“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” Matthew 6:2
The above resonated with me as I followed the budget presentation on Tuesday evening, as the prime minister pounded his chest bellowing: “I wonder what they will say to the people of Saint Lucia come 2016.”
The comment immediately followed his announcement that the VAT on medicines would be removed after much public pressure, but that the reprieve would be only until 2016.
Said the prime minister on Tuesday: “No item on the VAT list has evoked as much debate and criticism as VAT on medication.” Then came his announcement that “the government will yield to popular demand” and zero-rate VAT on prescription medication.
As if to give substance to Bingo’s famous calypso, it seemed the prime minister enjoys nothing better than giving with one hand and taking with the other. But then again, “it is written the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh.”
Subsequent to announcing the removal of VAT on medication it was announced: “This will not include vitamins, tonics, food supplements and similar products ostensibly for promoting health and wellbeing.” The interpretation: it will still be very expensive to maintain good health practices in this country.
Then said the trinity: “The prominence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), especially diabetes, in Saint Lucia, alludes to excess consumption of processed foods and refined sugars. When the price paid for an item does not accurately reflect the cost, this leads to overindulgence of the item. To avoid perpetuating unhealthy decisions in the population, these items should reflect their true cost.”
The remaining subsidy on brown sugar has also been removed. “The price per pound is currently at $0.90 and without the subsidy will be raised to $1.00, an increase of only 10 cents per lb,” it was announced.
“The message is simple, sugar is bad for you,” said the clearly plus-sized presenter.
Only ten cents? Really? And what about all the products with sugar as an input—won’t their prices go up as well? And who can accurately say whether the rich or the poor purchases white or brown sugar?
Questions, questions, questions, all clearly from the unfaithful in the flock.
But where faith and hope fail, no doubt a little data could do the trick, right? And so according to Tuesday’s presentation, data was collected on expenditure patterns. It was pointed out that “some items on the existing list were more readily consumed by higher income groups and as such, exemptions of these items have minimal impact on the poor.”
So now VAT of 15% will be collected on fish, butter, margarine, salt and beans; ostensibly items not consumed by the poor (my emphasis). As for any poor pescetarian in the government’s flock, they were directed by their leader to the seaside, or other places where vending is illegal, to purchase-VAT exempt fish. Then again they could of course stick to chicken backs and lamowi.
The prime minister went on to say that since the introduction of the tax he once described as “oppressive,” the price of some goods had gone up but “equally” the price of some goods had gone down. I waited with baited breath for the list of goods that had gone down. I never received my miracle.
With booming tones the roof was raised by “the trinity” in areas where it was felt that the government had scored some points, while in other areas a mere whisper could barely be heard.
“I propose to invite Parliament to amend the Electricity Supply Act . . . to increase “the rate to 50 cents per imperial gallon or part thereof,” was delivered in healthy decibels. That this will lead to “marginal increases in electricity bills . . .” was murmured. The blaring translation: Charges on domestic electricity bills will go up soon. This, after a recent 66% increase in the price of water.
In addition, almost casually it was announced on Tuesday that the “transformation” of the Golden Hope facility at La Toc into a complex to accommodate the future office of the prime minister will go ahead. Much was said about this transformation by the opposition earlier this year, all of which was denied by the government at the time.
Then there was the reference to what for me was one of the greatest environmental atrocities done to this country by this very government: The desecration of the Praslin coastal area to allow the now-abandoned Les Paradis resort to be constructed. It will now be auctioned off, but no details were furnished as to how the country stands to gain after the massive loss we have suffered.
After years of talk about the ‘second coming’ of a facility for the performing arts, once again we heard plans: “Government has engaged the Republic of China (Taiwan) in exploring design options for a National Creative Arts Centre,” we were told. In other words no arts centre any time soon so we are stuck for another few years with the galvanized tent at Barnard’s Hill.
Paying more lip service to the creative industries, there was this: “Under the Creative Industries, government will undertake the following: a cultural mapping exercise, together with UNESCO, to identify tangible and intangible resources in all subsectors: theatre, dance, music, arts and crafts; an ambitious art-in-public-spaces programme; and dedicated programmes for subsectors such as dance, theatre, music, visual arts and film.”
Unsurprisingly, the government has also created a “special purpose agency” to handle the management of Carnival.” Feel free to insert the words “more consultants” somewhere in there.
The government also touted its trump card. “We will continue the Short-Term Employment Programme, STEP, at a cost of $3 million. We believe this is critical to ensure that the most vulnerable can still have an opportunity to generate income for themselves.”
So once again money will be borrowed to operate a program that is not sustainable. Meanwhile there were hardly any specifics about the “Youth Agricultural Entrepreneurship Programme,” something which could actually provide sustainable jobs and feed the flock with healthy organic food.
A restructuring in the income tax regime should redound to some savings in personal income, it was announced. But we will have to wait until January 2015, near the end of the fiscal period this current budget is supposed to be addressing.
Without answering the 75 million-dollar question—what got us into this financial crisis in the first place?—Tuesday’s ringmaster instead regurgitated the history of Kenneconomics.
“In last year’s Budget, it was noted that wages and salaries represent a significant share of annual expenses, accounting for 48 percent of recurrent expenditure. The current wage levels are too high and the burden of meeting these payments too heavy. Therefore, the only amenable solution available to government is to seek a reduction in current wages and salaries,” was the ominous message.
Further, that the government had commenced dialogue with the public service unions—albeit too late, judging by the sentiments of union officials.
“The intention is to arrive at a consensus and agree on a Memorandum of Understanding that will bind both sides. The Government has invited the Unions to indicate [their] suggestions to reduce expenditure. The Government’s preferred approach is dialogue, discussion and consensus. However, should it be impossible to arrive at consensus then the Government will have to act in the best interest of the country.” The writing on the wall indeed.
And the trinity’s final benediction: “This is not the time for vacillation, nor a time for holding onto personal positions, grounded in one ideology or the other. This is not a time for rancour and bickering and vendettas. It is a time for leadership, a time for courage and for unity of purpose. It is a time to put solutions to action.
“It calls on the Public Service to be thrifty and creative; to deliver to the public more with less. It calls on all managers, supervisors, line staff, each and every officer to give of their best. It is a time for Saint Lucians to show their best colours.”
And there I was thinking that this was not about colours at all. Can I get an amen?