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Those fiery budget debates

Lance Neita

Sunday, March 10, 2019

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The much-acclaimed budget opening by Finance Minister Nigel Clarke last week has overshadowed, for the time being, the by-election excitement taking place in Portland.

One should not have been surprised by Senator Damion Crawford's foibles on the stage at the launch of his campaign, as he seems tempted to take unto himself Michael Manley's charismatic style of the 1970s that mesmerised the nation during those exciting years. After all, it is not easy to forget (he won't allow us to) that the good Senator, in addition to his tourism responsibilities, also had ministerial duties for entertainment, and no doubt we will see this penchant for presenting his arguments in showbiz style surfacing from time to time during the rest of his campaign. No doubt Senator Crawford will be looking forward to walking up Duke Street into Parliament in a new role, with his locks and his sartorial splendour adding a significant dash of colour and class to the spectacle that normally attends the opening ceremony each year.

The parade provides an eyeful for onlookers, although regular Parliament watchers still reminisce of the unbeatable sartorial splendour of Sir Alexander Bustamante striding towards Headquarters House, in full-length morning suit and top hat; the quiet elegance of a Norman Manley in his traditional three-piece suit; and the plumage of the uniforms of the Grand Cross — worn in the earlier days of Independence by governors general Sir Clifford Campbell and Sir Florizel Glasspole.

As the 2019 budget debate assumes its rightful place in our general discourse I took a look back at an article written earlier describing the exciting budget debates that followed our attainment of Independence in 1962. A pattern had developed, started by Finance Minister Donald Sangster, of attaching a name to each budget. This habit faded in the 1970s, with little time for such niceties as that decade was played out on a platform of sharp political divisions that came to the fore with the start of each financial year.

The budget debates of the 1970s echoed the wide ideological differences between the two parties, and the kareba outfits worn by the Government members — in contrast to the conservative suits of the Opposition members — mirrored this disparity more eloquently than any speech could in Gordon House.

The first budget exercise of the new People's National Party (PNP) Government elected on February 29, 1972 got off to a rather bland start on June 29, with Finance Minister David Coore giving what analysts described as “a staid account of national housekeeping”. It was nicknamed elsewhere the austerity budget. And, although Hugh Shearer and Edward Seaga immediately attacked the price freeze proposals introduced, the JLP Opposition took most of the 'better must come' jabs on the chin for this first round. It was left to PM Michael Manley to light up the House with a typical marathon speech, presenting new proposals for development, austerity, and taxation with his usual charisma and eloquence.

The pace picked up with Coore's first full budget in April 1973. That debate was to mark the opening of an era of sharp confrontation between the two parties, with no quarter given at budget time. The battle lines were being drawn and announcements of wide measures of increased taxation led Seaga to charge that the Government was on a collision course with bankruptcy.

It was Manley, however, who again stole the show with his dramatic announcement of free education — said to have taken even his Cabinet by surprise. It was hailed in the press as a plausible blueprint for massive social change, and prompted Opposition spokesman on education Edwin Allen to cross the floor and shake the prime minister's hand.: “You can stay over there,” quipped Opposition Leader Shearer during the exchange.

'Bauxite to finance the future', proclaimed The Gleaner headline, as Coore opened the 1974 budget debate on May 16 with the announcement that additional earnings from the recently legislated bauxite levy would ease the balance of payments crisis and allow relief from some import restrictions.

The euphoria of the day was carried over into the social spectrum as Manley announced that National Minimum Wage talks were to begin, and the length of the working day was to be adjusted. The figures did not add up for the Opposition, and Seaga, critical of the inflation rate, labelled the economic situation as 'stagflation'.

Increased taxes on the old favourites — liquor, cigarettes, road licences and travel tax — featured prominently in the estimates presented on May 15, 1975. These were devastating to some and caused consternation on the streets: “With immediate effect the cost of a drink of rum will rise from 15 cents to 18 cents, and beer 28 cents to 31 cents per bottle.” And the promised salary increases to government servants were postponed.

On May 27, 1975 Manley's dramatic budget speech announcing new levels of worker participation in the context of communicating “the central belief of democratic socialism that the people must control decision-making at all levels — the political system, the nation's institutions, the economy”. It was an unequivocal declaration of socialism as the core of the PNP Government's policies.

The country buzzed with excitement as it awaited Seaga's response. The Opposition leader had already indicated that he would make his presentation outside of the House in objection to Speaker Ripton McPherson's ruling to change the order of speeches by putting him to speak before, instead of after, the PM. The Jamaica Pegasus was the chosen venue on June 6. More than 500 people were present as Seaga warned again that the Government was on a collision course.

The following year, on April 29, 1976, Finance Minister David Coore presented a consolidation budget inclusive of extensive tax reform proposals. Most revealing were his comments: “The economy was extremely disappointing, the balance of payments critical, and negative growth recorded in 1975.”

Seaga and his deputy leader, Shearer, punched holes in a number of areas, charging that the Government was spending too much on 'socialist style' programmes, and that “a political atmosphere had been created which discouraged private sector investment”. The Government, in turn, claimed that thousands of jobs had been created through its policies, and Manley brought up the issue of destabilisation allegedly being fostered to obstruct the country's progress.

It was a fiery kind of pre-election debate. “The opening salvos of battle were sounded in Parliament during the budget debate in May,” said a newspaper editorial. “It was obvious that the election would be held before the next budget.” It was held on December 15, 1976 and saw the PNP returned to power. Coore presented the first budget for the new Government on May 12, 1977. There was to be no additional taxation, but looming in the background were negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which had got under way from 1976.

Manley, faced with chronic shortages and high import costs, announced an Emergency Production Plan as a prelude to a long-term production plan to be detailed after consultations later in the year with the private sector. This was to be Coore's last budget presentation. He resigned suddenly on March 1, 1978, leaving his successor, Eric Bell, to face the music of the IMF. Arguments for and against the IMF had dominated the debates 1978-80. The stage had been set when Bell announced, on March 14, 1978, that a new IMF programme was being negotiated, with an agreement for a US$250-million Extended Fund Facility expected by mid-May. This would replace a 1977 two-year stand-by facility which had been suspended as a result of the country's failure to meet the net domestic asset requirements in the fourth quarter of that year.

The 1978 Parliament was officially opened by Sir Florizel on May 16. All protocol was observed, but there was little time for the customary formalities. A special sitting had been called that same evening to debate the proposed IMF agreement. The debate was vigorous and the Opposition pulled no punches, calling on the Government to renegotiate or resign.

The budget called for expenditure of $1.6 billion. The Opposition spotted revenue shortfalls and challenged the Government to reduce “wasteful spending on its socialist programmes”.

The 1979 debate opened on June 14 against the background of torrential flood rains which devastated large sections of western Jamaica. Bell presented estimates of $1.7 billion and set a target of three per cent real growth as the Government attempted to “stabilise the economy after a year of adjustment to the IMF loan”. An increase in oil prices cautioned the minister to assure Jamaica that gas prices would not pass $4 per gallon — bearing in mind the infamous gas demonstrations in January of that year. It was Manley who again stole the show when he announced a 10 per cent increase in the minimum wage ($24 weekly to $26.40).

The following year, 1980, saw a new finance minister (the third since 1972), Hugh Small — after Bell's sudden resignation on March 24 following a recommendation made by the PNP's National Executive Committee to reject the IMF programme. The Cabinet accepted the recommendation. Small made his first and only budget opening speech on May 20. He proposed expenditure of $2.075 billion to be funded from increased tax revenues, as well as foreign exchange to be sourced from an alternative economic path. There was consternation in some quarters when white rum was increased from 30 to 35 cents, beer from 60 to 70 cents, and cigarettes from $1.30 to $2. The Opposition saw an irreconcilable gap between expenditure and revenue, challenged the viability of any alternative path proposed by the Government, and put forward foreign investment as the only hope.

But what obviously occupied the minds of MPs during the debate was the elections to be held that year, and the Throne Speech started and ended on the election theme, evoking a spirited response from the MPs eager to get on with the campaign. The speech had an appeal for an end to political violence. A warning was issued that, “The nation may be tempted to doubt the sincerity of that plea if the terror on the streets continues unabated.” With that the curtain came down on one of the most volatile and eventful decades in the history of our budget debates.

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


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