03 March 2004

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Jobs, business and the economy: what Lawrence Gonzi promised

By Kurt Sansone

It should not be a tall order for prime minister to-be Lawrence Gonzi to try and reconcile the promises made during the leadership campaign with the electoral pledges of the PN manifesto.
The former were lacking in content, while the latter was simply an EU bulletin bereft of concrete measures.
At a time when business is bogged down with a cash flow crisis, the manufacturing industry is shedding jobs and losing out to competition abroad and government is saddled with a huge deficit, the high flying statements made by the three PN leadership contestants over the past few weeks have been music to many people’s ears.
What ranks high on Gonzi’s list of promises is his proposal to create a top-level task force to tackle the issue of bureaucracy in government. Gonzi said the task force would delve into the bureaucratic structures, identify unnecessary red tape and take measures to stream line operations. The task force, which could have easily been a leaf out of the General Workers’ Union www.bidritt.com campaign, will be presided over by the Prime Minister.
Bureaucracy has been the constituted bodies’ favourite punching bag for a number of months now and it is often seen as a hindrance to economic growth and Gonzi has now jumped on the bandwagon.
Stimulating economic growth will ensure more income for government and also create new jobs. And growth can come by identifying niche areas of activity.
Gonzi picked on this train of thought during his campaign by saying that the newly-created Malta Enterprise should identify niche markets and make available the right climate to attract particular industries and companies.
A strong emphasis on education and training did not go amiss and Gonzi insisted on the importance of “anticipating” the needs of the job market and thus providing the right training to people “with the help of employers.” He did not delve into the details on how this will be achieved but the emphasis on education was too much to be missed and forgotten.
Another aspect of Gonzi’s campaign focussed on the need for private enterprise and the country to invest in research and development. Without specifying, Gonzi said this could be achieved by giving industry “incentives”.
The self employed and small businesses also featured in Gonzi’s campaign. The deputy Prime Minister spoke of “more help” to small businesses and “more space and facilities” to enable them to benefit from the opportunities offered by the EU.
The discourse had little or no depth in terms of concrete measures but when it came to speaking of government’s role, Gonzi was more specific. He promised a fight on abuse in social services and tax evasion. He already has experience in clamping down on abuse in Children’s Allowance and sickness benefit claims.
This strategy would ensure government expenditure is more focussed on investment and trimmed down in other non-essential areas.
Gonzi also continuously insisted on the need to curb the deficit and bring it in line with the Maastricht criteria so that the decision on when to introduce the Euro would be taken “comfortably”.
Despite the Finance Minister having already set a deadline, 2006, in the November budget by when the deficit should be in line with the Maastricht criteria, Gonzi never committed himself to a date. Gonzi’s words, when speaking of introducing the Euro have been interpreted as a more gradual approach than that mapped out by John Dalli.
Gonzi also promised to develop the Old Opera House and City Gate in Valletta and the rehabilitation of Fort St Elmo. Capital projects that have been shelved for want of public funds. The problem with these investments is how to finance them when public spending is already high.
An important aspect to the economy and also linked to the pension crisis is the number of women in the work force, which is currently below the European average. Gonzi committed himself during the leadership campaign to address the issue by adopting measures that would encourage a greater participation of women in the labour market. He expressly linked the issue to pension reform and argued for a change in the way social security contributions were made when a person works part time. He also raised the issues of flexi-time and reduced hours as possible measures to encourage women to go out and work.
When asked by the media soon after Saturday’s landslide victory, Gonzi identified pension reform and the need to ensure the public health system is put on a sound financial footing as priorities. Job creation also got a mention but the Prime Minister to-be is currently in waiting mode. Until now it is Eddie Fenech Adami, who is calling the shots and the sooner the Prime Minister relinquishes his post the earlier Gonzi can start to leave his mark on a government that is increasingly looking very weary.



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Editor: Saviour Balzan
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