R. Rose
February 13, 2015

Observations on the 2015 Budget

It must have been obvious to all keen observers that, ‘last lap’ or not, it was just not possible for the ULP government to produce the typical ‘election budget,’ stuffed with goodies designed to woo the electorate.

The ongoing deep economic crisis, occasioned by external factors, made this a non-starter, which is just as well, for populations have to pay afterwards for any budgetary indiscretions.{{more}}

Thus, the 2015 Budget contained no special measures or provisions, concentrating instead on rebuilding after the series of disasters, infrastructural development and fiscal consolidation. It was presented under the grandiose theme, “Wealth and Job creation, Equity, Resilience and Fiscal Consolidation,” in the style so typical of PM Gonsalves. It will be no mean feat to address all these in the context of the 2015 Budget.

The revenue-earning measures proposed, additional tariffs on beer, malt and aerated drinks, increased taxes on tobacco (cigarettes), and a hike in the customs service charge, could hardly be called revolutionary and indeed attracted no real controversy or public reaction. Certainly the Opposition did not devote too much of its time on them.

By contrast, the extent and scope of the public debt, Petrocaribe arrangements, and the capacity of Government for implementation received a lot of attention from the Opposition benches. One sad factor in our Parliamentary debates is that neither side seems to heed the concerns of the other. Opposition concerns tend to be clouded by their partisanship and aptitude for confrontational tactics and hostile opposition, come what may. In turn, the Government is wont to be very dismissive, even when those concerns have an objective basis. Clearly, both sides are viewing our country and its development through different lenses.

One welcome feature to emerge during the Budget debate was that of the Opposition making proposals, in contrast to its avowed position of non-cooperation. Perhaps wiser thinking prevailed or the need to demonstrate statesmanship, in light of the claim that there would be a change of government at the next elections. Unfortunately, as so aptly pointed out by Senator Camilo Gonsalves, Minister of Foreign Affairs, most of the positive proposals have either been addressed or are being so addressed.

Given the state of the economy and rising expectations, it was difficult to satisfy the contending claims and varying needs of all sectors of the society. The theme of the Budget suggested such an holistic approach, but there are constraining objective limitations.

A major challenge is that of the completion of our country’s flagship project, the Argyle international airport. This is not only an economic imperative, it is also a major political challenge for the Government. Much of it is of its own making, linking the airport’s completion to the fortunes of the party in power; but the negative reaction of the Opposition has also helped to frame the context.

Beginning by questioning the viability and even probability of the airport’s construction, the Opposition have had a testing time addressing the issue as the airport becomes more and more a reality. At present, the completion date is being made an issue, one put to rest by Senator Gonsalves when he pointed to the length of time that the mighty United States of America has taken to rebuild the twin towers in New York.

It would seem to me that the real issue is not when the airport is to be opened, pre- or post-election, but how soon we can make it operational. With a view to the 2015/16 tourist season then, the matters of airport management, airline contracts and related operational matters are key. We do not need to have the “best” airport; what we need, as of yesterday, is a functional one. Our future economic development hinges a lot on it.

When all things are put in perspective, in spite of our shortcomings and those of the Government, only the blind can deny that we have made much progress. It is one thing to point to weaknesses, another to ignore reality. All the statistics give the lie to the falsehoods about our dire situation. SVG is far from being heaven; it is even further from being the hell that some would propagandize that it is.

The many potholes in the road only serve to validate the emphasis on road construction; the deficiencies in the health service do not deny social improvements; the problems at Clare Valley cannot invalidate an impressive housing programme.

Much has been achieved, but there is much more to be done. The Government cannot become complacent in this regard. Our people are becoming more sophisticated, more demanding. They will not shirk their responsibilities.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.