Knowing the annual norm, I avoided the television before the budget speech began. I couldn't take the thoroughly sickening sight of parliamentarians strolling in as though they had done no wrong; jacketed and well-groomed; pretty, perfumed and made-up; back-slapping, glad-handing, greeting and grinning; these leaders whose Section 34 sabotage of the Parliament was worse than July 27 1990. I couldn't stomach their beastly nonchalance amidst the ruins they had wrought; the irreparable hurt that set plunderers of our treasury free.
But you couldn't escape when proceedings began. Never had the prayer of the Parliament sounded so utterly hollow. And the MPs were ever present during Larry Howai's deceptive address. You heard them desk-thumping, cross-talking, heckling, bantering. And I wondered how many would have prayed after approving Section 34; or lectured their children about sin and morality. Did they have any compunctions about having capsized the very Parliament where they sat preening that budget morning; angling to inflict more damage on this defenceless nation.
Yes, more damage. After setting free those accused of stealing billions, our leaders were preparing to make available, $58 billion more for the kill. The treasury was being led like a lamb to the slaughter. How many billions will our parliamentarians now allow to be stolen from this new allocation? What is to prevent it? How many members, friends and financiers of the Government, are licking their chops, salivating over the people's money? And what will our futile Opposition and Independents do? Facilitate thievery as they did with Section 34? Will any of our 71 parliamentarians summon the courage to say "enough; no more" even if it means falling on their sword to save the nation and one's dignity? Is none worthy of tying the shoelaces of Gandhi, Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi; none capable, like ANR Robinson, of "attack with full force"?
Certainly not hand-picked Howai. He was immediately run-of-the-mill, eschewing honesty; painting a glowing macro economic picture to which his Government contributed nothing; but avoiding the fact that those very achievements are endangered as we approach the precipice under this administration. Because they lack the moral authority, our superficial politicians cannot summon the courage of the people for sacrifice when necessary.
But this is exactly the leadership that the nation now needs. Our situation is increasingly grim. There will be no growth again this year and for the foreseeable future. Energy revenues will be kept suppressed by our dwindling oil production and a global gas glut from discoveries in the US, Africa and Latin America. Dampened demand in local and foreign markets stagnates our private sector, with little prospects for emergence, given the troubles in Europe, affecting recovery in the United States and producing slowdowns in China, India and other emerging economies. But amidst this uncertainty, we had Larry's largesse, the biggest budget in our history, a $58 billion fatted calf, with a 21 per cent increase in transfers and subsidies and a $7.6 billion deficit. And with deliberate deception, he said absolutely nothing about our burgeoning debt and the revenue to service it. Instead, he proclaimed that we are safe and sound; echoed by a colleague promising "the merriest Christmas ever" as the Government prepares to campaign for local government elections with budget money.
Howai was a fresh face, talking stale fare. His one new device was starting the removal of the gas subsidy. Now there are arguments for and against the subsidy. Those against, say it is an inefficient use of resources; those in support, say the subsidy facilitates wealth distribution, stimulates economic activity and improves export competitiveness. But whatever the argument, one thing is very clear. The Government has placed nothing to protect the hundreds of millions to be taken from the people by the removal of the subsidy. Therefore we can expect that this new money will be stolen by thieves in and out of government; channelled as gifts to family, friends and financiers; wasted in unproductive foreign travel and useless cocktails and ceremonies; eaten by antiquated, parasitic bureaucracy; squandered by waste and mismanagement; and abused in campaigning by the Partnership for THA and local government elections. Money will now be taken from the poor for fat cats to further gormandise. Robin Hood in reverse. Howzat Howai?
So Minister, spare us the tripe about having the funding to build schools and hospitals when you remove the gas subsidy. Don't be the typical politician so early, distorting the truth to make your intentions palatable! The subsidy never prevented infrastructural development. Money was always there, either through earnings or borrowings. It is mainly corruption, waste, mismanagement, cost overruns, construction delays and an antiquated bureaucracy that have stymied development. Remove these impediments and much more will be accomplished. Remove them before the subsidy and then we can feel assured that our money will be well used. You have the cart before the horse, Mr Howai; strange for a highly reputed manager, but perhaps understandable now that you are a politician.
The budget said nothing about preventing corruption, fearing the word would stick in the Government's throat. And the opposition has not even complained. Indeed they dared not, given their own support of Section 34 and the removal of white collar crime from Schedule 6. So we have neither hope nor healing after the usurpation of our Parliament. We remain plagued with a termite-ridden House and Senate but with neither fumigation nor pesticide to save ourselves. It is a most shallow democracy when there is such powerlessness of the people. And after 50 years! Have we really gone no where? Will the spirit of O'Halloran continue to reign over us? So it seems, as our budget provides billions more for thieves.
Ralph Maraj is a former