Moral imperative evident in Nigel Clarke's budget presentation
Dr Nigel Clarke, minister of finance and the public service, makes a point in Gordon House recently. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

In his recent budget presentation, Dr Nigel Clarke, minister of finance and the public service, delivered a tour de force that is worthy of applause, even from his worst detractors. I do not expect the latter to happen of course, especially from his political opponents.

I do not know from whence it has come, but there is a tendency in the human condition to highlight the worst in others than the best which often stares one in the face. Perhaps it is related to what the theologians call original sin or the disfiguration of the human spirit which comes as a consequence of the fall from divine grace. But whatever it is, a lifetime of good work can go up in flames as a result of a few minutes of indiscretion or lapse in judgement.

But the minister ought to be congratulated for what was a well-thought-out budget presentation. It is obvious that he put a lot of work into it. Clearly, he has grown in the job. His grasp of the subject area is commendable, as is his ability to dissect difficult subjects and make them palatable to an audience that may not be too familiar with the intricacies of finance or how public money can be spent for the greater good.

A country's budget has many moving parts and the difficulty that confronts a finance minister is to identify the relatedness of these parts to each other and how they can be harmonised to fulfil the greatest public good. The minister's training in mathematics is obviously serving him well, but a budget is not just about numbers. There is a high moral imperative underpinning it. It is fundamentally about people and how you improve their lives by opening ways in which they can earn their livelihood with minimum obstruction from the Government.

Too often governments place obstacles, such as excessive taxation, in the path of people preventing them from participating productively in the economy. Too often, as US President Ronald Reagan used to advise, government is the problem and not the solution. Too often the predatory tentacles of government throttle the poorest in the society whom every politician claims to love, thus preventing them from realising their God-given potential for greatness.

I have watched the budget presentations of Dr Clarke over the last five years and I am becoming increasingly convinced that he is seized of the human element in the budget and of the need for Government not to be a burden, but a facilitator of people's progress. There is a strong moral imperative to his presentations and this was very evident in his latest effort.

Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than his report on the efforts to comprehensively reform the public sector wage bill. It was also evident in the decision by the Government to end contract employment for certain workers who are at the bottom of the wage-earning totem pole in the public sector. This will lift their sense of dignity. It is all part of the "smadditisation" social process advocated by the late Rex Nettleford. They will now become full employees with a view to becoming pensionable. This is a great development that should have happened a long time ago.

Let me stay with the reform of public sector compensation a moment longer. For years successive governments skirted the issue. The subject was used often as a political football to satisfy partisan ends. Thus, no keen attention was paid to the extent to which the fiscal and monetary priorities were being savaged or, worse, the extent to which inequity prevailed in the compensation that public sector workers received. This resulted in adversarial relationships between the Government and public sector workers largely through their unions, the major ones of which are attached, you guessed it, to the main political parties. It is this lack of reform and its attendant consequences that, in my view, is responsible for the low level of productivity that Jamaica has — even when compared to its Caricom partners.

So what the Government attempted, through Minister Clarke, as minister of finance and the public sector was nothing short of a miracle. Instead of kicking the proverbial can down the road, he decided to take it on. Such a feat has never been attempted in the management of public finance in the country. The minister, undoubtedly aided by his mathematical sensibilities, knew that it had to be done if the country was to be set on a path of equity, prudence, and viability in its public finances. It was an arduous task and, no doubt, an agonising process. How much sleep the minister lost during this time might not have been apparent even to himself. But to meander the treacherous waters of partisan politics, decades of calcified thinking and behaviour, to come to a resolution could not have been easy.

Some people say that he was brave to take it on. There might have been boldness, but I think the minister was more seized by the overwhelming necessity to have it done. It was his job to do it, yes, but let us give credit where it is due. Now that the task has been accomplished, there can be a greater alignment of capital expenditure with worker compensation and hopefully a dramatic shift in productive output.

The latter is not to be assumed, however. It is clear that there are some in the public service who do not seem to understand what the minister is attempting to achieve with them. It is therefore refreshing that the teachers and junior doctors have now signed off on the wage offer. We hope the police will follow shortly. What is being offered to these groups by March 31, 2023 is better than they have ever received. Frankly, many might not have expected that level of compensation; that any government would be prepared to roll ten years of delayed compensation into one package. They are not being denied what they are owed; in fact, it is being bettered. We hope good sense emanating from pragmatic leadership from these groups will prevail and the matter will be settled expeditiously.

I hope the public sector workers will realise that they do not exist only to agitate for wage increases. It is not sufficient to give people a lot of money in necessary wage bill adjustments. There is a myth that if you give people bigger wages there will be a correspondent increase in their productive labour. This does not work in several areas of the Jamaican workforce, including the private sector. But the country will be watching to see if there will be a corollary increase in worker productivity; if attitudes in doing the simplest and smallest tasks of government well will experience a paradigm shift.

Again, as I anticipated, there will be no new taxes in this budget. Neither will there be any net borrowing. The debt incurred as a result of the collapse of the financial sector and the Finsac debacle no longer exists to be carried forward on the Government's books. The country is now being freed up to use its own capital for national development projects without going cap in hand to others as mendicants.

When last have you heard a minister of finance speak of the Paris Club and some of the other places that we were frequent visitors to in our bid to get other people's tax revenue to waste on partisan projects or deal with recurrent expenditure. Those of us from 50 years on are just beginning to see the light of fiscal prudence bearing fruits for the Jamaican economy. We know the darkness from which we are emerging and do not wish this country to ever return to that diabolical past. The young people would be strongly urged to reject those who come with messages to borrow money, thus stealing their future as many of us older folks have experienced it. You would be urged to see beyond the politics of the day and reward those who truly have the future of the country at heart.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books: Finding Peace in the Midst of Life's Storm; Your Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life and Beyond Petulance: Republican Politics and the Future of America. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or stead6655@aol.com.

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