Juhan-Markus Laats: It's not really about the fuel duty (5)

Photo: Postimees/Scanpix
Juhan-Markus Laats
4/28/2015 12:40 PM
Category: Opinion

As tens of thousands took to social media and around 1,000-1,500 took to the streets, one could be mistaken in thinking the Cohabitation Act was under debate again, or teachers' salaries were being slashed by 30 percent. But no, it was something far more boring - it was the government's plan to slightly increase tax on petrol.

The government recently said it will need to increase tax on fuel by 10 percent each year for a few years to cover holes in the state budget. If base fuel prices remain unchanged, a retail liter of fuel will cost 1.39 euros by 2019, instead of the current 1.19 euros.

Jürgen Ligi may lack a PC filter, but he was right in saying that protesting against a tax change, which will push up prices by 5 cents each year, is embarrassing, as petrol prices can change more at any given week in petrol stations. The price was around the 1.35-mark last summer, then falling below 1 euro during Christmas.

If the reason for the heightened emotional state is not fuel excise duty increase, then what are people protesting against?

When election dust settled the nation found that not much had changed. Joyous shouts of “four more years” (16 to be more precise) were only heard in the Reform Party offices. Many who voted for the Reform Party, or IRL or the Social Democrats for that matter, did so for a lack of a better alternative, not because they wanted the same type of leadership Estonia has experiences for the last decade and more.

The Free Party, for all its rhetoric, is at best a group of loveable misfits. EKRE has proved to be excellent at shooting itself in the foot, and then ignoring the damage. The Center Party has demonstrated even less willingness to change than the Reform Party. So, either vote for the Reform Party/IRL/Social Democrats or take a huge gamble.

People, and for other reasons opposition parties, are protesting against the slowing pace of change. Estonians are not used to governments merely promising a 1 percent decrease in tax or coalition agreements with few, if any, high-impact promises.

It is this frustration, mainly against a government which seems to have given up on aiming high, which erupted with the fuel tax hike plan.

Reform what?

What could the new government have done differently? Grand projects are always good to get people motivated. Bridges to Saaremaa are clearly out of the question during these penny-pinching days, but grand social projects cost far less. Two decades ago the government took on corruption, and won. It is one of those big things that made Estonia a success in the early years. Just look at Ukraine.

The new project could be waste and efficiency. Yes, both great buzzwords which have been around ever since the economic downturn, but the media is still full of stories on how various public offices, hospitals, and other institutions are spending too much on whatnot. The Defense Forces recently spent 1 million euros more than it had to on bulletproof vests. This is just one example.

How about a severe crack-down on public sector waste? Naming, shaming, punishing.

Eesti Energia's foreign ventures were launched to build Estonia a public nest egg, like Norway or Singapore. These projects might still make the state a few (hundred) million, but not the billions initially hoped for. Maybe the millions in investments could have been surgically injected into education instead.

The ruling parties have stopped believing that great change can take place, even though Estonia has made plenty of great leaps in its more recent history. What makes this situation even worse is that the opposition parties are also unwilling to aim high.


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