THE BUDGET debate that kicked off in the legislature on Monday will like always veer off subject, but more so this time as presidential elections are just a few weeks away and every deputy will try to score points for his or her candidate. This is to be expected, especially as the budget debate has traditionally been an excuse for speeches unrelated to the budget. In past years, the main topic was usually the Cyprus problem, deputies not even bothering to link their speech to the economy or the budget.
Inevitably, the Cyprus problem featured in all the speeches of the party leaders, but in fairness, most of Monday’s contributions were devoted to economic matters. Unfortunately, the debate on economic matters is very basic, invariably focusing on how much money the government will be spending. Opposition parties invariably claim that state expenditure is too low while the representatives of the government try to prove that spending is generous by listing all the projects that are in the pipeline and the increases in spending in different sectors of the economy.
With elections around the corner, even Disy had to send mixed signals. While commending President Anastasiades for rescuing the economy from the brink and putting it back on the path to growth and citing figures that backed his argument, Disy leader Averof Neophytou could not resist the temptation to surmise that the drastic improvement of public finances allowed increased state spending, as if this is a good thing in itself. Then again, he had to justify the mindless spending spree Anastasiades has been guilty of in the last few months.
All the opposition leaders argued that the government was not spending enough, on social welfare and development, which would allegedly reduce unemployment and help growth. Our politicians have always believed very simplistically that economic growth is state driven and therefore the exclusive responsibility of the government. Unfortunately, they cannot even have this discussion during the budget debate, because even Disy, the only party with moderately liberal economic views, refuses to challenge the sacrosanct idea of the big interventionist state.
How can they have such a debate when this could alienate the thousands of public employees that enjoy a prosperous life working for the state? It is even less likely they would talk about the public sector payroll, which remains perilously high at €2.62 billion. It might take a few years to become unaffordable again but it is heading in that direction because the Anastasiades government failed to use the crisis to drastically reduce it. The measures taken were temporary and we are gradually returning to the old ways of doing things, but not a single deputy or leader dared to mention this. Matters that might alienate voters never come up in the budget debate.