Center whip: Family benefits sought as supplementary budget unsatisfactory

Jaanus Karilaid (Center).
Jaanus Karilaid (Center). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Center Party Riigikogu group head Jaanus Karilaid tells ERR in an interview that Center put forth the family benefits bill because the supplementary budget fell short of the party's expectations.

What did [Prime Minister] Kaja Kallas (Reform) tell Center MPs on Monday morning concerning draft legislation to hike family benefits? Did she urge you to withdraw the bill or slow down?

The Center Party's proposal remains positive. Let us not get bogged down in political games, we urge the Reform Party to join the bill. To demonstrate political unity in crises. In a situation where we have four parties [behind the bill] today, it would be ideal to have five out of five Riigikogu forces on board by the time of the third reading that would allow us to return to other topics.

I agree that there are a lot of things that need work and solutions. Let us take it from the top and get one assignment done before moving to the next. I hope the bill will be passed before Midsummer Day, which sentiment we communicated to Kaja Kallas.

What was her reaction?

Her only reaction was that the bill itself is good. That it is the right idea, while they would need more time. We believe there is enough time. We have the first, second and third readings. We can demonstrate expedience here. We have been quick to respond in foreign policy, Center has joined all other parties in consensus to quickly ramp up military capacity. Now, we have the chance to rush to the aid of Estonian families, and we expect the same kind of promptness here.

Where will you find the €300 million?

We could ask that about anything. And we are not defining it as cost. Child benefits constitute an investment in the future of Estonia. And if we book the financial obligation in advance, we can allow for it in 2023 budget deliberations. It is a political choice either way, and to suggest that Estonia will go bankrupt if it tries to support its children would be a great exaggeration on Reform's part.

What is the atmosphere in the coalition? It seems that different visions for how to proceed with this bill are persisting.

I sincerely hope Reform will not drag us into political games. We have achieved a lot. The LNG terminal is set, we have funding and a timeline. All ministers have worked hard on the supplementary budget that has been in the works for some time, while we can pass it now by tying it to a confidence vote. We agree to pledge it full support.

How then is it possible that the government will suddenly grind to a halt over child benefits. We cannot accept that. Our proposal is sincere. Come, support our bill and we can get back to work.

Reform Party politicians might suggest it is Center engaging in political games.

If that were the case, we would not be preparing to pass the supplementary budget and the government would already have fallen without extraordinary elections. That should be proof enough that we wish to move forward. We only want child benefits to be hiked, we want to that certainty, whereas there are dozens of social problems in need of solutions. We could solve at least one and move on to others.

Tying the supplementary budget to a government confidence vote is proof we recognize the work. Naturally, the supplementary budget was not what we were expecting, which is why we decided to introduce the family benefits bill.

Is Center engaging in blackmail?

No, it is policymaking for us. We would like to see results. It makes no sense to spend years and years describing problems if the parliament has the power to solve them. And, as I suggested, bringing all five parties behind a political initiative in what is truly a comprehensive crisis would surely bring society together. Our political device is simple. We support the bill and will continue to work.

Why couldn't you convince your partner right away and table the bill with all five parties already behind it?

We repeatedly told Reform that the plan is important for us. It was part of our election program in 2019 and has the party council's blessing. We said on numerous occasions that the supplementary budget does not do enough to address subsistence, that we should do something sustainable, something that would stay for the next 10, 15 or 20 years. Naturally we took it to the Reform Party but their political hearing was not too sharp then.

The question should rather be put to them. We also said we would be looking for universal support for the bill, beyond Center and Reform. Why did they decide against joining and agreeing to contribute? It has matured into a problem today. But there is still time. The first reading will take place on May 30 if the Riigikogu Social Affairs Committee makes the necessary decisions. That should be enough time for Reform to shape a more thorough position.

Therefore, you did decide to risk the coalition, a government crisis to take your bill forward?

If we get it done and should Center fall into the opposition as a result of someone's political maneuvering – so be it. But we have told our coalition partner that our aim is to achieve results. The Reform Party has a few weeks to change its mind and abandon its stance of rigid opposition.

Should Reform decide to go along with your initiative and support the family benefits bill after refusing to do so in the coalition, would Kaja Kallas still effectively be the prime minister?

Kaja Kallas will be prime minister as long as she is prime minister. There can only be one. However, the Estonian Constitution provides that ours is a parliamentary republic and that policy is shaped by the Riigikogu. Therefore, the parliament needs to be heeded, and perhaps this will give the PM some insight in terms of how to consider the political will of the parliament in the future. I suppose there is a political message involved, while Kaja Kallas clearly remains the prime minister.

What principles govern how a coalition should work and how you pursue your own goals?

It depends on how the partners get along and notice each other's problems. To say that one side is always right and the other wrong would be an exaggeration. Should something like that occur, both parties' leaders need to take a look in the mirror and think about what went wrong that has made a solution impossible. I would not overdramatize these things. Talk of a government change have come from the Reform Party offices. We have said from the first that we would like a positive outcome in terms of child benefits hikes and do not want to see the coalition fall.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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