Toothless watchdogs guard our treasury!

PM Kenny Anthony is scheduled to deliver the first Budget Address of his administration by April’s end. But what do we know about last year’s bilion-dollar budget or the three before?

I couldn’t help chuckling the other day when one of our nation’s acknowledged best brains actually acknowledged during a radio discussion that we are a people not nearly as respectful of verified fact, proven truth and science as of mindless gossip, speculation and primitive magic. After all, countless were the times he had taken me to task for my use of the word voodoo during our private fratchings about public affairs in our country, the way successive governments glibly talked about transparency and accountability yet had never been guilty of walking the walk.
Is there anyone reading this who with conviction can say how last year’s billion-dollar Budget was spent, if at all it was spent? Ministers of finance continue to remind us that the government’s annual Budget (lest we forget, financed by taxpayers) is similar to your household version and mine, except that the government has at its disposal billions of dollars while the rest of us try to manage on relative peanuts. There is another all-important difference, and it is this: while ordinary folk with our ordinary budgets have to account to our banks, to our suspicious spouses and significant others for money entrusted to us, our governments don’t even bother to keep proper accounts—let alone make them available to the money suppliers.
Ah, but you say I exaggerate. Then please explain why the Public Accounts Committee goes year after year without a sitting? Why it is that the government’s audited accounts are some six years behind? When was the last time a government accounted during a Budget presentation for the previous year’s Budget? How is it that we hear so much in the street and from political platforms about government funds being misappropriated in one way or another—but never from the supposed watchdogs that exist to safeguard the people’s money? Why, despite the unceasing allegations of corruption, not one government official has ever been brought to justice? Why are our treasury gates guarded by toothless watchdogs?
In his white paper on Public Sector Reform, the current prime minister and minister for finance declared with authority: “Lack of accountability can easily lead to corruption among public officers.” Conceivably it was to prevent such occurrence that the Integrity Commission was created, related laws enacted. So, then, why have no charges been brought against the scores of public officials who over the years have stubbornly carried on as if indeed they had never heard of the Constitution of Saint Lucia, let alone Section 118 (1)? In any given year, less than half the officials required to file with the commission bother to do so—despite that their names may have appeared in the relatively unread Gazette!
But to return to the Budget: last week a presumably concerned citizen called Newsspin to lay some verbal blows on the media for, as he maintained, “not providing the public with the important details of the VAT,” scheduled to come into operation on September 1. It occurred to me that while the free press may be at liberty to pick and choose what to publicize, the government is permitted no such luxury. Not in free states, anyway, where governments are duty-bound to account to the people. No ifs or buts. True, there may be much the local media might say about the VAT and its possible impact at this particular time but that would be little more than speculation. What some might conveniently call irresponsible journalism; what I might call voodoo. Until the day’s government has stated precisely the details of the particular VAT, the media will not be in a position responsibly to disseminate related information.
I was nevertheless taken aback when the host of Newsspin, in response to his perturbed caller, suggested such subjects as the government’s Budget and the VAT can best be understood and explained by an inspired breed of acknowledged experts, presumably exclusive of local journeyman journalists and the so-called man in the street. Therein lies the problem: our perpetuated attitude to government information. If we don’t understand it we blame our ignorance, rather than the way the information has been presented. Knowing full well that the average person is not “an expert,” why would a well-intentioned government release for public information what it knows is just a step away from arcane? Why would a well-meaning government address a French-speaking people in Greek, knowing well their inability to understand the language?
Actually, over the years there has been little in the Budget addresses by successive prime ministers that might demand special education. And that’s precisely as it should be. If it were otherwise, then that in itself would be legitimate cause for pause. Why bother to broadcast a Budget address, if not to inform the people of their government’s operations? It certainly doesn’t help, at any rate, the people, when the media suggest they should blame themselves when their prime minister’s address goes over their heads. We simply are too easily satisfied, which may be why, when it comes to accountability, we get from our elected officials far less than we deserve!

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