Trust politicians at your own peril!

A cross section of MPs at a House meeting

As I listen via the Internet to the various contributors to what has for some time now in Saint Lucia passed for parliamentary debate, I am reminded of John Maynard Keynes’ comment on economics and the Great Depression: “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas but in escaping from old ones.” Still with Keynes in mind, I find myself redefining politics as the absolutely “astounding belief that the wickedest of men will do the wickedest of things for the greatest good.”
Let us remind ourselves that our finance ministers’ budgets are never written in stone, therefore can hardly be regarded as promises their makers intend keep come hell or high water. Especially with elections around the corner, what we can count on are truckloads of hyperbole from our elected representatives. Even before this current budget session, the ceaselessly campaigning relentless leader of the opposition was promising tax breaks for business people (category undeclared), lower fuel prices and relief for job seekers regardless of talent. Not to be outdone, the former tourism minister and MP for East Castries has also been laying out his own flavored-to-taste dollops of if-I-am-reelected offerings. We can count on similar enticing snares being laid by MPS on both sides of the House before these budget rituals come to an end.
Of course, as always, the prime minister holds the best cards. Earlier considered pie-in-the-sky projects long ago promised will suddenly get underway, in the process sending opposition members scrambling to keep up. Or, as is usually the case, they will denounce the government for over-spending in the selfish interests of election campaigns.
Whatever! The inescapable truth is that in the end the promises—kept or not—will be paid for by the Saint Lucian taxpayer. Which returns me to the fuel problem. While almost every local politician has promised to ease the burden on the consumer via one subsidy or another, almost everywhere else in the world the answer to ever-escalating fuel prices is the same: use less. Or in some instances, find new sources of fuel and depend less on the troublesome Middle East.
In Saint Lucia the opposition—and I do not necessarily refer only to MPs—has been demanding that government set the right example by cutting down on its fuel consumption. Easier said that done. The irreducible truth is that for decades now successive governments have complained incessantly about public service wastage, whether related to the abuse of tax-funded telephones, vehicles or electricity. I well recall John Compton bemoaning in the early 90s the fact that in just one year alone public servants had stolen from the people some five million dollars worth of phone calls. In the same budget address containing this complaint, the prime minister referred to the abuse of government property, in particular, government vehicles. He also refers to the government’s electricity bill and the don’t-give-a-damn attitude of public servants. At bottom is the fact that public servants are Saint Lucians too, with the same characteristics as the rest of us, regardless of financial or employment status. And generally we don’t give a damn how we use our vehicles, our electricity and our cell phones—until it’s time to pay up. As Boo Hinkson so rightly wrote: Crisis is we business!
Our leaders are also guilty: Don’t expect to hear them advising their followers to practice better consumer habits, whether in our use of electricity, water, fuel for our cooking stoves or for our SUVs. Just the other day someone was seeking on the radio to make the case for mindless consumption by suggesting he had bought his car both for his personal enjoyment and as a means of transportation to and from work, therefore not for him any suggestion that he should modify his driving habits. All he wanted to know was how his government intended to make his life easier. Don’t such people know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, that breaks, whether related to taxes or subsidies cost money that ultimately will be paid by the already abused taxpayer? Actually, I think we know that but are in denial—our general attitude to most things: you don’t like something, pretend it does not exist. Regardless of the Middle East mood, why can’t we decide to use fuel as if the taps were about to be turned off at the source?
As for our oh-so-charitable politicians, what I would most like to hear from them at this time is how they plan to pay for their preposterous if tantalizing pre-election offerings (as if we don’t already know)? But then I am reminded of the US congressman who recently stated that 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s business was abortions-related. When a reality check proved the figure was just three percent, the congressman said he never intended his public statement to be taken as valid. It would serve us well to remember this the next time we hear from our political snake-oil vendors?

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