Hard times call for straight talk!

According to the British prime minister’s office on March 21, Budget 2012 announced “wide-ranging reforms to the tax system to reward work and supporting growth . . . and the next stages in the government’s plans for support businesses.” The government was “committed to driving through the measures announced in The Plan for Growth and Autumn Statement 2011 and is taking further steps in this Budget to stimulate investment, exports, enterprise and the employment market.”
On the same subject, the Wall Street Journal’s Simon Nixon on March 28 wrote: “In the space of a week, Prime Minister David Cameron has lost his aura of impregnability. One poorly received budget, a political donor scandal and an ill-judged proposal to fix a minimum price for alcohol has fed accusations his administration is careless and out of touch. For a government yet to make a dent in tackling among the biggest budget deficits in the world, that is a problem.”
Nixon summed up his piece this way: “It would be wrong to overstate the significance of a bad week. But Mr. Cameron’s government has been given an intimation of mortality—and a signal that hard times call for straight talk rather than political stunts if it is to lead the U.K. out of its mess.”
On Wednesday the Cabinet Minister Francis Maude warned UK drivers to keep their cars topped up and have a spare jerry can of gasoline or diesel at home to prepare themselves for a possible strike that could hit supplies to 90 percent of Britain’s 8,700 gas stations.
The opposition Labour Party sought quickly to score. “David Cameron and Francis Maude should apologize to the country,” said Ed Miliband, “for the way they have handled this situation.” Cameron was “presiding over a shambles.”
It has not been a good week for the UK government. Measures in last week’s budget to cut the top rate of income tax and freeze allowances for pensioners drew Labour accusations that the only beneficiaries were millionaires. The prime minister was then forced to disclose the occasions he had dined with major Conservative donors after the Sunday Times published secretly filmed comments of a fundraiser appearing to offer access to the premier in exchange for US$397,000.
More strike action on Thursday threatened the peace in Malaga, southern Spain, over the government’s struggles to meet strict European-set deficit goals. Spanish unions went on strike to protest jobs reform that, according to reports, “makes it cheaper for companies to fire people and dismantles the nationwide system of collective bargaining.”
But union power has been slowly disintegrating, with less than a fifth of Spanish employees currently affiliated with the country’s two biggest unions. Evidently speaking from a position of strength one day before the strike, economy minister Luis de Guindos said: “Regardless of whether it is considered a success or failure, the government will not alter the reform one jot.”
A 45-year-old shop attendant explained his own rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma on the eve of the strike: “Those of us lucky enough to have a job don’t want to risk it by striking.” Meanwhile Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has announced his administration will pass a “very, very, austere budget” and that this year’s deficit reduction goal of 5.3 percent of gross domestic product implies nominal cuts of at least US$46.63 billion. A much-respected economist noted: “The aim is to keep borrowing costs down; the risk is that the country’s recession will deepen.”
So much for life in the real world. In Saint Lucia, meanwhile, even as the government was announcing the dreaded arrival of VAT, businesspeople on the brink were being polled about their expectations from this year’s budget. On the face of it, an odd question, bearing in mind the government had by its own account used its five years in opposition “to connect with Saint Lucians across the length and breadth of our country” and had come away with “new and different ways to make our country better”—among them a “robust and re-energized economy that will anchor the development of all the other sectors and facilitate the provision of a wider range of services to our citizens.” So why
not get on with the job?
Why more questions when already the people had spoken?
Of course, while always stopping just short of any reference to public sector cost cutting, the prime minister has in recent times spoken more realistically about the Sisyphean endeavor in trying to maintain a public service long ago declared a luxury we cannot afford, even at the best of times.
He publicly acknowledges the private sector “must continue to lead the way to provide jobs, generate public revenue and earn foreign exchange to drive economic development.” But the indisputable reality is that it has been some time since the comatose private sector was capable of leading anything. The greater part of this country’s workforce continues to be government paid. The post-election appointments of additional ministerial advisors and councilors and “experts” have further swelled the public sector payroll.
Then again, no surprise: on page seven of the Labour Party’s Blueprint for Growth it is clearly stated that if elected “a major priority of the government will be the creation of jobs.” According to a report on its first hundred days in office the government started delivering on this promise with its hiring of over 2000 STEP workers at higher wages than paid senators, if only for now. Doubtless the private sector would appreciate at least part of the $100,000,000 for purposes of job creation, promised by the government on the campaign trail.
Paradoxically, the government also states in its Blueprint for Growth: “Experience has shown that the best way of stimulating post-recession growth in employment is to encourage entrepreneurship and new businesses.” If it neglected to say who had experienced the particular experience—or how it planned to encourage new businesses while existing ones perish—still the government further promised “an SLP government will target five areas for growth” in its job creation program: the tourism industry; the creative industries; the ICT sector; the renewable energy sector; high value-added agriculture.
In pursuit of its five targets, the government promised to partner with Caricom and with the local Chamber of Commerce, two finer fossils from Jurassic times it would be difficult to imagine. If by “creative industries” the government refers to our annual partly tax-funded carnival, “our biggest cultural event,” by official account, our flower festivals and the other showbiz pursuits in the CDF portfolio, well, then, who better to turn these subsidized money eaters into major money makers?
Meanwhile the muted grumblings are heard, largely from flat-earth advocates taught to believe there is such a thing as a free lunch, whether as elusive as the Loch Ness monster. There is mounting demand for subsidized fuel, subsidized cooking gas, subsidized rice, subsidized sugar and other staples. No one dares to talk, so soon after a general election based on irrational exuberance, of the need to eat what we grow—maybe because that would mean having nothing to eat. (BTW, I wish to refer local manufacturers concerned about a reported influx of Chinese competition to page ten of the government’s Blueprint for Growth, under the rubric New Sources of Investment: “The SLP will seek new investors from non-traditional sources like Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and the Scandinavian countries. These strategic moves into new markets will be closely aligned with our external relations policies and programs.”)
Interesting is the deafening silence on the part of the official opposition. If in the United States, Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany and the UK respective governments have at great risk to themselves been forced to reduce public spending, what then can our own government be thinking when it insists on being the nation’s premier employer? Might the opposition’s silence on this particular matter be based on a fear that to speak out now could down the road mean loss of the public sector vote? Or is the opposition waiting until there is no money in the kitty for Victoria Hospital, the police force, street lamps, teachers and the old folks’ homes that depend for their existence on the government? Must the vote always supersede everything else?
At the risk of being repetitious, let me say yet again that there can be no greater fool than the citizen who would pray his country’s government should fail in its endeavors—save for he who would pretend his emperor is decked out in the finest finery when in fact his emperor is standing before him naked as a newborn babe.
If the government’s budget can deliver on just one of its several key pre-election promises, say, to inject new life into our tourism industry, I for one, will happily put all other expectations on ice. Already the reliable if scary word is that even with impossibly discounted rates, come summertime most of our hotels will be empty.
I might also have listed as a budget expectation the resurrection of the banana industry, but then why pressure the government to put together what evidently God and black sigatoka have already put asunder?

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