Saturday, February 17, 2018

Show us your policy, Mr Minister

Express editorial logo326

Mark Fraser

Yet another Carnival has come without the Government delivering on its promise to introduce a Culture Policy with clear guidelines for the disbursement of funding and grants.

In the absence of this policy, the public remains completely in the dark about how the government is deciding on which entities should receive grants, and how much each should get.

This is a worrying state of affairs that lends itself to arbitrary decision-making and public distrust in how taxpayers’ money is spent to support cultural activities, including some of the biggest Carnival competitions.

Prime examples are the International Soca Monarch and Chutney Soca Monarch competitions. Saturday night’s Chutney Soca Monarch competition received the princely sum of $4.5 million in direct funding from the government of which $2 million went to the first prize. While organisers of the International Soca Monarch competition are still in discussions with the State about funding, experience would suggest that it is likely to receive at least matching funds, if not more.

It is impossible to judge the management and viability of these extravaganzas when they are so highly subsidised by the public purse. In continuing to dole out state funds to private entertainment entrepreneurs, both profit-driven and non-profit, the government runs the serious risk of deepening the dependency on state support way beyond what is affordable with ticket sales and corporate sponsorship.

While we accept the critical importance of state support for Arts and Culture, such support should not be extended on some open-ended basis without relevance to san acceptable cost/benefit framework. We know that many benefits are intangible, but even those have to be quantified and guided by clear-cut policy. The public purse can only be protected by a transparent process guided by coherent public policy.

Without an intelligent and transparent policy framework, the government could become an easy prey to operators for whom state support is a substitute for innovative financing approaches. In such a situation, the State ends up blocking entrepreneurship, supporting the development of monopolies and denying the market’s potential for encouraging greater innovation through competition.

Although these issues have been with us for a long time, they are getting increasingly difficult to deal with due to State procrastination. The failure to deal with the challenge will lead, inevitably, to a hardening of assumptions and entrenched feelings of entitlement of support from the public purse.

Minister of the Arts and Multiculturalism, Dr Lincoln Douglas has raised the issue of sustainability but he, above all, must surely recognise that his ministry’s failure to develop a Culture Policy for guiding the disbursement of grants, is counter-productive to the goal.

Having condemned the fund disbursement approach of PNM culture minister Joan Yuille-Williams, the People’s Partnership Government has been committing the same crime of funding myriad entities on a basis that is not transparent to taxpayers and open to charges of bias, political manipulation and nepotism.

We cannot continue like this. Every dollar from the public purse must be accounted for. It is time to present that policy, Mr Minister.