Tobago in the budget
So far as I know, there has never been, since the reinstitution of the House of Assembly in 1980, any statement in our annual budget presentations showing what Tobago is worth, how much revenue the island generates annually, and how much of that revenue it should spend on recurrent expenditure and development. If anybody knows, please send the information ASAP to the following email address firstname.lastname@example.org!
A too-large number of Trinidadians and Tobagonians, especially the former, think that Tobago earns next to nothing and that the oil— and gas-rich Trinidad subsidises Tobago, which is lucky to be joined to it. Theirs is an ignorance cultivated by a hegemonic People’s National Movement (PNM) political philosophy for much of our political history since 1956, and adopted as a matter of course by all other Trinidadian parties, but, thankfully, it has diminished considerably, especially since the London administration embraced the economic research of mi bredren Vanus, my favourite economist, on what Tobago earns on an annual basis.
Secure in that ignorance, they have no patience with talk of Tobagonian self-governance and will readily accept the pittances offered by the Minister of Finance. So this new fiscal year, they have already accepted the pittance of $3.309 billion. It is a pittance comprising an allocation for the House of Assembly and another for the Government of Trinidad and Tobago.
Let’s go to the text of the minister’s presentation:
‘The budgetary allocation for the Tobago House of Assembly for fiscal 2014 is $2.477 billion, of which $2.095 billion would be for recurrent expenditure, $363.0 million for capital expenditure and $19.0 million for the Unemployment Relief Programme. Furthermore, under the various other heads of expenditure Tobago would receive an additional $831.2 million.
Mr Speaker, in total, Tobago would receive $3.309 billion or the equivalent of 5.39 per cent of the national budget.’
Five point three nine percent (5.39 per cent) of the overall budget is clearly Lilliputian; and the remaining 94.61 per cent is also clearly Gulliverian since it is some 17 times bigger! But note that the Assembly does not get all of the pittance; it gets a paltry 2.477 billion, and the rest – 832 million – goes to the Government.
Now, the minister stipulates that $2.095 billion of that $2.477 billion is for recurrent expenditure while 363 million is for capital expenditure (read ‘development’). Which means that the Government has far more than the Assembly– more than twice the amount! – to spend on development (assuming, not unreasonably, that most of their 832 million will not be applied to recurrent expenditure). So we have the anomalous situation – anomalous in terms of good governance – of the Government creating a financial condition that will allow it to do better than the Assembly for the development of the island. And it looks as if this state of affairs will be repeated – and enhanced, most probably – for fiscal 2015 when general elections are due!
And on top of that, the minister boasts that he is honouring the recommendation of the Dispute Resolution Commission and a promise made earlier in the year by the Government. Hear him:
‘I am pleased to say that this represents more than the minimum 4.03 per cent of the national budget, as recommended by the Dispute Resolution Commission; and is very much in keeping with the proposals made by this Government earlier in the year, regarding an appropriate share of the budget to be allocated to Tobago.’
More than the minimum 4.03 per cent? It is true that $2.477 billion represents 4.03 per cent of a budget of $61.398 billion, but it is a cynical and disgraceful figure unworthy of any boast. For one thing, 4.03 is the lowest rate in the range of 4.03-6.09 ordered by the Dispute Resolution Commission. For another, if the Government proposals the minister was referring to were those made by the Prime Minister in the election campaign for the House of Assembly in January, then he was distorting the truth since the Prime Minister was proposing, somewhat insouciantly, to enshrine the highest point of the range, namely, 6.09 per cent, in the Constitution.
Of course, the joint Assembly and Government share of 5.39 per cent is 0.7 per cent shy of 6.09 per cent and can be taken as a translation of the minister’s words ‘very much in keeping with the proposals made by this Government earlier in the year, regarding an appropriate share of the budget to be allocated to Tobago’. If so, the minister and the Prime Minister are playing with the intelligence of Tobagonians in at least two ways – i) by equating the promised 6.09 per cent with 5.39 per cent but providing themselves with a semantic route of escape in the words ‘very much’ which they could contrast with something like ‘totally’; and ii) by giving the impression in the campaign that the House of Assembly would have access to the promised 6.09 per cent (after all, they were campaigning for control of that House!) but stating in the budget presentation that the Government will share the reduced rate of 5.39 per cent with the Assembly.
If the Government is being sincere and presenting itself as having integrity in its dealings with Tobago, why has it gone for the lowest rate of 4.03 per cent for the Assembly? Why not a middle rate like 5.06 per cent? And if it were serious about keeping its promise to the Tobagonian electorate, why, after allocating 4.03 per cent to the Assembly, did it not allocate to itself the difference between that rate and the promised 6.09 per cent, that is, 2.06 per cent or $1.264 billion?
Either option would have gone a considerable distance in winning back some of their credibility among the Tobagonian electorate. For good governance, I would have gone for the promised rate of 6.09 per cent for the Assembly and at least the $832 million for the Government. But I can settle for the middle rate of 5.06 per cent for the Assembly and the remaining 1.03 per cent for the Government, which works out as $3.106 billion and $632 million, respectively.
Small potatoes, still. Mi bredren estimates that Tobago generated a gross domestic product (GDP) of $6.5 billion in 2012 and that it will generate a GDP of $17 billion by 2015.
If you can promise to enshrine 6.09 per cent in the constitution, you can give it now. I hope Vernella and Delmon see the point and argue it strenuously. For it’s time…
• Winford James is a UWI lecturer
and political analyst.