The people must recognise wheat from chaff in budget debate


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

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THE budget debate so far has been of a high quality. Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke set the tone in his presentation. This has been followed by commendable efforts by the Opposition spokesman on finance Mark Golding and Opposition Leader Dr Peter Phillips.

The role of the Opposition is to show up flaws in the Government's performance and to indicate ways in which it would do things differently if it were the Administration of the day. The sitting party will always seek to defend its performance, even though for the interested outsider there are clearly things that are not being done or which could be improved.

One should not be fooled by the 'brilliance' of the Opposition in finding an answer for every conceivable problem. Opposition parties have been proven to be myopic and incompetent when they assume the reins of governance. We have seen that over the years since Independence. The green and luscious grass that an Opposition party sees often become brown and dry when it becomes the Government of the day. For the Opposition resources are always limitless, but a Government is often constrained by the need to prioritise the allocation of resources. This is so especially when the country is operating in a tight fiscal space.

The Government cannot promise all kinds of goodies to people only to subject its citizens to austerity measures to meet their own priorities of governance. Reality has a strange way of sinking in. It is this reality that has constrained the Government not to lower the General Consumption Tax (GCT) or the special tax on fuel at this time. It has been severely criticised by the Opposition for not doing so. Very little time is spent examining the merits of the $14 billion in net taxes that the Government has given back to the people. It is true that a reduction in the GCT would help every consumer, especially those at the lower rung of the economic ladder, as it would spur consumption and spur aggregate demand. But in matters like these, the question is always about timing and the practicality of such application in the context of what has already been done.

Land reform and titling is at the top of the Opposition's agenda if it should become Government. This seems to be the cornerstone of the People's National Party's thrust towards economic growth and prosperity. But this has also been an important plank in the Jamaica Labour Party's push for growth and creating an ownership economy. Something creative and just must be done with the problem of squatting in the country. Billions of dollars have been wasted in the past in trying to accommodate people in owning land. We know of the Operation PRIDE efforts and the land-resettlement programmes of the past that have not worked. It seems that the harder we try at resettling people is the farther we fall behind in getting the job done. The problem is that we have not had a comprehensive policy of land reform and resettlement of people. Attempts have been hodge-podge at best. And, of course, the tentacles of partisan politics and corruption have been allowed to stifle any meaningful attempts at reform.

Phillips sounding the alarm on the troubling phenomenon of contract labour deserves attention from the Government. Both the private and public sector will from time to time engage short-term contract labour. But if it is the case that this is becoming normative in employment practices then it is something that the Government must watch carefully so that workers are not denied retirement and other benefits that come with normal employment practices.

We have made important strides in getting our fiscal house in order. We must temper any desire at giveaways with the sober reality that we are not yet out of the woods. There is a great deal of work to be done. Both sides of the political divide must be given a fair hearing by those who wish the country well. By dint of hard experience the people are learning not to trust grandiose promises from political platforms or from the halls of parliament.

Jamaica is at a good place to become the great country that it can become. Let us recognise wheat from chaff and strive towards building a prosperous society for all Jamaicans.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or

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