R. Rose - Eye of the Needle
February 14, 2020

Reflections on the 2020 Budget Debate

THE DUST HAS now settled on the Budget Debate 2020 and our billion dollar Budget is now a reality guiding the government’s programme of activities, both recurrent and in capital investments for the year.

Many have been the accolades for Finance Minister Camillo Gonsalves, including one by a senior government minister, that it was the “best” that he had ever heard presented.

Predictably, such appreciation was not expressed by the Opposition speakers, with comments ranging from scathing dismissal of the Budget to charges of blatant deception on the part of the government. It was alleged that the government was presenting the nation with a Budget that it knows that it cannot implement successfully and indeed has no intention of doing so.

Undoubtedly the presentation of the Finance Minister deserves plaudits. It is not easy to craft and present a Budget in a country with limited resources and high expectations. We have become so weaned on the state that each year we hold high hopes of wonders from the government in office, only to be perennially disappointed.

In regard to the Budget presentation itself, it is fair to say that the Minister ran the risk of slightly tarnishing an excellent performance by at times tending to be repetitious.

Indeed, Parliament needs to reflect on whether in today’s world of multiple distractions, the format of long four-hour presentations is still the most effective method of engaging our citizens on such important matters of state. This is no longer those times when only the Budget debate was broadcast live, for each sitting of Parliament can now be heard word for word, live and direct. Perhaps some reflections on this and related matters can engage the attention of our Parliamentarians. How can we make Parliamentary debates more interesting without resorting to cantankerous tactics and politicking?

With the passage of the Budget we are now moving to the stage where ambition, as manifested in the Budget, must now face up to reality. There is absolutely nothing wrong in being ambitious, but if truth be told, the weakness of this government has never been in lack of ambition, not in a paucity of ideas, but in practical implementation of policies and programmes.

Our narrow-minded, partisan political system often ends up in muddying the waters because of political partisanship or personal considerations.

Too many of our people tend to support political parties not for the good of the country as a whole but for personal benefit. In turn there is an expectation that those who do not sing from the hymn sheet of the winners ought to be denied opportunities for advancement and even to participate in the affairs of state. It continues to be a major stumbling block to the progress of our country and people.

The ULP government was voted into office in 2001 and immediately put the subject of inclusion on the agenda. It made some promising starts in that direction including initiating some level of consultation in the formulation of the Budget. There were efforts, somewhat limited, but indicating a positive intent, to hold pre-Budget consultations with the labour movement, the private sector and other civil society organisations.

Two decades later this ought to have been strengthened to become a robust mechanism for government-civil society engagement in framing our annual Budgets.

However we seem to have veered off course and the process is neither as healthy nor as robust as it should be. Can we get both sides of the House to commit themselves to such an approach when in office? We cannot continue to act in a manner which excludes meaningful citizenship involvement.

We do not have the luxury of the resources possessed by such countries as the USA where partisanship can rule the roost. We need an “all hands on deck” approach.

This engagement between government and civil society is very much an ongoing concern of mine. It is fair to say that this government has made some positive steps in this direction and that the failure to follow up and build on those starts is not solely to be attributed to the government. But the institutional weaknesses, the historical urge for dominance which characterizes our two-party political system, often end up warping noble initiatives and the tendency is to fall back into the familiar roles. We are not getting anywhere with such attitudes, we need the best hands at the wheel, experienced captains to guide who are prepared to listen as well as to direct. We will be all the better off because of it.

(To be continued next week)

● Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.