IN just a few days, the House of Assembly will be brimming with numbers: seventeen men and women debating the dollars and cents and – hopefully — commonsense which ostensibly affect our lives. That’s right. The Budget Debates are here again and we have no choice but to tune in to the televised spectacle that provides us with either hope or despair.
As per usual, the debates will be preceded by the traditional Throne Speech which invariably sets out to empower Saint Lucians to buy into whatever plans the government has for the citizenry and how best we can all assist in and appreciate their successful implementation. The speech also serves to draw our attention to many of the forces – internal, external and imagined – that mitigate against our nation realizing its highest potential.
In last year’s Throne Speech, Governor-General Dame PearletteLouisy noted that “the drought in our economic fortunes may well be receding” and that “our economy is now poised to return to a cycle of growth, barring unforeseen circumstances”. With the nation’s fiscal deficit level closer to reasonable and prudent limits, she said government was more able to invest in major infrastructure in an effort to stimulate growth in the economy, attract new investment and reduce unemployment.
Fortunately, there have been some notable achievements realized as far as attracting new investments are concerned, mainly in the tourism sector. Many of these new projects are still in their infancy stage but should provide employment opportunities for the many Saint Lucians still on the breadline and barely finding crumbs.
For many of those who would have heard the beautiful prospects laid out in last year’s Throne Speech dubbed “Defining Hope and Destiny”, nothing much would have changed; for others, however, they might have been able to see some light at the end of their dark, long tunnel. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose with these things. Besides, it all depends on finding or creating your own jobs, anyway, and not simply buying into the “jobs, jobs, jobs” pitch that political parties peddle.
One of the key hopes for the government during last year’s Throne Speech was that by now Saint Lucians would have witnessed the opening of two high-standard, world-class health facilities – the Owen King-EU Hospital and the new St. Jude Hospital, a combined investment of over $275 million. To date, neither of those health institutions has admitted a sick patient let alone discharged a satisfied one. A multiplicity of reasons has been given for such delays, including transitional measures and installation of medical equipment.
Like previous years, crime is expected to feature prominently in this year’s Throne Speech. In fact, it would be a crime if that unfortunate aspect of our society is downplayed, especially in an election year when truth can take on various facades. The rate and boldness at which heinous crimes are occurring these days is baffling to law enforcement, let alone the citizenry.
Rapes, stabbings, shootings and various shades of alleged blue and white collar crimes seem to be defeating the purpose of hope. Nevertheless, Saint Lucians do deserve another dose of hope these days, and the Throne Speech should not disappoint this year. One can only expect that that new hope does much to erase the prevailing sense of hopelessness many people still face today.
No other debate ruffles feathers in Parliament more than when parliamentarians meet to discuss fiscal matters. Whether we need to borrow to spend or tax the people more to spend more, every parliamentarian tries his or her best to appear financially-prudent. It’s a numbers game to them, really, where they sign the cheques and we add the zeroes and pay the hefty instalments for years to come. Will we be forced to borrow hundreds of millions this year?
And with this being an election year, expect the Budget to contain goodies even the most creative among us could not imagine. The government might well want to consider this one their personal best. It wouldn’t surprise me that consumers would be given a break from the 15% VAT for, say, the next six months, by paying only 8%. It wouldn’t surprise me, either, if the programme to implement the long-promised LED lighting to replace incandescent bulbs on our streets is hastened. Well, news of the SLP planning to pay CSEC fees for students as of the next cycle if they’re successful at the polls is already out of the bag, so…
In the 2015/16 fiscal year, Prime Minister Dr. Kenny Anthony presented a $1.4 billion budget, a mere $200,000 more than the previous cycle. To finance that $1.4 billion budget, he projected recurrent revenue at $984.2 million, capital revenue at $7.6 million, grants at $125.99 million, government instruments (bonds and treasury bills) at $255.1 million and other loans amounting to $91.3 million.
With both the Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) and United Workers Party (UWP) already having launched some of their election candidates, and a campaign fever infallible to Motrin and Tylenol, my prediction is that this year’s Budget debates will reflect even less decorum than they normally do. The people’s business is likely to take a back seat to the people who would unashamedly make it their business to put out other people’s dirty business. If they’re awfully successful at it, the Budget debates might just end up being the public national inter-party debates we have been calling for but never seem to be deserving of.
Like many Saint Lucians, I, too, am anxious to know what projects and programmes the government has in store for not just the 2016/17 fiscal year but beyond. Who knows? The SLP might just slip in a few aspects of its party manifesto in the mix. However, the Opposition needs to be robust during these sessions and not make the usual excuses or not being given fair enough time to pore over the Budget’s contents. If the Opposition’s role is to hold the government to task on the people’s behalf – and being paid handsomely to do it, too – then it needs to be a formidable force for the people.
Towards the end of last year’s Throne Speech, Dame Pearlette said the following: “Today, we ask our people to clothe themselves with robes of reason and respect for others, that they might assume regal postures and a regal presence in this world, and not with rags of rage and rancour. Let us secure hope and define our destinies for self and country.” If you asked me, whatever iota of that goal we would have achieved over the past year stands to be erased with a deepening of the nasty tit-for-tat between political rivals accusing each other of corruption and other vile acts.
This year’s Throne Speech, however, might recognize that fact of divisiveness. Unfortunately, all is fair in love, war and politics and when politicians’ reputations and positions are at stake, we all know how far they can go to ensure that their stakes – or steaks – remain juicier than their rival’s. And, like it or not, the ayes usually have it.