A RECURRING question after every budget presentation is the extent to which it caters to the needs of the man in the street, as opposed to the rich.
In truth, the interests of the two demographics need not be in conflict.
In theory, there is a symbiotic relationship between alleviating poverty and stimulating commerce. In practice, the issue is whether a government has got the balance right.
That is the question which remains outstanding, notwithstanding Finance Minister Colm Imbert’s lengthy budget on Monday. It is a question the Government must answer during the budget debate.
Though Mr Imbert made some effort to provide relief to ordinary citizens through his focus on VAT and food prices, it is equally true many of the measures announced were so opaque or vague they all but suggest there might be a sting in the tail.
The perception that the budget is one that benefits the wealthy more than it benefits ordinary citizens – despite Mr Imbert’s assurances that the Government would focus on taxing those who most can afford it – is not without merit.
Many of the “goodies” announced relate to businesses or start-ups. For example, the reduction in the tax rate will benefit a group of about 500 exporters. The stimulus for small and medium enterprises will benefit tech companies and construction outfits. Manufacturers will also gain from incentives.
But how is the economy to recover if enterprise is not stimulated?
At the same time, the Government did not do itself any favours by beating around the bush when it comes to things such as utility-rate increases.
Mr Imbert clearly foresees increases to water and electricity bills, so much so that he announced rebates that will affect 210,000 households that have bills lower than $300. This sugar-coating cannot conceal the fact that for all remaining households, a hike looms.
The minister must shed further light on this.
At a moment when many are battling the effects of unemployment, facing eviction or on the verge of shuttering their enterprises, we could have done without the extensive rehash of grants administered on a short-term basis months ago (after much red tape and delay for some), or the announcement of the removal of VAT from some basic foods on which no VAT was charged in any case.
How will the additional $200 million allocated for relief be spent?
Without any commitment that relief will be made regular or widened, such measures remain ad-hoc bailouts that pale in comparison with the billion-dollar bailouts the State has provided to huge financial conglomerates over the years.
That other areas remained untouched by the budget – such as pensions – is also notable, though consistent with the need to keep the State’s expenditure profile down.
The Government may not have prioritised one group over the other, but without further details, it risks appearing callous to many who are being left behind.