Saturday, February 24, 2018

Less that’s new, in less time than usual

Express editorial logo179

Mark Fraser

The Budget, annual keynote performance by the government of the day, was pre-empted, first, by newspaper stories and ads, and later overshadowed, by the House Speaker. By the time Finance Minister Larry Howai closed yesterday,  the intent was already apparent to downplay the actual Budget presentation.

Promptly after the Minister spoke, a detailed exposition, rivetingly read by Speaker Wade Mark, effected the eviction from the House of St Joseph MP Herbert Volney.  For once, the Budget faced breaking-news competition. 

Over the build-up days to Budget Day 2013-2014, the Ministry of Finance and the Economy had serialised full-page ads, “Conversing with ‘The Exchequer’”. In this campaign, former banker Howai free-associated his thoughts and feelings about his second T&T Budget.

In the ads, Mr Howai had expressed hope to reduce the Budget marathon to just two hours. He succeeded yesterday in saying less that was new, in less time than usual. The preceding ads, and news reports, sourced directly from or inspired by him, had told much of the story normally left for Budget day. 

His House performance thus climaxed an upbeat chronicle of achievements large and small, and well-intentioned proposals for future betterment. Though it’s another deficit Budget, relative to gross domestic product, the deficit is smaller than before, and projected to get smaller still, even as the national debt burden is kept “at sustainable levels”.

As earlier reported, the fuel subsidy is being removed, only from Caribbean Airlines. But that state enterprise is not to hike its fares as a result. The land and building taxes are due to return, and the Prime Minister stressed at a post-Budget news conference that there will be no property tax.

The administration, Mr Howai conceded, is “not without fault”. But he urged: “Judge us on our record.” That “record” includes four quarters of economic growth, and such foreign reserves, enviable among Caribbean neighbours, as to provide 12 months’ import cover, plus US$5 billion in the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund.  

The Minister hailed a “renaissance in the capital market”, and voiced plans for further market placements of state assets. He plans, however, to continue “dialogue” with the trade unions, whose leaders are loudly hostile, in principle and in practice, to such divestment. 

It’s under the rubric of “defence, security and safety” that an iron fist is revealed. Mr Howai dismissed as outdated any claim by lawbreakers that “the system is working against them”. He cited the billions spent on education, and the numbers of unfillable private sector vacancies.

Claiming the second largest share of expenditure, the Howai National Security budget provides for some 6,000 more police, more police stations, and the deployment of unmanned investigative “drones”. 

Mr Howai’s recital of positives is certain to stir such an outpouring of the opposite that the input of the MP for St Joseph may not be missed.