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Budget (naming) matters

Lance Neita

Sunday, March 17, 2019

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A look at the budget debates of the 1970s seemed to have excited reader interest with the recurring question, so what happened in the debates of the 1960s?

Budget debates, on a whole and over the years, have been as entertaining as they have been informative — some would say misleading as well. The official ceremony can be quite a spectacle as parliamentarians from different parties walk from their base at north and south Duke Street to enter Parliament for long, drawn-out discussions on the nation's business. This has been a long-standing tradition in Jamaica, although the opening ceremonies took on different forms as the years progressed.

Some may not realise that Parliament held its first meeting on January 20, 1664 at St Jago de la Vega (now Spanish Town). That's how long they have been talking. And some odd things have happened during the history of our parliaments that had nothing to do with the majority of the population, save to keep them subjected to the whims and fancies of the colonial masters.

For example, history records that, “In November 1755, when the assembly was sitting in Kingston, it was on the 12th adjourned to the dwelling house of Thomas Hibbert, Esquire, a member of this House, where he and Colonel Lawrence, another member of this House, are indisposed; there to proceed on business.” From whence they adjourned it is not certain, but it seems that it could be from either the courthouse, Wolmer's School (at that time in South Parade), or a certain Dr Clarke's house.

Jamaicans came into their own when the winds of change started blowing in the 1920s and 1930s as we advanced towards nationalism. At the turn of the century we had seen one of our unheralded heroes, Dr Robert Love, playing a leading role in the democratic struggles that started to be played out at parliamentary levels in the fight against British imperialism which ruled the country through Crown Colony Government.

Scholar Rupert Lewis describes how during those times “the monopolistic character of landownership in Jamaica had its counterpart in the political sphere. A minority of the population had the right to vote and an even smaller section of this minority had the right to seek election.

“In storming the preserve of the whites in the legislature,” says Lewis, “Love was seeking a platform for political change. He kept up and maintained unrelenting pressure on black Jamaicans to make themselves available to sit in the House.”

Later on we saw the cheeky Marcus Garvey standing his ground when he was arrested for defying the biased judiciary system and still win an election to the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation, even while he was in prison.

Then, in the 1930s, along came Alexander Bustamante, who kept up a rapid-fire assault against the elite elected officials through his letters to The Gleaner, his street meetings, and his animated conversations with the parliamentarians, businessmen and journalists who frequented their favourite watering hole — Arlington House Restaurant and Hotel at 60 East Queen Street.

Bustamante and Norman Manley led the fight to gain adult suffrage and a new constitution which allowed a general election to be held in 1944.

Enter at last a Jamaica chief minister (Bustamante) with limited powers, mark you, but also with a Finance Minister Sir Harold Allan from Portland, who, although an Independent, was named by Bustamante as one of his five ministers that the constitution allowed. He was the minister of finance and general purposes for much of the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) 10 years as the first elected Government, 1944 to 1955. Allan was knighted in 1948, becoming the first Afro-Jamaican to achieve that honour. He died in 1953 and was succeeded by the incomparable Donald Sangster.

Lawyer and Jamaica cricketer Noel Nethersole was given the finance minister post by Norman Manley when the People's National Party (PNP) won power in 1955. Nethersole was determined to modernise Jamaica's financial institutions to give the country economic independence in preparation for its political independence. He died in 1958, and the Bank of Jamaica regards him as the father of the central bank. His statue stands outside the front of the building in Nethersole Place, Kingston. His portrait appeared on the Jamaican $20 note between 1976 and 2000. He was succeeded by Vernon Arnett, who held that position until the PNP was defeated in 1962.

Donald Sangster was appointed finance minister in 1962 when the JLP won the 'Independence' elections. He remained in that role for the first five years of independent Jamaica during which time he was also acting prime minister, and full prime minister when he steered the party to a second successive victory in 1967.

Of course, the debates of the 60s were not as acrimonious as those of the 1970s. The JLP had from time to time been taunting the PNP with the communist bogeyman title, but there was no wide ideological split between the two parties as emerged in 1972.

As described last week, there was a tradition or trend which began in 1962 with Sangster attaching a name to his budget. His first such budget was presented as the Stocktaking Budget, noting that his new Government needed time to take a keen look at the financial affairs left behind by the Norman Manley Government. His first full budget was presented with much fanfare on April 10, 1963. He called it the Action Budget, boasting that it was Jamaica's largest budget to date, passing the 50-million barrier for the first time with an estimated gross expenditure of 55 million ($110 million). His Production Budget was in 1964. Then on April 29, 1965 he came up with the Expansion Budget, where a consumption tax was introduced into the system. He was at pains to point out that the tax was on luxury items like cigarettes, motor cars, and imported confectionery. Whiskey was shot with a 10 per cent increase, with the lowly Buccaneer cigarette escaping unhurt and remaining at 9d per pack.

Then came the Consolidation Budget on April 14, 1966, with 76 million and no new taxes, but with the minister having to put up a stout defence of the recently introduced National Insurance Scheme (NIS), which the Opposition had earlier labelled a form of new taxation, and had reversed the abbreviation NIS to read SIN.

It was the final Budget before the 1967 elections and Opposition member Max Carey launched a scathing attack on the estimates before rounding off his speech by wishing the Government “good night, good night, and farewell”.

Sangster died prematurely while preparing the 1967 budget. Incidentally April 11 marks the 52nd anniversary of the death of Jamaica's second prime minister, Sir Donald Sangster. It is an anniversary not often recalled by the State. He was prime minister for seven weeks and was incapacitated for the last three weeks of his life. His death marks a sad time in Jamaica's history.

The story goes as follows: Donald Sangster led the JLP to victory at the polls in the 1967 General Election and set about selecting his Cabinet and preparing his budget speech — he had kept the finance portfolio — immediately after the election. He decided to spend two days after the official opening of Parliament on a retreat in Newcastle at the military bungalow, Bush Cottage, to work on the budget. He had been shaving early on Saturday morning, March 19, when he got a cerebral seizure. The maid found him on the floor and called for help. As the official car sped down the hill back to Kingston, headed for Vale Royal, the good folk in the market towns en route had no idea when the Cadillac passed them that their prime minister was lying prostrate in the back seat. Nor was the public aware of the developing crisis.

Word leaked that Saturday morning that Sangster had fallen ill and was to be sent to Montreal Neurological Institute in Canada. We didn't take it too seriously until the days grew into weeks without any positive reports coming out of Canada on his recovery. Before leaving he had named Clem Tavares as acting prime minister and Edward Seaga to act as minister of finance. On April 7 Sangster was knighted by Her Majesty The Queen while he was in a coma. There was nary a dissident voice on that matter. Four days later the prime minister died and the nation was plunged into mourning. Four hours after his death, Hugh Shearer was appointed prime minister. The nation wept as Sir Donald was laid to rest at National Heroes' Park.

Following his death Edward Seaga presented the 1967 estimates, continuing the tradition by naming it the Impact Budget. The Opposition found their tongue and named it the Soak-the-Poor Budget. The year 1968 saw Seaga's Expansion Budget with an estimated 102-million expenditure, and the introduction of the popular National Lottery. He returned with the Reform Budget in 1969, but after that year the habit of naming the budget faded in the 1970s, although the Opposition, now led by Seaga, had a field day describing the various PNP offerings as Stagnation Budget, Austerity Budget, and Collision Course with Bankruptcy Budget, to have the last word.

All budgets have been given their own peculiar nicknames by the public, the media, and the Opposition, and it has never been what the Government would like it to be. It will be interesting to see what handle will be attached to this year's presentation, especially when, at this time, the attention of the nation is drawn to the by-election, and later to enjoy a focus on the weighty matter of bun and cheese consumption providing a distraction from having to follow other serious matters that will be taken up in Gordon House.

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant, writer, and historian. Send comments to the Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.


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