In Trinidad, the piper calls the tune

By Raffique Shah
Sunday, October 12th 2008

PNMI grew to dislike Budget presentations and the debates that followed them during my five short years as a parliamentarian. For most of that period, the then Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams, was also Minister of Finance. Like most intellectuals who were also heads of governments in that era, Williams reveled in making lengthy presentations. Having a captive audience comprising 35 MPs, a number of senators and other high-ranking public officials who felt it was their duty to be present for the budget, Williams would drone on and on, sometimes for five, six hours.

It was not easy for MPs to stay awake and alert for such durations. There were those who would keep nodding their heads as they fought to stay awake. Others snored loudly, mouths agape, much to the amusement of their colleagues. Some MPs had fine-tuned the art of sleeping with their eyes wide open. Williams was aware of these shenanigans, so he would often interject with a joke that would jolt them out of slumber when the House erupted in laughter.

Why the tradition of lengthy Budget presentations persists in this age of instant information, defies logic. Really, what the Finance Minister does is give some background information, review the previous fiscal year, expound on government’s achievements. I can take, say, the last five Budget presentations, and show numerous items that keep cropping up, projects that are forever “in progress”, promises never to fulfilled.

Which is why, as a journalist assigned to analyse specific sections of the Budget, I watch the presentations on television for as long as I can, then I simply read the damn thing in the following day’s newspapers. In fact, with modern information technology one can access the minister’s full speech online within 24 hours.

What was the main difference between last year’s presentation by Prime Minister Manning and this year’s, read by Minister Karen Nunez-Tesheira? Unlike Manning, Karen seemed to find much fun in her pronouncements. She often giggled or laughed aloud, while Manning maintained a staid stance he imagined went with the importance of the occasion.

The most amusing aspect of the Budget comes during the debate, in both the House and Senate. In those tedious hours of live telecast, one is entertained with a lot of fluff and “gallery”, a few good ideas, and best of all enjoy malapropisms and mispronunciations aplenty, not to add bad grammar that would make the late Undine Giuseppi turn in her grave. During debate in the House, one saw thestandards-bar, if ever there was one, lowered to that found in “hawk and spit” bars.

Whereas we have grown accustomed to opposition members making unsubstantiated allegations of a serious nature, this time the Prime Minister himself plunged into the cesspool of wildness. Gunning for Keith Rowley, whose baldhead he long wanted on a platter, he all but accused his former deputy of misappropriating $10 million.

This charge may yet be the subject of some investigation, so I shall not write much on it. The allegation sank to new depths, however, when Housing Minister Emily Dick (look, I refuse to entertain people with six-barrelled names!), addressing the source of the document, shouted: It was me! I wondered how many among our 40 per cent tertiary-level students were listening to the minister-and knew she was wrong.

In an ironical twist to Manning’s allegations against Rowley, Mr. “Malaprop” (a.k.a. Wade Mark) accused Hazel Manning of receiving money under false pretences. In refuting Mark’s claims, Mrs. Manning called for changes to the privilege of immunity parliamentarians enjoy. I wrote a column a few years ago saying as much, as I noted the depths to which parliamentary behaviour had sunk. Parliamentarians in both chambers use this privilege as a weapon to attack their perceived enemies. And the latter have no recourse. Senator Deosaran did not agree with Hazel: he called for self-regulation. That has existed for eons (in Parliament’s Privileges Committee), but that is a case of “himself trying himself”, as Spoiler sang.

Another gem came from another of the President’s senators, Gail Merhair. In the face of a whopping increase in lawlessness on the nation’s roads, she called for raising the age at which one can be a licensed driver from 18 to 19! Brilliant suggestion, Senator. That one-year will make a world of difference.

Then Foreign Affairs Minister Paula Scoon justified expenditure of $100 million in purchasing 200 luxury vehicles by saying they would be used by ministries after the two big conferences due to be held next year.

What bull! Ministers buy their own luxury vehicles, tax-free, with no-interest loans from taxpayers. And no public servant I know drives a Mercedes of Audi or BMW. Government can simply rent vehicles for the duration of the conferences-two days in one case, a week in the other. But why waste good Express space? There are no limits when you are spending other people’s money, even if the latter are suffering from lack of proper roads, water in their taps, cheaper food, and more. In this country, it’s the piper, not those who pay him, who calls the tune.