By Raffique Shah
October 07, 2019
It is a newspaper commentator’s dilemma—having to write on the Finance Minister’s annual budget presentation, as readers expect him to, both before and after the Appropriation Bill is laid in Parliament. This becomes even more challenging when the package covers the year leading to a general election when the Government, and here I mean any government, engages in distributing largesse like the proverbial “parsad” at “pujas”, throwing goodies at the electorate with the expectation that they will yield votes.
There will be more to steal from, too.
Once upon a time, the Budget was delivered weeks before Christmas because the fiscal year coincided with the calendar year. That way the Finance Minister was seen as a virtual Santa Claus, and the masses made merry with the gifts he delivered. How well I remember the late Dr Eric Williams as Finance Minister, slicing taxes on “ham and grog”, much to the delight of consumers, and invariably concluding his speech this way: total revenue equals total expenditure, no surplus or deficit is anticipated, Mr Speaker I beg to move.
Thunderous applause would erupt from government benches and “De Doctah” basked in the adulation he enjoyed. Not a damn dog dared to bark in dissent over His Master’s pronouncements in that era of the maximum leader.
Well, somewhere along the way, I do not recall exactly when or under whose stewardship, a decision was made to change the fiscal year to October-September in the hope that people would be more sober to seriously examine the critical elements of the Budget, to determine whether or not its provisions were beneficial to the nation. Only that bit of wisdom got lost in the fog of the “fete season” which, over the past 20 years or so, grips the country from as early as in August, when Carnival bands launch their following year’s presentations. Divali, too, has lost its religious significance amidst wild commercialism, and Christmas, from which carols, crèches and the Christ Child were subtracted, has been reduced to rum and soca-parang ruling the airwaves and street parties.
In this crowded calendar of festive events, the Budget has lost whatever small stature it once enjoyed. So what is left for the commentator to write or speak on?
Because of the high ratio of vehicle ownership in this country, motorists’ main fear is over increases in the price of fuels. During the 24-hour run-up to the Budget, gas stations (as we call them) are besieged by motorists seeking to fill up their tanks at the “old” price since it’s the only commodity that price increases take effect immediately the minister makes the announcement. Price hikes in these still-subsidised products invariably trigger Trini-style outrage and rants boil down like the proverbial “bhaji” since the love affair between a Trini and his “ride” surpasses matrimonial and other relationships…and governments know that.
At some point, sooner rather than later, the remaining fuels’ subsidies, which stand at a few hundred million dollars per annum, must go. But I doubt that Cabinet will allow Finance Minister Colm Imbert to wield the axe on the eve of three critical elections.
Increased taxation on personal incomes and goods and services also incur the ire of the citizenry, especially workers on fixed incomes who, because of the pay-as-you-earn system, bear the brunt of such measures. Again, many such victims are vocal in their protests when targeted, but they generally simmer down soon and accept their fate. I don’t think there is any need for increased taxes on incomes and profits. What is imperative is casting the tax net far and wide to capture every individual and business that is liable. When that happens, I have long argued, government might well be in a position to reduce such taxes.
Realistically, all the fulminations over budgets come from political parties that are not in power while economists and financial analysts “drill down” (as they proudly say) into the numbers to advance their arguments why government’s projected revenues will fall short of their estimates, or expenditure will exceed projections. Media houses stage pre- and post-budget panel discussions, with participants spending many hours in television studios engaging each other in sometimes sterile debates over specific measures. And business organizations as well as trade unions and similar collectives get into the act by hosting breakfast forums on the government’s fiscal measures and capital expenditure for the ensuing year.
Meanwhile, the majority of citizens remain unmindful of details of the budget except when they take direct hits from specific measures—such as having to pay more for a pack of cigarettes or a gallon of gasoline—at which point they steups or cuss, but continue to purchase the product.
Every government since 2009 has run a deficit budget every year, meaning they have all spent more than they earned, which in turn means they have borrowed money, racking up public debt to what? Over $120 billion and counting?.Bear in mind over that period energy-products’ prices soared and plunged, so at times there was no need to borrow.
But politicians must spend: the more they spend, the more they can steal. Why do you think the current opposition is dribbling for another taste of power? As calypsonian Winston Gypsy Peters sang, “T’ief doh like to see t’ief with bag in he han’.”
And the Budget is the biggest bag political bandits can lay their dirty hands on. Bear that in mind as you hear them debate and expatiate over the next few weeks.