Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Slot machine country


Mark Fraser

 With the controversial constitutional amendments almost in place, the national budget is next. These are two cornerstones of the People’s Partnership re-election thrust. The budget debate gives every government a platform to tout its achievements, the opposition the liberty to disagree. Next week’s no different. The big money talk will waft for some days, but after, the long-unsolved problems of tone, leadership, policy and representation will gnaw. Run-off and recall aside, what will Minister of Finance Larry Howai do for decaying rural and semi-rural communities?

We know what’s on the ground. Almost every rum shop in the country has a gambling machine that promises instant riches in exchange for hard-earned cash. The more popular places have banks of these, manned by stacks of visibly low-income, “ketch tail” people of the kind Howai and every minister before him promised a different outcome. Is this the Partnership’s nouveau wealth distribution?

Minister Howai’s two-fold challenge in his final big budget statement in this term is this. First, no minister of finance delivers a true account to the country, matching past promises and projections with achievements. Will Mr Howai be different in his third try? Second, election spending will litter this budget statement—more box drains, road paving, slush funds, and short term employment opportunities. The big numbers, fancy names, and high expectations will, at least temporarily, mask the reality that money is not making the major problems go away. Worse yet, it is creating new ones. What will Howai do?

Large scale state spending has fuelled corruption anecdotes. Money laundering is likely heightened. The money is not trickling down. In 2012, Minister Howai’s maiden speech promised “good quality job creation” and a fair and equitable distribution of wealth. How has he done so far? How far along has his government gone? What are the numbers? What is the level of sustainability? 

Whatever the money hitting rural community pockets, the gambling is worrisome. The current proliferation of gambling machines and the more elaborate “private members’ clubs” stands in stark contrast to the attempted takedown in 2007. In the 2006/2007 budget, then minister of finance Patrick Manning set out what has come to pass with the proliferation of gambling. Manning warned that, “the emerging trends in casino-type gambling activities are of great concern to the Government, particularly its spread in urban, rural, and semi-rural communities.”

Manning’s predictions are real. “Help wanted” signs are all over. Potential workers are busy with slot machines. Finding reliable labour is the toughest task facing business. Workers are most productive for the first two hours, distracted thereafter. Latecoming, long breakfasts and lunches and cell phone distractions are eating into productivity. Employers extract low value from workers and customers face poor service levels. This is slot machine country. 

Minister Howai has to face up to the new economy of local rural and semi-rural communities: groceries and food places with imported Chinese ownership and labour. Private members’ clubs and unregulated gaming machines within residential areas. Parallel Play Whe operations and ad-hoc CEPEP, URP, and regional corporation activities. Young people are graduating en masse to “idle hall”, then smokes and alcohol, then itinerant lifestyles. 

The big budget numbers do not create a fix. Rural regeneration is more than box drains and road paving. It requires a reset of community spirit, a reminder of values, and fit-for-purpose plans for rural economic sustainability. One size does not fit all. The big budget is high level, the real work lies a few levels beneath. Will Minister Howai get lucky?

The author is a lawyer and 

possible pnm candidate for 

the next general election