Throne Speech again fails to inspire

Sunday, April 06, 2014

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THE Throne Speech, once again, failed to inspire, despite the best efforts of the Governor General Sir Patrick Allen, and intermittent applause of the Government benches.


This was obviously due to the Government's intention to play it safe, in terms of the fiscal challenges under the Extended Fund Facility agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).


In some 40 minutes of reading the speech, Sir Patrick failed to produce one significant new theme, except, perhaps, raising the hopes of small, local contractors who have been promised more involvement in the new infrastructure development programme, the Major Infrastructure Development Programme (MIDP), which is expected to replace the Jamaica Development Infrastructure Programme (JDIP) this year.


The name change was obviously to distance the new programme from its predecessor, which came under severe criticism just prior to the December 2011 general election, leading to the resignation of then Minister of Works, Mike Henry. MIDP was expected to get going during 2013/14, however, it has been hampered by outstanding debts owed to local contractors. So far, the only clear indication of its progress has been the agreement for a $630 million project, under the Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme (JEEP), involving the 63 Members of Parliaments (MPs).


The Government is planning to spend US$50 million (J$5 billion) of the US$352 million (J$35.2 billion) Chinese loan to finance MIDP to revive JEEP. MPs are the first to benefit, with each constituency receiving $10 million. Those funds were scheduled to be disbursed in March.


There was nothing more from the GG on the issue, except that JEEP will focus on community and labour-intensive programmes throughout the country this year, and that National Contracts Commission (NCC) registered Grades 3 and 4 contractors will be given special preference.


Six bills which the GG promised for 2014/15 have all been in some form of gestation for the past decade or more and have been promised each year, without success. They include the long-awaited Occupational Safety and Health Act, the National Disabilities Bill, the Building Bill and a bill to amend the Administrator General's Act, to address difficulties in administrating multi-generational estates.


It was noteworthy that, while the theme of last year's Throne Speech was "Jamaica: Going for Growth and Development", this year the theme was, "Going for Growth: Creating Opportunities". However, the "opportunities" were clearly missing from the speech and, certainly, we should hear more about them in the budget debate which Minister of Finance and Planning Dr Peter Phillips is scheduled to open on Holy Thursday, April 17.


The full budget debate schedule is:


Thursday, April 17: Minister of Finance opens the debate; Tuesday, April 22, Opposition Spokesman on Finance and Planning; Wednesday, April 23, Government Member/ Opposition Member; Thursday, April 24, Leader of the Opposition; Tuesday, April 29, Prime Minister; Wednesday, April 30, Minister of Finance closes the debate. The Standing Finance Committee (comprising all 63 MPs) will review the estimates Tuesday, April 8 - Thursday, April 10.


Houses of Parliament estimates


Parliament's budget for 2014/15 has been increased from last year's $744 million to $761 million. But, considering the eight per cent cost of living rise, this year's budget might not be able to do as much as last year's, despite the fact that Parliament has been struggling to keep up with increasing expenses.


The bulk of the allocation will be spent by the House of Representatives on compensation, travel expenses and subsistence for staff and MPs, totalling of $530 million. The Senate, whose members are not paid salaries, will spend $38 million.


Three Commissions of Parliament -- the Political Ombudsman, the Integrity Commission and the Office of the Leader of the Opposition -- will be paid from the allocation, as well. The Integrity Commissions gets $16.3 million and the Leader of the Opposition, $16.8 million. However, only $1 million will be spent from this allocation on the Political Ombudsman's Office, and the estimates state that, pending the appointment of an ombudsman to succeed the Rev Herro Blair, who resigned last year, the full cost of the office will be handled under the Ministry of Finance and Planning's contingency provision.


Hopefully, by the time the Leader of the House Phillip Paulwell, speaks in the budget debate, he will be able to explain whether the government intends to replace Bishop Blair or, as has been rumoured, submerge the office into that of the Electoral Commission.


The other four commissions of Parliament have been budgeted as follows:


Office of the Public Defender, $75.4 million, a $2.2- million increase over last year's figure; Office of the Contractor General, $229 million, $3 million less than last year's figure; the Auditor General's Department, $528 million, a $76-million increase likely to assist it to prepare for increased responsibilities under the new fiscal policy laws; and the Office of the Children's Advocate, $99.3 million, or $2.3 million more than last year, to ensure the welfare of the nation's children.



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