Nine out of 10 for that Customs speech, Dr Clarke, and yet…
It is a thing to behold how Dr Nigel Clarke, the finance minister, grows as a politician, from an uncertain novice to a promising firebrand — if political speeches are anything to go by or any yardstick by which to judge growth.
One should quickly clarify that speeches from a political platform must never be elevated to policy or programmes until they actually are. We in this country have copious examples of soaring announcements that disappear as fast as the cheering crowds at the end of a party meeting.
To be realistic, the language on a political platform, while being too frequently exaggerated, has, of necessity, to be heady and tailored to excite the hungry masses who did not attend to be bored with statistics and cold facts. Imagine the amount of hard liquor that is imbibed as some speakers prepare to face the jam-packed arena.
On Sunday, Dr Clarke seemed well-prepared as he announced the 100 per cent increase in the duty-free threshold for imported goods at the ports — from US$50 to US$100 — and personal items taken in at the airport during travel, from US$500 to US$1,000, effective April next year.
Addressing the 80th staging of the Jamaica Labour Party’s annual conference at the National Arena, he spoke the people’s language:
“When you come to the airport, everybody ah bother you, what you buy abroad? You buy this and you buy that? Ah bother you, ah stop you and make a line long… We are going to address the threshold.”
He might have created a potential problem for the Customs agents “bothering” travellers, but even the hardest marker might be wont to give the finance minister a nine out of 10 for that speech.
It showed, among other things, that someone, if not Dr Clarke himself, has been looking seriously into government revenue and trying to determine what would appeal to Jamaicans.
The US$500 personal allowance has been in place since forever. Moreover, neither passengers nor Customs officers at the airport pay it any attention. Once there is a doubt, the officer simply sends the passenger to the Customs cashier to have the goods assessed and charged.
This is where we suggest that Dr Clarke looks next. It is never clear what yardstick Customs uses to decide what to charge. This was one of the causes of the corruption that bedevilled Customs for many years, and encouraged passengers to claim that goods cost way less than they paid for it.
The Jamaica Customs Agency says that the aggregate duty on some frequently imported items is television – 40.732 per cent; computer – 17.432 per cent; clothing – 40.732 per cent; and cellular phone – 26 per cent. Personal items in excess of the US$500 may be calculated on the “excess value”.
The import rates for motor cars and SUVs are determined by the CC (cubic capacity) rating/engine size of the vehicle and rates for pickups are determined by the unladen weight.
Nobody believes in those rates. The big question is why is the duty not based on the actual cost of the goods? It appears that our import duty rates belong to a time when it was nigh impossible to get foreign exchange and it was necessary to discourage use of scarce currency to buy consumer goods.
This is the area for which Dr Clarke lost a point. We hope that his declaration that the system needs modernising is not mere political platform speech.