having focused assistance to different sectors of the economy tailor-made to their specific needs for the duration of the current crises would yield far better results in protecting employment and the economy in the long-term. It would definitely avoid subsidisation of waste and misuse of water and electricity.
We do not need to create or reinforce a culture of dependency in the form of handouts and unnecessary subsidies. Helping the vulnerable is laudable. Reinforcing a culture of dependency as a result of an outdated incomes policy is something quite different: it damages the social fabric and should be reversed the soonest!
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 30 October 2022