Different not always better
I’m not sure any of us who witnessed opening presentations of the annual debate on the Estimates can honestly say there was any significant discussion on the central issue facing this Government.
That task is meeting the targets and benchmarks set in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme.
The focus is to move the primary surplus from three per cent to six per cent in a specified time. I had hoped the ministerial presentations would contain at the minimum an outline of how each ministry is helping to achieve the objective.
Yet, at no stage did I hear – maybe I missed it in the fog of deflections to the permanent staff and technocrats – whether that target had been realised or, perhaps more realistically, what is in these Estimates to address it.
And while we’re at it, what of the other benchmarks set in the IMF programme?
This Government is more fortunate than most in so far as I can recall since no other administration in our history was favoured with a document so clearly setting out the targets.
But can any of us truly say that so far we have heard anything about the primary surplus and what is its current level, that is, what has been achieved?
Now, a concerning aspect is the conspicuous absence from the House of Assembly of the Minister of Finance – up to the time of writing Friday morning.
Under the law, the duty appointed to the Minister of Finance is to table the Appropriation Bill containing the Estimates as the Schedule. This is, after all, the Government’s real Budget, notwithstanding the Black Box theatre that accompanies the Financial Statement And Budgetary Proposals to which we have become accustomed and for which there is no constitutional requirement.
We should not have to be guessing at the reason for the absence of the minister who should be the one to introduce the bill and lead the debate, even under the new format, prior to the House being resolved into the new Standing Finance Committee.
Doing it differently does not always mean better.
And what is the role of the other ministers in the Ministry of Finance? Were they not seen as capable of leading the debate, setting the tone and outlining Government’s programme and the intent behind the numbers?
At some stage, Barbadians will have to be told whether, if the targeted primary surplus is not achieved, there will be further measures that could lead to greater, more debilitating austerity.
There’s been widespread discussion about an impending increase in bus fare and the absurdity of Government’s acknowledgement of a hike, the quantum of which, at this stage, it is unable, or unwilling, to fix.
Again, we should not have to be guessing about such fundamental issues. Can we not be told what are the considerations guiding Government in the direction of an increase but are apparently forcing it to stay its hand?
Such basic issues, even with their built-in social and economic difficulties, ought to be settled before the presentation of this annual Budget and we would be saved the waffling and hemming and hawing of the line minister this past week.
The Government should know by now what commuters will have to pay.
Yet, this exercise is being widely promoted as being in the pursuit of openness, transparency and accountability. Who is being open, transparent and accountable to whom?
Instead of a focus on such fundamental issues, we were to be distracted by a Vision 2020: We Gatherin’ extravaganza that seemed set to rival Freundel Stuart’s 50th Anniversary Of “
Independence boondoggle, only on a more grandiose scale.
It’s as if Bajans have not for donkey years been contributing from wherever they are or returning as nationals to participate in the further development of The Rock.
With the Minister of Finance being MIA in leading and guiding the presentations, this Estimates debate has been symbolic rather than of substance on the most pressing matter.
The Estimates debate should be setting the stage for meeting the primary surplus target, and if there’s going to be a shortfall, explaining how it will be made up.
Still, there’s time enough, as the Estimates have to be approved by April and we may yet hear some substance if, as provided under the different format, the Minister uses the discretion at Standing Orders 63 and 64 to present a Financial Statement And Budgetary Proposals around mid-March.
The process of presenting revenue and expenditure policies has descended into the theatre of the absurd.
Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent.