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Columns

Chicken back has become chicken forward

Lance Neita

Sunday, April 06, 2014    

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By the time this is published, Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips will have tabled the 2014/15 Estimates of Expenditure. The Standing Committee of the House will now meet this week (April 8-10) to review the estimates. The actual budget debate will be opened on April 17 with a presentation by the finance minister, and will be closed by him on April 30.

The sectoral debate follows in May, during which various members of the House will be given the opportunity to speak to subjects under their responsibility.

Sounds like a laudable, democratic, and parliamentary exercise, but don't expect that this is going to be all about facts and figures. Yes, it should be about the economy, stupid, but there is every reason to believe that in the distance trumpets are being sounded and bells are being rung.

Budget debates are an opportunity to preen and point fingers, and there will be plenty of political platform action in the House as both sides have sensed that balloting, as much as budgeting, is in the air.

There is a traditional event associated with the presentations which we hope will not be repeated this year. I refer to the swanky cocktail party which is usually held at a hotel or uptown residence where the speaker of the day is showered with compliments by well-wishers who, for the most part, paid little or no attention to what he or she had to say.

These parties misrepresent actual circumstances, considering that the speaker has devoted much of his or her time to bemoaning and sympathising with the lot of the poor and vulnerable.

So far the finance minister has acknowledged that he is treading the narrow path between expenditure and revenue and the budget will be tight. But look for the 'dollar wine' in his step as he makes his way to the podium to paint a picture of economic health.

Those who came in late will learn that budget structuring is as much about crafty politics as it is about the economy.

There is every indication that the ruling side has been busy stacking the deck. Everything is being opened, from a pin to an anchor, and by everybody. Announcements are being rolled out left, right and centre. Ministers of Government are turning up in every nook and cranny as if they have been given strategic orders to spread themselves wide.

The prime minister herself, for a long while subdued, is now very visible at home kissing babies, introducing new projects, and declaring good intentions.

The PM has to be careful that her office does not become viewed as ceremonial while the soldiering and the real work is being carried on by Peter and a few good men.

If you had any doubts about the Government's intention to 'call it' at the most immediate opportune time, think Honourable Omar Davies who let the puss out of the bag with his recent statement that the delivery of the Caymanas to Linstead leg of the highway will sound the trumpet for the next election, in true run-wid-it fashion.

Expect that all these grand announcements and promises will be part of the budget speeches. Minister Paulwell will sally forth with his energy-saving projects, thanking his nimble footwork, good fortune and the OUR for recommending Energy World International just in time.

Agricultural Minister Roger Clarke will be boosted by his agro-parks, while Education Minister Ronnie Thwaites will be chalking up his 100th announcement on new education thrusts.

Sports Minister Natalie Neita-Headley will be packing her bags for Brazil, while Tourism Minister Wykeham McNeill and his junior, Damion Crawford, will be busy thinking up some reason for a business trip to court tourists from South America. It's all in the budget.

The Opposition is not an innocent by-stander to all this heel and toe. Mr Audley Shaw, as its main budget spokesman, will come loaded with ammunition as the dollar continues to slide and the pockets of voters are hard hit in spite of the grand announcements of IMF passes.

It will be interesting to see how he and his leader, Andrew Holness, perform against the touted successes of the Government with the IMF tests, fiscal consolidation (read austerity), tax reform legislation, improvement in the Net International Reserves (NIR), and tight fiscal rules to be imposed, albeit with the support of the Opposition.

A trump card for the Government will be the stated perception of some key members of the international financial community that Jamaica is making steps towards economic recovery. Mr Phillips will be basking in this assessment and can justifiably take much of the credit.

Nevertheless, Audley will be firing from both hips to stick them up on issues of high unemployment, continuing low growth, and the high ratio of debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP). He will also hark back to the achievements of the JLP Government, which faced a harsh world recession but which, he claims, still maintained stability, recorded growth, and held inflation and interest rates down.

But we on the outside must have our fun, and beyond the crunching of the numbers we must demand our right to enjoy the theatrics because our politicians are traditionally good actors.

I recall budget debates of the 1950s and 1960s as a series which had lights, action, camera from the word go. In those days the opening parade provided a splash of colour and pageantry with a Bustamante striding towards Headquarters House in full-length morning suit and top hat, a quietly elegant Norman Manley in his traditional three-piece, and the plumage of the uniforms of the Grand Cross worn in those days by governors general Sir Clifford Campbell and, later, Sir Florizel Glasspole.

In the early 1970s it was Michael Manley who used to light up the House with his marathon speeches, perhaps none more dramatic than his free education announcement of 1973 (which was said to have taken his Finance Minister David Coore by surprise), the bauxite levy proclamation of the 1974 opening budget statement, and the dramatic announcement of democratic socialism in May 1975.

But the JLP's finance spokesman and leader Edward Seaga was also constantly in top form, attaching popular nicknames to Coore's budgets such as 'austerity' and later 'stagflation', and describing the Government's policies as taking us on "a collision course with bankruptcy".

He occasionally used humour to drive home his argument, as in 1978 when he said: "Chicken back, Mr Speaker, which has become chicken forward, or chicken chassis, has flown out of reach of the poor, as it is now up from 17 to 38 cents per pound."

And who can remember how the country buzzed with excitement when he (Seaga) made his June 6, 1975 budget presentation outside of the House to an audience of 500 at the Jamaica Pegasus, in objection to Speaker Ripton McPherson's ruling to change the order of speeches by putting him to speak before, instead of after the prime minister.

The IMF has also played a key role in Jamaica's budgets since 1977, and in fact accounted for the resignations of two finance ministers -- David Coore and Eric Bell -- during the tumultuous 1970s kareeba vs jacket-and-tie era. The 1977 stand-by facility had been suspended out of failure to meet net domestic assets requirements, and the second agreement was on the way to failure in 1980 when it was rejected on a recommendation made by the PNP's National Executive Council to the Cabinet.

The IMF conditions have sometimes been recipes for disaster. It's a constant headache for governments who have to hammer out unpleasant agreements and then work them into the budget. A 1980 extended fund agreement called for devaluation, a wage freeze, and other measures which would push up prices on a number of consumer items.

There was consternation in some quarters when white rum was increased from 30 to 35 cents, Red Stripe beer from 60 to 70 cents, and cigarettes from $1.30 to $2.

Fooling with the wrong people, as the Government was to find out to its cost in the October 1980 elections. There is a lesson in that for this Government. Don't take IMF effects on the man in the street too lightly.

Lance Neita is a public relations and communications professional. Comments to the Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com

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