The gifts they gave

By Clarence Rambharat

 So this is Christmas. Flour, rice, and oil have replaced gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The judiciary’s wise men have generously delivered a bunch of long outstanding judgments. The international bond market has oversubscribed our generous $4.5 billion bond for Jack’s highway. And if you still do not feel the season of giving, just be happy.  It is Christmas, murders near 400 for 2013, and you are lucky just to be reading this. 

With all the happiness around, 2013 Christmas meets us alive but with a little more grief than a year ago. Crime is biting hard. The boast of reducing murders is no more. Statistically we are no better than last year, but in the eyes of the Police Service we should have fewer criminals than last year because many gang leaders and gangsters are among those killed in 2013. Anti-crime ideas are plentiful, but in a country desperate for political quick-fixes, ideas have a short shelf life. Fighting crime requires a multi-faceted approach and generous time for results. These are too much for any politician to handle. It requires tons of data and analytics, useless to politicians who live on spin. And it requires the patience we no longer have. 

In search of the quick fix, crime has deepened and spread over the years. One time, minister of finance Brian Kuei Tung promised a fix before things got out of hand. More than a decade later, we are worse off. In the typical vaps politics, we are so anxious to deal with children and crime, the Government jumps ahead of its own Task Force on children and announces the construction of ten centres for youth and various other projects relating to children and crime. It will not await its own Task Force. 

And, just when you think you have the Government all figured out, you realise you don’t. Even with an established food card system that offers a safety net for those in need, the Government decides to offer another insight into the vaps politics. Even the PM seemed confused with her own gift to the nation: a 20 per cent rebate on oil, flour, and rice purchased over the two days before Christmas. Apart from the fact that most people would have purchased their goodies by then, the offer to all and sundry seems to defy the basics of welfare economics. With time and consideration, this gesture could have been more meaningful for the people who need it, but the announcement was enough for the Government’s cheerleaders to raise a hip, hip, hooray for the PM.

Unfortunately, not many of the country’s poor will benefit from the PM’s gift to the nation.  They do not have the resources to stockpile the gifts and if they purchase any of it, the savings to them will be nominal. The real beneficiaries will be a group that does not need the discount but will happily pile warehouses high with the items, and convert the PM’s generosity into a boost to their profits. Your bottom line will contribute unhealthily to theirs. 

Still, the 20 per cent rebate is not the end of the Government’s generosity. In fact the rebate is just a drop in the bucket compared to the 4.35 per cent interest the Government will pay to bond holders of its recent TT$4.5 billion international placement. In an otherwise depressed interest rate environment, the international market snapped up the country’s early Christmas gift, oversubscribing by four times, and surely leaving some long faces on Santa’s knee. 

The big question on the highway and other major projects is why did the Government go the way of self-financing the TT$7.5 billion highway to Point Fortin when there may have been cheap sources of long-term international funding available. The answer may lie in the rival COP/UNC politics within the People’s Partnership Cabinet at the time, a strong lobby for borrowing from one particular foreign institution, and the headwinds faced by the then minister of finance when he proposed an open and transparent process. 

At the time, self-financing eliminated the usual requirements to satisfy a pesky international development lender whose conditionalities can hamper politicians who like a free hand in dispensing State contracts, especially on mega projects. 

This plays straight into an April 2013 Financial Times’ analysis of the Caribbean region’s “darkening debt storm”, in which the Times noted that, “although ferocious storms cause periodic devastation, the fundamental challenges are political and economic”, it is “Irresponsible government spending” that “has compounded the problem facing uncompetitive Caribbean states.” 

The Financial Times’ analysis also plays into the recent comment by the Governor of the Central Bank that crime affects the local economy. Politicians have struggled with crime, and now murders will cross 400 for another year. The judiciary, an essential limb in the fight against crime, has also struggled to keep its face and, in the final act of Christmas generosity, the wise men of the judiciary put aside their other interests and got down to writing up some judgments. 

This yuletide gift must be related to the wider publication of Justice Carol Gobin’s lament on the lack of understanding of how the judiciary’s delay and inefficiency affects the system of justice, and the possible constitutional provisions to deal with these inefficiencies. 

It must also be related to the AG’s declarations on the withholding of judicial pay where judgments are not delivered. In the flurry of judicial activity, the country’s jurisprudence is now richer by a dozen decisions, rendered wholesale, dropped on the litigants like overdue homework from an errant schoolchild. 

On Sunday there were five murders in 12 hours. Maybe we remember the former Edmonton, Canada police officer Dwayne Gibbs whose short stint as our Commissioner of Police ended abruptly. For 2013 Edmonton will have less than 30 murders. We crossed 30 before January 2013 ended. That alone is a sign of more water than flour. Merry Christmas!

* Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and a university lecturer

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